Famous French artists - it’s a little intimidating and rather exciting at the same time, writing a section about them! That’s so much art - reaching back 13,000 or 15,000 years to the Lascaux cave paintings, and even further, 16,000 years to those in Pech Merle.
Talking about famous French artists also means hearkening back myself over the three decades I have spent living in France and especially in Paris. I have haunted the Louvre and Orsay museums, but also little-known museums devoted to little pockets of French art, such as the Musée de la Vie Romantique, with memorabilia and art around the New Athens group in Paris.
If you are coming to Paris on holiday, you will enjoy your stay here so much more fully if you understand the art that has defined this city and driven its cultural influence. Whole quarters here are historic monuments themselves – Montmartre with the ghosts of Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, or Montparnasse, the district where I have my own art studio today, haunted by Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miro, Constantin Brancusi, Chaim Soutine, Ford Madox Ford, Diego Rivera, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso (again), Edgar Degas in his later years, Henri Rousseau, need I go on.
Beginning with a super-quick overview that you can develop by clicking on the links to the right to go more in depth: first, those cave paintings, that you can see if you count on a couple of days’ excursion out of Paris to those regions.
Next comes the Medieval period so present in Paris, in its art and in its architecture as well. This includes the works of Merovingian dynasty and what art historians refer to as the “first” Renaissance, that of the Carolingians, also known as Pre-Romanesque.
The Pre-Romanesque evolved into the Gothic that rose in France and went on to influence the rest of Europe, becoming the International Gothic style. François I (Francis I in English) started the French Renaissance by importing Italian Renaissance art and artists like Leonardo da Vinci, following his invasion of Italy; the vibrant court culture of the Duchy of Burgundy as well as the Northern European Renaissance (Flanders, the Netherlands) contributed as well.
Mannerism (at Fontainebleau) and the Caravaggisti movement (Georges de la Tour) and the Baroque (Rubens painting the Marie de Medicis cycle at the Palais du Luxembourg) swept over France, but the next great period of French art came with Classicism. Employed as a form of propoganda by Louis XIV to glorify France and his own name, courts all over the European continent copied the Palace of Versailles and the splendor of its sobriety, proportion and symmetry.
Things lightened up in the late seventeenth to eighteenth with French Rococo – think Fragonard and paintings like “The Stolen Kiss” – and then swung back to Neo-Classicism – think David and the portrait of Napoleon on his imperial throne.
But the turmoil brought by both the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars brought the pendulum back again, this time from the staidness of Greek and Roman examples to Romanticism, with its fervent emotion, tragedy, attraction to Orientalism, love of wild landscapes and hearkening back to the medieval period, without overlooking its love of the supernatural and the dark.
It was fertile ground for the development of the Barbizon school with its famous French artists, which in its own turn spawned Realism, as exemplified in the work of Gustave Courbet.
Few people can think of French art without Impressionism coming to mind; but in addition to the grandeur of Claude Monet, were famous French artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, known for his fleshy nudes, and the remarkable ballet dancers of Edgar Degas.
From here France is the world center of art and contemporary experimentation, with artists flocking from the world over to starve in Parisian garrets and argue over intellectual principles in the City of Light’s cafés. Paul Cézanne opened the door to Cubism, while Paul Gauguin left the capital for Brittany and the development of the Pont Aven school and then Polynesia to develop Fauvism.
Wave after wave, movement after movement, the experimentation by famous French artists continued in what can be loosely characterized as Modernism: the Nabis, Symbolism, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that sparked the full development of Cubism, Marcel Duchamp and his exhibition of a urinal, the provocative Dada movement and Surrealism, all happened, bringing us to the mid-twentieth century – when finally the center of gravity of contemporary art shifted to…the United States.