The history of art in France can be traced back to the European art of the Upper Paleolithic that started between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. This is the oldest art form in the world and the region that is Frane today was the center of it.
Following the Fall of the Roman Empire, Merovingian art created in France between the 5th and the centuries A.D. became the predecessor of the European Christian art that developed into Romanesque and Gothic art of the Middle Ages.
The Renaissance emerged in Italy around the 15th century, a period in which France lost its role as the center of innovation in Europe, but slowly regained it during the 17th and 18th centuries when Rococo artists and Neoclassical artists dominated the scene.
Many of the most famous French artists in history formed a bridge between the Old Masters and modern artists during the 19th and 20th centuries, allowing France to regain its position leading position in the world of art.
With this brief French art history lesson out of the way, let’s check out some of the most famous French artists!
1. Claude Monet
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the most influential French artists of the 19th century. He was the pioneer of the Impressionist artists and his painting “Impression, Soleil Levant” (1874) was the inspiration of the art movement.
He was one of the many Fench artists who formed a bridge to art created in modern times, especially in terms of depicting one’s own perception when it comes to nature. He created some of his most famous works during the final decades of his life when he lived and worked in a country house with an amazing garden in Giverny, northern France.
2. Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) became the leading Romantic artist of the French school during the 1820s and is known for creating monumental works of art. His most famous work, “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) has become one of the most iconic paintings ever created in France as it depicts the events of the French Revolution of 1830.
He was one of the artists who was initially derided when his paintings were first displayed at the Paris Salon during the 1820s. This was mainly because his dramatic depiction of events, full of emotion, was in sheer contrast to the academic Neoclassical style that had dominated art in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
3. Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was one of the leading Post-Impressionist artists who is considered to have formed a bridge between the ideals of the Impressionist painters just before him and the Cubist artists who followed him. In that regard, he was admired by the likes of Matisse and Picasso who referred to him as “the father of us all.”
Although the works of Cézanne were admired by the younger generations, they were often ridiculed by the conservative critics who preferred the academic style of the 19th century. This is reflected in the fact that it took nearly 2 decades before one of his works was accepted at the Paris Salon, albeit with the help of a friend.
4. Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a French sculptor who was one of the pioneers of modern sculptures. His works “The Thinker” (1904) and “The Kiss” (1882) are some of the most famous and most-replicated sculptures in history, regardless of their initial lukewarm reception by conservative critics.
He was as known to use a sense of naturalism that was lost during the period that Neoclassical sculptors dominated the scene, especially when it comes to mythological and allegorical sculptures. By the early 19th century, he became one of the most sought-after sculptors, something that allowed him to attract rich private clients from all across the world.
5. Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was one of the most famous Neoclassical artists of his time. He was one of the first artists in the late 18th-century who abandoned the frivolity of the Rococo, an extremely theatrical style that was the preference of the French court during the final decades of the Ancien Régime.
Because he moved away from what was expected at the time, it took a couple of tries before he won the Grand Prix of Rome, a prestigious award for aspiring artists. He took it to heart and eventually joined the French Revolution, something that lead him to become the personal painter of Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars.
6. François Boucher
François Boucher (1703-1770) was the court painter of Louis XV, something that means he was the leading Rococo artist of his time. Boucher was briefly the mentor of Jacques-Louis David as well while he was still a young aspiring artist. This was shortly before he decided to ditch the flamboyant scenes depicted by the leading artists at the time.
Boucher was an artist who defined the era in which he lived. The exaggerated romantic scenes, the subtle eroticism, and the overly idyllic scenes were a reflection of life at the French court where he was employed. Apart from painting portraits and genre paintings, he also created large classical and mythological works, as well as decorative allegories.
7. Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was the pioneer of the Realism art movement and the leading Realism artist of the 19th century. Courbet was another artist who rejected the ideals of what conservative academic critics expected from art and although the critics didn’t really appreciate his artworks, he started gaining recognition pretty fast.
This was mainly because of the extreme level of realism he integrated into his art, painting only what he could actually observe. Although many of his works were accepted at the Paris Salon during the 1840s, his monumental work called “The Artist’s Studio” was rejected for the World Expo of 1855. This eventually laid the foundation for the “Salon des Réfusées” after he set up his own pavilion adjacent to the Expo.
8. Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) was another Rococo artist who managed to capture the hedonism and eroticism at the French court during the final years of the Ancient Régime. Many of his most famous works are genre paintings depicting subjects that were popular during this period in history, including love letters and couples kissing and seducing each other.
His most famous work is called “The Swing” (1767) and is considered to be the ultimate representation of the Rococo art movement. He was a student of François Boucher and eventually became just as famous as his master, although it took until the second half of the 19th century before his oeuvre was appreciated as such.