French Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations

Over the centuries, France has played a leading role in the cultural life of Europe. The influence of French art and architecture has been particularly important. From the soaring Gothic cathedrals and beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to the innovations of the impressionists, cubists, and other modern painters, French art has had a major impact on the art of the Western world.

Early History

The area now called France was conquered by the Roman general Julius Caesar in 51 B.C. The Romans called the land Gaul. Ancient ruins still stand in Arles, Nîmes, and Paris, reminders of Roman civilization.

Merovingian Period
With the decline of Roman power in the A.D. 400's, the empire's northern provinces came under local rule. The region had been settled by Germanic tribes. It was divided among the Franks, the Visigoths, and the Burgundians. Violence and instability followed for centuries as ruling families fought each other for more territory.

The arts of these wandering people consisted mainly of personal objects (such as buckles, sword handles, mirrors) that could be carried easily from place to place. These objects were made of metal or bone. They were decorated with abstract, geometric, or animal designs.

In the 400's, King Clovis (the first great Frankish ruler and member of the Merovingian family) married a Catholic Burgundian princess and eventually converted to Christianity. From then on, Frankish kings maintained strong ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The coming of Christianity led to the building of churches and the creation of stone sculpture.

Carolingian Period
The last great Frankish king, Charlemagne, was a member of the Carolingian family. He is as much a part of the history of Germany and the Low Countries as of France. These were all once part of his empire. He began the first cultural revival in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Charlemagne wanted to build a strong Christian kingdom to rival the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. He invited scholars to educate his court and his church leaders. He also established workshops at churches and monasteries to copy the Bible and Greek and Roman writings from early Christian and Byzantine manuscripts. Carolingian artists had much to learn from these models, which were often illustrated with realistic images of human figures. The cities of Aachen (in present-day Germany), Reims, and Tours became centers of manuscript production. The monks in Tours improved handwriting by developing a script similar to the one used today.

Charlemagne employed architects and builders from the Mediterranean region because of their superior skills. They built Charlemagne's palace chapel in Aachen, his northern capital and favorite residence. Completed in 805, it is one of the few surviving structures of this period. It is modeled on San Vitale (completed in 547), the palace chapel of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in Ravenna (Italy). The chapel's magnificent bronze doors were produced at Aachen in Charlemagne's newly established foundry. Beautiful mosaics decorate the interior walls. The chapel's treasury still preserves Carolingian objects of carved rock crystal, gold, and silver, decorated with semiprecious stones.

After Charlemagne's death, his descendants fought among themselves. This caused the Frankish kingdom to collapse. During the 900's it was overrun by tribes from the north and the east, bringing destruction and chaos. For protection, people turned to the Roman Catholic Church, which gradually became more powerful. During this time, culture and learning survived only in the church.


The church's influence reached its high point during the 1000's and 1100's. This was a period of rebuilding. Churches and monasteries sprang up throughout Europe. France emerged for the first time as an important center for art and architecture.

The term "Romanesque" is chiefly applied to architecture. The style is characterized by the use of round arches. Romanesque architects were inspired by the remains of ancient Roman buildings. Heavy, solid churches were erected. They had massive pillars and thick walls to carry the weight of stone ceilings, called vaults.

The rectangular plan of Romanesque churches was called the basilican plan. It was taken from the design of early Christian churches. In this plan, the wide section in the center, called the nave, is separated from aisles on both sides by rows of columns. At one end of the rectangle is a rounded section called the apse, where the altar is located.

Church exteriors were decorated with reliefs (raised sculptures) of figures and scenes from the Bible, as well as ornamental moldings. Large paintings covered the interior walls. These sculptures and murals spread the word of the Gospel to the people. A dramatic scene of the Last Judgment was usually carved above the main entrance. Images of demons and monsters as well as of saints were intended to fill visitors with fear and awe.

Many different arts arose in connection with the Romanesque style. In all of them, the classical style of ancient Greek and Roman art was combined with the abstract, decorative style of the old Germanic tribes.

Some of the most unusual examples of French Romanesque sculpture survive in the churches at Moissac (1115-35), Autun (1120-32), and Vézelay (1089-1206) in southern France. Curving, distorted figures are crowded into small spaces atop columns and over doorways, giving the impression of constant movement.

The arts of ivory carving, metalworking, and enameling flourished in the production of crosses, Bible covers, and other religious objects. The city of Limoges became an important center of enameling. Manuscript illustration, or illumination, had by this time become a fine art. Bibles and other holy books were decorated with small hand-painted pictures, called miniatures. Pages of text were bordered with elaborate designs based on plant and animal forms and geometric shapes.


France led in the development of the Gothic style. This influential style began about 1140 at the abbey of St. Denis in Cluny, just outside Paris. The abbey was one of the wealthiest in France and the burial place of the French kings. The head of the abbey, Abbot Suger, had an ambitious plan for the rebuilding of the abbey church. His desire for more light and color spurred architects to try new ideas. A new style of church building was born.

In the Gothic style, arches became pointed instead of rounded. The heavy Romanesque pillars were replaced by thin columns that lead the eye upward to the graceful vaulted ceilings. Thick walls were pierced by large pointed windows. Painted murals disappeared in favor of stained glass, which colored the sunlight as it poured into the spacious interiors. The stiff and stern figures of Romanesque stone carving were replaced by smiling and graceful figures that appear to be three-dimensional and natural, no longer bound by the architecture they decorate.

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (begun 1163) and the cathedrals at Chartres (begun 1194), Reims (begun 1211), and Amiens (begun 1220) are the most magnificent examples of Gothic architecture. The Gothic style spread through northern France and to neighboring countries. It became the first French style to dominate Europe.

One of the most beloved figures of this period was King Louis IX, who was canonized (made a saint) in 1297. He held court in Paris, which had become the intellectual capital of western Europe. The small court chapel, called Sainte-Chapelle, was built for Louis in the 1240's. It is considered one of the finest examples of the late Gothic style. It is especially admired for its jewel-like beauty and its stained-glass windows.

French manuscript illuminators painted in an elegant and graceful manner. While the majority of artists remain anonymous, a few names can be noted. Among these are Master Honoré, a Parisian painter of the 1200's, and Jean Pucelle, a court painter of the 1300's. Pucelle's spiky leaf borders became very popular. His work shows the influence of Italian art in its use of perspective. This technique creates the appearance of depth on the flat surface of a painting.

International Gothic
By 1400, the artistic styles of northern Europe had merged with the Italian tradition, forming the International Gothic style. The most celebrated manuscript of this period is the Très riches heures (1413-16), a book of hours, or prayer book. It was painted for the duke of Berry, brother of the king of France. The artists were the Limbourg brothers, Flemish painters who lived in France. Each month of the year is represented by an illustrated page showing the local landscape and life of the people in great detail.

In the 1300's and 1400's, France suffered from plagues and famines. It also fought England in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). As a result it was no longer in the forefront of the arts. The French court moved from Paris to the Loire Valley. With the help of Italian architects and craftsmen, many magnificent châteaux (castles), such as those at Amboise and Chambord, were built for the French kings.


The Renaissance began in Italy about 1400 and spread to northern Europe. Renaissance is a French word meaning "rebirth." The period was given this name because there was a rebirth of interest in the learning and the arts of the classical age. (An article on the Renaissance appears in this encyclopedia.) In the Middle Ages, art was centered around God and the church. The Renaissance saw a change to an interest in humans and their world. This movement was called humanism. It affected all aspects of Renaissance thought.

Renaissance artists focused on the human figure. It was often portrayed in the nude, according to the classical tradition of Greek and Roman art.

Painting and Sculpture
The Renaissance reached France in the late 1400's. French artists adopted the new style from Italian artists who worked for the French kings and nobility. By this time, the late Renaissance style called mannerism was flourishing in Italy. Mannerist artists preferred unusual images. They painted elongated figures in strange colors and twisted poses, placing them in crowded settings. Often the meaning of a painting's subject would be intentionally unclear.

In 1516, King Francis I, a great admirer of Italian art, invited the aged Leonardo da Vinci to his castle at Amboise, where Leonardo died in 1519. When Francis renovated his château at Fontainebleau, the Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Nicolo dell'Abbate decorated the large hall called the Gallery of Francis I. These painters became known as the Fontainebleau School. Their work influenced such French artists as Antoine Caron and Jean Cousin the Elder. Cousin introduced the nude female figure into French painting.

Benvenuto Cellini, the great Italian sculptor, also worked at Fontainebleau. He inspired the French sculptor Jean Goujon to use classical subjects.

Other artistic trends existed in France at the same time. Germain Pilon specialized in realistic sculptures for tombs. Jean Clouet and his son François were prominent portrait painters; their realistic style reflected the influence of Flemish painting.

While churches continued to be built in the Gothic style, by the end of the 1500's secular (nonreligious) buildings made use of classical decoration borrowed from Renaissance Italy.

King Francis I began the much-needed renovation of the Louvre, the old Gothic royal castle in Paris. It was completed more than one hundred years later. The oldest part of the renovation was designed by Pierre Lescot. It is one of the finest surviving examples of Renaissance architecture in northern Europe. The reliefs decorating the facade of the third story were made by the sculptor Jean Goujon.


During the 1600's, France changed from a country severely weakened by war to the most powerful and influential nation in Europe.

Artistic productivity had slowed during the Wars of Religion (1560-98), between Catholics and Protestants. The wars were also a power struggle between the French nobility and the king. At the end of the 1500's power was restored to the king under Henry IV, who ruled until 1610. The favored style of the French court at this time was classical.

Between 1630 and 1661, the leadership of France was in the hands of two powerful ministers, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. They laid the foundation for an ambitious art program that attracted artists from all over France to come to Paris. Training was provided at the Academy of Painting and Sculpture (founded 1648), which was modeled after Italian art academies. Art was centralized in Paris and controlled by court ministers.

Under Henry IV, important town planning projects were introduced in Paris. The development of the city square, with homes surrounding a place, or plaza, originated in Paris. It rapidly spread to other European cities. One of the most famous squares in Paris, the Place des Vosges (then called the Place Royale), and the bridge called the Pont Neuf both survive from this period of reconstruction.

In 1615, the architect Salomon de Brosse designed the Luxembourg Palace in Paris for Henry's widow, Marie de Médicis. The palace was built in the simple yet grand style of classical architecture. Its interior was decorated with paintings by the famous Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

French architecture of the later 1600's was dominated by Jacques Lemercier, François Mansart, and Louis Le Vau. They built magnificent palaces in the classical style for nobles and wealthy government officials. These palaces had elegant interiors filled with ceiling and wall paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and fine furniture.

Among the painters who decorated Henry IV's many palaces were the Flemish-born Ambroise Dubois and Martin Freminet. They were part of the so-called Second School of Fontainebleau. Trained in Italy, they were the first to revive large-scale painting in France after the Wars of Religion. French court painting flourished under the Flemish artist Frans Pourbus the Younger. His portraits carefully reproduce the rich dress and jewelry of his subjects.

The provincial town of Nancy produced an interesting group of artists, who worked in their own distinctive mannerist style. Jacques Bellange's drawings and etchings of mysterious elongated figures reflect a personal mysticism. Jacques Callot's engravings and etchings of festivals, beggars and hunchbacks, landscapes, and miseries of war were highly influential.

The continued popularity of Italian art led many French artists to go to Italy to study the works of the great masters. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, the two greatest French painters of the 1600's, spent their entire careers in Rome.

Poussin's paintings expressed serious ideas and moral themes. His early style was inspired by the painters of Venice, who loved to portray color and light. Soon his interest in the classical age led to a change in style. His later paintings had a still and solemn quality, with greater clarity of detail; the figures in them looked like marble statues. Poussin often painted biblical or mythological subjects. His patrons were not rich aristocrats. Instead, they were well-educated merchants, bankers, and civil servants who wanted small-scale paintings for their homes.

Claude Lorrain's style, unlike Poussin's, hardly changed during his long career as a landscape painter. The landscape was part of the artistic tradition of northern Europe. But in Italy, the human figure was the favorite subject. Lorrain's landscapes were inspired by the countryside around Rome, the poetry of Virgil, and the work of northern artists living in Rome. Although tiny figures inhabit his landscapes, the focus is always on the magnificence of nature, which is shown in an idealized form. It is a classical landscape, bathed in a magical light that creates a melancholy mood. Lorrain's work inspired many artists to become landscape painters. His paintings were eagerly bought by collectors throughout Europe. Despite his long absence from France, Lorrain had tremendous influence on artistic developments in his homeland.

Art Under Louis XIV
Louis XIV assumed leadership as king of France in 1661. Known as the Sun King, he was a powerful and flamboyant ruler. He led his country to military and cultural greatness. By the end of his reign, Paris had replaced Rome as the artistic capital of Europe. In 1670, Louis XIV began building a magnificent palace at Versailles. It quickly became the envy of all Europe and inspired many imitations.

Classicism remained the preferred official style, but the style known as baroque also flourished at this time. Baroque art is characterized by a sense of movement and drama. The vitality of baroque art appeals to the senses.

The finest baroque painter living in France was Simon Vouet. He first studied in Italy and in 1627 returned to his homeland to become peintre du roi ("painter of the king"). His large studio of students and assistants handled many commissions. It also produced the next generation of painters to dominate French painting. The most ambitious painter to emerge from this group was Charles Le Brun. His style combined elements of the classical and the baroque. Employed by Louis XIV and his minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Le Brun eventually became superintendent of the arts. He brought all artistic activity under his personal control.

The palace at Versailles provided ample employment for sculptors, who were hired to decorate the gardens and rooms. François Girardon and Antoine Coysevox were the leading sculptors of the day. Girardon's work is classical in spirit, often inspired by Poussin. A statue of Louis XIV on horseback for the Place Vendôme in Paris was among his most famous sculptures. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Coysevox, on the other hand, loved to show movement and swinging drapery. He was a baroque sculptor at heart. His work in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is probably his finest achievement.


The reigns of Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, which spanned the 1700's, marked a golden age for France. French cultural life was admired and imitated all over Europe. Whenever there was a change in taste in France, similar changes would occur everywhere from Russia to Spain.

The first change in style in France came soon after the death of Louis XIV in 1715. The name given to the new style was rococo. The characteristics of this style were graceful curves and a feeling of lightness. The ornate rococo style was used in all the arts of France for almost fifty years.

Jean Antoine Watteau was one of the most brilliant and sensitive artists of this period. His painting Embarkation for Cythera (1717) depicts elegant couples in an enchanted garden.

The paintings of François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard are decorative and lighthearted, painted in delicate pastel colors. Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, on the other hand, preferred to paint more modest subjects in the manner of Dutch artists of the 1600's. Such subjects included a cook returning from market or a pitcher and some fruit on a wooden table.

A return to classicism occurred in the mid-1700's. The new style was called neoclassicism. It continued to be used after the violent explosion of the French Revolution.

The painter Jacques Louis David chose subjects from Greek and Roman mythology for many of his pictures. In the painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784), three Roman brothers vow to defend their city. David wanted the courage and patriotism of the ancient Roman Republic to be an example to the new republic of France. David's later pictures were painted to glorify the new leader of France, the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.


The rapid changes in style that occurred in the 1700's and 1800's reflected a general feeling of unrest. Citizens of Europe were beginning to desire rights and freedom, and the rule of tyrannical kings was resented. Artists, too, wanted freedom from strict rules enforced by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

The neoclassical style of David was continued by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in such paintings as Jupiter and Thetis (1811) and The Apotheosis of Homer (1827). Ingres is also admired for his portraits.

Romanticism and Realism
A movement of protest against the rigid and often lifeless quality of much neoclassical art started in the 1820's. This movement was known as romanticism. It emphasized stirring subject matter and a lively painting style. (See the article Romanticism.) The romantic painters Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault painted much more freely than the neoclassicists. They used intense, glowing colors and made strong contrasts of light and shadow. They also chose dramatic subjects. Examples include Géricault's scene of a tragic shipwreck, The Raft of the Medusa (1817), and Delacroix's Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822).

The next generation of artists is called the realists. They thought the subjects of both the romantic and the neoclassical painters were too far removed from everyday life. Gustave Courbet was one of the first artists to insist on painting what he actually saw around him. His painting Sleeping Spinner (1853) is an everyday scene of a young woman who has fallen asleep at her work. Another realist was Honoré Daumier. He drew scenes of the social and political life of Paris. His brilliant drawings were sharp comments on the manners of the age.

Another group is known as the Barbizon School. It painted scenes of the forests and peaceful countryside around the small town of Barbizon. One of the best-known artists of this group was Jean François Millet. He painted many scenes of the simple life of farmers. Some of his most famous pictures are The Gleaners (1857), The Angelus (1859), and The Man with the Hoe (1863). In these and other works, Millet shows great respect for human dignity.

Connected with the Barbizon School was Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. He is best remembered for his misty, silvery-green landscapes as well as for his early paintings of sunlit Italian scenery.

The sculpture of a later artist, Auguste Rodin, is regarded by many to represent the peak of French romanticism. His figures in bronze and in marble appear to be pulsing with energy and life. Among his most famous works are The Burghers of Calais (1886) and The Thinker (1889).

By 1870, Paris had become an important meeting place for artists. It had also become the birthplace of many new ideas about art. Students from everywhere went to Paris to study and to take part in the latest trends.

A group of painters called impressionists worked en plein air ("in the open air"), studying the effects of light on the scenery they painted. They applied color to the canvas in short, quick strokes, creating a shimmering effect. (See the article Impressionism.) One of the most famous impressionists was Claude Monet. He painted Rouen Cathedral from the same angle at different times of the day to observe the changes in light and color. Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley recorded their "impressions" of light and atmosphere in landscape paintings.

An artist who influenced the impressionists was Édouard Manet. Manet startled the public with his everyday subject matter and his bold use of flat, pure color that gave an unfinished look to his paintings. His work disregarded the established teaching of the French Academy, which emphasized line drawing. The French public and the artistic establishment did not understand Manet's work. His paintings were rejected from the academy's official exhibitions.

Many artists who started as impressionists or learned from them went on to develop their own individual styles. Pierre August Renoir is remembered for his charming paintings of flowers, women, and children.

Edgar Degas was the leader of the realist movement. He emerged from the academic tradition and combined it with his love of Japanese prints. A master of drawing, Degas simplified his subjects and placed them in his compositions in original ways. His paintings and sculpture of ballerinas are among his most celebrated works.

Paul Gauguin was also inspired by Japanese prints when he painted the peasants and the countryside of Brittany. Later he traveled to Tahiti and painted life on this South Sea island in his own colorful style. This style was influenced by the art of the local culture.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced swiftly drawn, sharp, and witty pictures of the nightlife of Paris. Georges Seurat developed a new method of painting called pointillism. He used thousands of small dots of color to create his forms.

Of all the postimpressionists, Paul Cézanne had the greatest impact on modern art. Cézanne depicted objects in his paintings and drawings from several different viewpoints. His still lifes and landscape paintings show a concern for structure and solidity. His work laid the foundation for a later movement called cubism.


Painting and Sculpture
Changes took place more rapidly in the 1900's. Between 1904 and 1907 a group of painters called les fauves ("the wild beasts"), led by Henri Matisse, painted in flat, bright colors. They used color in unconventional ways, for pure self-expression rather than for realism.

Until World War I (1914-18), Paris continued in its role as trendsetter, attracting artists from all over the world. The Spaniard Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential foreign artists working in France. Together with Georges Braque, he started a movement called cubism. Like Cézanne, the cubists were interested in constructing their objects out of flat surfaces, or planes. In cubism, several planes from all sides of an object are shown at the same time. For example, a head might be shown from the front, with two eyes, but the nose is painted in profile.

Both fauvism and cubism contributed to the development of abstract art, in which objects are greatly simplified and even distorted. Some abstract paintings consist only of lines, colors, and shapes that do not represent any real object. Abstract art gave artists the freedom to explore many new possibilities.

Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian who lived in France, was a leader in the development of abstract sculpture. In works such as Bird in Space (1919-25; several versions), Brancusi suggests powerful ideas through the use of simplified, streamlined shapes.

In the 1900's, architecture changed just as much as painting and sculpture. In the 1800's architects looked back to the past and based most of their buildings on earlier designs. In the 1900's buildings became simpler and more functional. New materials led to new freedom for architects. One such material was reinforced concrete, which can be poured into a variety of shapes.

This freedom may be seen in the work of the Swiss-born architect Charles Édouard Jeanneret, called Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier lived in Paris and became a French citizen. He expressed his theories about architecture in his designs and writings. His theories did much to shape modern architectural thought. One of his most striking works is the church of Notre Dame du Haut (1951-55), in Ronchamp.

The spirit of modern France as a lively center of art is captured in the unique architecture of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Completed in 1977, it was designed to provide a showcase under one roof for many forms of artistic and cultural expression.

Helen Mules
Associate Curator of Drawings
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.