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The great sweep of prehistory has left abundant traces in France, and it is to Frenchmen that much of our knowledge of prehistoric times is due .

Time Line

Ancient Times

BC 5000 Megalithic culture flourishes in Brittany (Carnac), then in Corsica, lasting for over 2 500 years.

8C Celtic tribes from central Europe arrive in Gaul where they build the fortified settlements known as oppidums.

600 Greek traders found a number of cities, including Marseille, Glanum and Aléria in Corsica.

2C Celtic culture, which had spread as far as Brittany, gives way to both Germanic and Roman influences. The port of Fréjus, on the Mediterranean coast, is founded in 154 by the Romans as a link on the sea-route to their possessions in Spain. By the year 122 they have established themselves at Aix, and four years later at Narbonne.

58–52 Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. He defeats the Veneti in 56 BC, then himself suffers defeat at the hands of Vercingetorix in 52 BC, though the latter’s surrender comes only a few months later.

AD 1C During the reign of Augustus Roman rule in Gaul is consolidated and expanded. Fréjus is converted into a naval base and fortified.

5C The monasteries set up by St Martin at Ligugé and by St Honorat at Lérins reinforce Christian beliefs and mark the beginning of a wave of such foundations (by St Victor at Marseille, by St Loup at Troyes, by St Maxime at Riez).

The Merovingians (418–751)

451 Merovius, king of the Salian Franks (from the Tournai area in present-day Belgium), defeats Attila the Hun. It is to him that the dynasty owes its name.

476 Fall of the Roman Empire in the West; Gaul occupied by barbarian tribes.

496 Clovis, grandson of Merovius and King of the Franks, is baptised in Reims.

507 Defeat of the Visigoths under Alaric II at Vouilléby Clovis.

6C Accompanied by Christian missionaries, settlers from Britain arrive in the Breton peninsulas, displacing the original Celtic inhabitants. But they too are overcome, first by the Franks (in the 9C), then by the Angevins (11C).

732 The Arab armies invading France are defeated at Moussais-la-Bataille by Charles Martel.

The Carolingians (751–986)

751 Pepin the Short has himself elected king by an assembly of magnates and bishops at Soissons, sending the powerless Childeric, last of the Merovingians, to a monastery.

800 Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the West in Rome.

842 The Strasbourg Oaths.

843 By the Treaty of Verdun, the Carolingian Empire is divided between the sons of Louis I, Charles the Bald receiving the territories to the west, roughly corresponding to modern France.

850 Nominoé wrests eastern Brittany and the Rais country south of the Loire from its Frankish rulers.

910 Foundation of the great abbey at Cluny.

911 By the Treaty of St-Clair-sur-Epte, Charles the Simple and the Viking chief Rollo create the Duchy of Normandy.

The Capetians (987–1789)

The Direct Capetians (987–1328)

987 A descendant of Robert the Strong, Hugh Capet, Duke of “France”, ousts Charles of Lorraine and has himself elected. By having his son crowned during his own lifetime, he consolidated his family’s rule, which nevertheless does not become truly hereditary until the accession of Philippe Auguste in 1180.

1066 William Duke of Normandy sets out for the English coast from Dives. His victory over Harold at the Battle of Hastings leads to his coronation as King of England, though technically speaking he is still a vassal of the French king.

1095 The First Crusade is preached at Clermont- Ferrand.

1137 Louis VII weds Eleanor of Aquitaine; the annulment of their marriage 15 years later is a disaster for the dynasty.

Foundation of the School of Medicine at Montpellier.

1204 Gaillard Castle falls to Philippe Auguste, who goes on to conquer Normandy, Maine, Touraine and Anjou.

1209 Start of the Albigensian Crusade.

1214 Victory at the Battle of Bouvines; for the first time, a genuinely French patriotism appears.

1244 Cathars burnt at the funeral pyre at Montségur.

1270 St Louis (Louis IX) dies aboard ship off Tunis on his way to the Eighth Crusade.

The House of Valois 

The Hundred Years’ War – 1337–1475

Extending over six reigns, the war was both a political and dynastic struggle between Plantagenets and Capetians over who should rule in France. Accompanied by plague (including the Black Death of 1348) and religious confusion, it was a time of tribulation for the people of France, harassed as they were by bands of outlaws as well as by the English soldiery.

In 1337, Philippe VI of Valois resisted the claims to his throne made by Edward III of England, who was the grandson, on his mother’s side of Philippe le Bel (the Fair). This marked the beginning of the war. Three years after the French defeat at Crécy, Philippe VI purchased the Dauphiné, up to then a territory of the Empire, from its ruler, Humbert II, thereby extending French rule far to the east of the Rhône.

In 1356 King John the Good was defeat­ed by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers.

Under Charles V, Du Guesclin succeed­ed in restoring internal order. But at this point in their conflict, both adversaries were beset by problems of their own caused in England by the minority of Richard II. In France, Charles VI, too, was under age and later affected by madness. The War between Armagnacs and Burgundians began and the Church was torn by the Great Schism. Following the English victory at Agincourt and the assassination of John the Fearless of Burgundy at Montereau, the Treaty of Troyes, promising the French crown to the English king, seemed to extinguish any hope of the future Charles VII succeeding.

In 1429, however, after having picked out the king from among the courtiers assembled at Chinon, Joan of Arc recaptured Orléans thereby preventing Salisbury’s army from crossing the Loire and meeting up with the English troops who had been stationed in central and southwestern France following the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. On 17 July Charles VII was crowned in Reims cathedral; in 1436 Paris was freed, followed by Normandy and Guyenne. In 1453 the French victory at Castillon-la-Bataille was the last important clash of arms in the war, which was formally brought to an end by the Treaty of Picquigny.

1515 Accession of François I; Battle of Marignano and the signing of peace in perpetuity with Switzerland.

1520 Meeting of François I and Henry VIII of England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold at Guînes.

1539 The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts , one of the bases of French law, is promulgated by François I. Among its 192 articles are ones decreeing the keeping of parish registers of births and deaths, as well as law reform outlawing the founding of guilds and instituting secret criminal investigation and the compulsory use of French instead of Latin in legal matters. By this time provincialism was on the way out supplanted by a truly national consciousness, the outcome of three centuries of shared ordeals and triumphs.

1541 Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” is published. In it this native Frenchman, born at Noyon, attempts to stem the fissiparous tendencies of the Reformation and to proclaim its universality. Style, structure and significance combine in this work to make it the first great classic of French literature.

1559 Treaty of Le Cateau- Cambrésis is signed.

1560 The Amboise Conspiracy, harbinger of the looming political and religious crisis.

The Bourbons (1589–1789)

Henri IV – 1589–1610 

Though his political manœuvrings and his personal conduct did not endear him to everybody, Henri IV put France’s affairs on a firm footing once more, attaching the provinces of Bresse and Bugey to the kingdom and setting great architects like Du Cerceau and Métezeau to work on projects in Paris such as the Place des Vosges and the Louvre Gallery, and in La Rochelle and Charleville in the provinces. Important economic reforms were undertaken, and the king’s old Huguenot friend, Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully, set the nation’s finances in order, dug canals and laid out new roads and port facilities.

In 1600, the landowner Olivier de Serres published his great work on progressive farming technique “The Theatre of Agriculture and Field Husbandry”, supporting Sully in his contention that “tilling and stock-keeping are the two breasts from which France feeds”. The king’s concern with his people’s well-being found expression in his famous statement “a chicken in the pot every Sunday”.

1610 Louis XIII becomes King. The country’s trade flourishes with the development of inland ports and there are fine planned expansions to a number of towns (Orléans, La Rochelle, Montargis, Langres). The reign is marked by an aristocratic rebellion, as well as by the pioneering work of St Vincent de Paul in social welfare (hospitals, Sisters of Mercy). In the field of ideas, Descartes publishes his “Discourse on Method” (1637), with its reasoning based on systematic questioning (“Cogito, ergo sum”), a start­ing point for the intellectual revolution which, among other achievements, led to the invention of analytical geometry.

1624 The King’s First Minister, Richelieu (1585–1642), is successful in his attempts to reduce the power of a Protestantism overinclined to seek foreign aid (La Rochelle) or to resist the unification of the kingdom (Montauban, Privas). A few exemplary executions serve to humble the nobility (Montmorency, Cinq-Mars), a process carried further by the demolition of castles. He strengthens France’s role in Europe (Thirty Years’ War) and, in 1635, founds the Academy (Académie française).

Louis XIV – 1643–1715 

The 72 years of the Sun King’s reign marked both France and Europe with the force of his personality. At the time of his accession, the king was only five years old and Anne of Austria confirmed Mazarin in his role as first minister. Five days later, the French victory at Rocroi (1643) signalled the end of Spanish dominance of Europe’s affairs. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, confirmed France’s claim to Alsace (apart from Strasbourg and Mulhouse) and established French as the language of diplomacy.

In 1657, while the king looked on, the two-month siege of Montmédy was brought to a triumphant conclusion by La Ferté and Vauban, thereby putting an end to Spanish rule in the Low Countries. In 1662, the king’s first year of personal rule was crowned by the purchase of the port of Dunkirk, a result of the statesman Lionne’s diplomacy; the place became a base for smugglers and for privateers like Jean Bart operating in the service of the king.

Anglo-French rivalry for control of the seasnow became the main theme of international politics. In 1678, the Treaty of Nijmegen marked the end of the war with Holland, the giving-up of the Franche-Comté and of 12 strongholds in Flanders by Spain, and the reconquest of Alsace. This was a high point in Louis’ reign and in French expansion, insured by Vauban’s work in fortifying the country’s new frontiers. The politics of religion were not always straightforward; for 20 years, the king was in conflict with the Pope in what was known as the Affair of the Régale; in 1685 came the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes with all its dire consequences, and in 1702 the suppression of the camisard revolt. The monarch’s later years were clouded by the country’s economic exhaustion, though the Battle of Denain in 1712 saved France from invasion by the Austro-Dutch armies and led to the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Oriental Ventures

In 1664, a century after the voyages of Jean Ango and Jacques Cartier, the French East India Company was revived by Colbert, Louis XIV’s great minister of finance. Two years later he authorised it to set up bases both at Port-Louis and on waste ground on the far side of the confluence of the Scorff and Blavet rivers. In 1671 the first great merchantman was fitted out for its journey to the East, and the new port was given the name of L’Orient in 1671 ( Lorient in 1830). Anglo-French naval rivalry now began in earnest. Over a period of 47 years the Company put a total of 76 ships into use, which, in the course of their long and often dangerous voyages, would bring back cargoes of spices and porcelain (France alone importing over 12 million items of the latter). The initially fabulous profits eventually declined when the Company became a kind of state enterprise under the control of the bank run by the Scots financier Law. In the end, Lorient moved from a commercial role to a naval one.

1715 Louis XV succeeds to the crown at the age of five; the Duke of Orleans is Regent. The reign is marked by indecision, frivolity and corruption; many of France’s colonies (Senegal, Québec, the Antilles, possessions in India) are lost. Internally, however, the country prospers, benefiting from a wise economic policy; the standard of living improves and a long period of stability favours agricultural development (introduction of the potato, artificial extension of grazing lands). Lorraine is absorbed into France in 1766, as was Corsica in 1769.

1774 Louis XVI becomes King. Lafayette takes part in the American War of Independence, brought to an end by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.

The spirit of scientific enquiry leads to rapid technological progress, the growth of industry (textiles, porcelain, steam power) and to endeavours such as Lalande’s astronomical experiments and the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon flights at Annonay in 1783.

The French Revolution (1789–1799)

1789 French Revolution begins in Paris.

The Revolution, opening up the continent of Europe to democracy, was the outcome of the long crisis affecting the Ancien Régime.

Hastened along by the teachings of the thinkers of the Enlightenment as much as by the inability of a still essentially feudal system to adapt itself to new social realities, the Revolution broke out following disastrous financial mismanagement and the emptying of the coffers of the state. The main events unfolded in Paris but their repercussions were felt in the provincial cities (Lyon, Nantes...) as well as in the countryside.

The year 1789 heralded a number of major historical events for France. The Estates General were renamed the National Assembly, the Bastille was stormed, privileges were abolished (night of 4 July) and the Rights of Man were pro­claimed. Two years later, in 1791, the king, fleeing with his family, was arrested in Varennes (22 June) and brought back to Paris, where he was suspended from office on 30 September.

The following year the Convention (1792–95) was signed, while in Valmy (20 September) Kellermann and Dumouriez saved France from invasion by forcing the Prussians to retreat; on 22 September France is proclaimed a one and indivisible Republic.

The major landmarks of 1793 were the execution of Louis XVI (21 January), the Vendée revolt, the crushing of the Lyon uprising and the siege of Toulon (July–December). In 1795 France adopted the metric system.

1799 Napoleon overthrows Revolutionary government, puts new constitution in place.

In 1799 Napoleon overthrew the Directory ( 9 November) and declared himself First Consul of the Republic. Finally, in 1801, the Code Napoléon was promulgated throughout the country

The Empire (1804–1815)

1804 On 2 December, Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French in Notre-Dame by Pope Pius VII. The territorial acquisitions made in the course of the French Revolution now have to be defended against a whole series of coalitions formed by the country’s numerous enemies.

1805 Napoleon gives up his plans for invasion of England, abandoning the great camp set up at Boulogne for that purpose. The Royal Navy’s victory at Trafalgar gives Britain control of the seas, but France’s armies win the Battles of Ulm and Austerlitz (Slavkov).

1806 Intended to bring about England’s economic ruin, the Continental Blockade pushes France into further territorial acquisitions.

1808 Some of the best French forces bogged down in the Peninsular War.

1812 Napoleon invades Russia. The Retreat from Moscow.

1813 The Battle of Leipzig. The whole of Europe lines up against France. Not even Napoleon’s military genius can prevent the fall of Paris and the Emperor’s farewell at Fontainebleau (20 April 1814). Napoleon is exiled to the island of Elba.

The Restoration 

1814 Louis XVIII returns from exile in England.

1815 Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon is defeated.

1815 proved a decisive year for France. Following the Hundred Days (20 March–22 June) – Napoleon’s triumphalist journey back to Paris from his exile in Elba – his attempt to re-establish the Empire ended with the victory of the Allies (principally England and Prussia, under the leadership of England’s Duke of Wellington) at Waterloo on 18 June. Louis XVIII was once more on the throne and France was now forced to withdraw into the frontiers of 1792.

Talleyrand’s efforts at the Congress of Vienna helped bring France back into the community of European nations. Marshal Ney was executed.

The July Monarchy 

1830 Charles X’s “Four Ordinances of St-Cloud“ violate the Constitution and lead to the outbreak of revolution. There follow the “Three Glorious Days” (27, 28 and 29 July) and the flight of the Bourbons. Louis-Philippe becomes King.

1837 France’s first passenger-carrying railway is opened between Paris and St-Germain-en-Laye.

Second Republic and Second Empire (1848–1870)

1848 On 10 December, Louis Napoléon is elected President of the Republic by universal suffrage.

1851 On 2 December, Louis Napoléon dissolves the Legislative Assembly and declares himself President for a 10-year term.

1852 A plebiscite leads to the proclamation of the Second Empire (Napoleon III).

1855 The World Fair is held in Paris.

1860 Savoy and the county of Nice elect to become part of France.

1869 Freedom of the Press is guaranteed.

1870 War declared on Prussia on 19 July. On 2 September, defeat at Sedan spells the end of the Second Empire. Two days later Paris rises and the Republic is proclaimed. But the way to the capital lies open, and soon Paris is under siege.

The Republic 
(1870–the present day)

1870 Following the disaster at Sedan, the Third Republic is proclaimed on 4 September.

1871 The Paris Commune (21–28 May). By the Treaty of Frankfurt France gives up all of Alsace (with the exception of Belfort) and part of Lorraine.

1881 Jules Ferry secularises primary education, making it free and, later, compulsory.

1884 Trade unions gain formal recognition.

1885 Vaccination in the treatment of rabies (Pasteur).

Inauguration of the Eiffel Tower (World Fair).

1894 The Dreyfus Affair divides the country. Forged evidence results in this Jewish General Staff captain being unfairly imprisoned for spying.

1897 Clément Ader’s heavier-than-air machine takes to the air at Toulouse.

1904 Entente Cordiale.

1905 Separation of Church and State.

1914 Outbreak of World War I. On 3 August the German armies attack through neutral Belgium but are thrown back in the Battle of the Marne. Four years of trench warfare follow, a bloody climax being reached in 1916–17 around the fortress city of Verdun, where the German offensive is held, at immense cost in lives on both sides.

In 1919 the signing of the Treaty of Versailles brings World War I to an end.

1934 France is deeply divided; on 6 February, the National Assembly is attacked by right-wing demonstrators. Two years later, Léon Blum forms his Popular Front government.

1939 Outbreak of the Second World War.

1940 France invaded and concedes defeat.

In June 1940 France was overrun by the German army and Marshal Pétain’s government requested an armistice. Much of the country was occupied (the north and the whole of the Atlantic seaboard), but the German puppet “French State“ with its slogan of “Work, Family, Fatherland” is established at Vichy and collaborates closely with the Nazis. Almost all French Jews were rounded up by the French authorities and deported for extermination. France’s honour was saved by General de Gaulle’s Free French forces, active in many theatres of the war, and by the courage of the men and women of the Resistance.

1942 Whole country is occupied, and the French fleet scuttles itself at Toulon.

1944 In June the British and American Allies land in Normandy, and in the South of France in August. Paris is liberated.

1945 German surrender signed at Reims on 7 May 1945.

This major conflict (1939–1945), which inflamed all continents, is detailed in this guide under the places which it affected most in France.

1947 The Fourth Republic established. Its governments last an average of six months.

1954 Dien Bien Phu falls to the Vietminh. France abandons Indo-China and grants Morocco and Tunisia their independence (1956).

1958 The Algerian crisis leads to the downfall of the Fourth and the establishment of the Fifth Republic under De Gaulle. Civil war is narrowly averted. Nearly all its French population leaves Algeria, which becomes independent in 1962.

1958 The Fifth Republic established. The European Economic Community (EEC) comes into effect.

The new constitution inspired by General de Gaulle is voted by referendum.

1962 Referendum establishing that the future President of the Republic be elected by universal suffrage.

1967 Franco-British agreement to manufacture Airbus.

1968 The “events of May“; work­ers join students in mass protests, roughly put down by riot police. The Gaullists triumph in national elections, but it is a hollow victory and De Gaulle, defeated in the referendum of April 1969, retires.

1969 Georges Pompidou is elected President (16 June).

1974 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is elected President (19 May).

1981 François Mitterrand is elected President (10 May).

Inauguration of the TGV line between Paris and Lyon (2hr40min); Paris-Marseille (1981); and Paris-Bordeaux (1990).

1994 Inauguration of the Channel Tunnel (6 May).

1995 Jacques Chirac is elected President (7 May).

1999 1 Jan, dubbed “ Day,” marks the beginning of circulation for Euro notes and coins.

2002 French Franc withdrawn from circulation.

2003 11,000 die in heatwave.

2005 Proposed European Constitution rejected in referendum of French electorate (May). Ethnic minorities rioting in several cities (summer).

2007 Nicolas Sarkozy elected President of France (6 May).

2009 (Jan) Storm Klaus hits SW France killing 8 and damaging large areas of forest.

Contemporary France

Although France is ranked among the industrialised nations and one of leading countries in the world in terms of international trade, it remains at the same time a nation with a strong rural tradition . Even if the number of people actually employed in farming is on the decline, the French continue to have close ties to the land. Many, wherever they live, maintain close contacts with their family‘s native region, either by acquiring a cottage in the country or by inheriting a family property.

For most French people the qualities associated with this ancestral land are encapsulated in the traditional village – the village where one was born, where one has chosen to live or where one spends one’s holidays.

Leaving aside the differences attributed to climatic conditions and building materials, all villages feature common characteristics: the main street (Grand’rue) lined with small shops, the marketplace , where local cattle fairs used to be held, and of course, the church , whose chimes continue to herald the fortunes and misfortunes of the community.

Although they see a surge of activity during municipal and trade fairs, French villages are quiet, and peaceful most of the year. Only the traditional café and the boules playing ground echo the conversations of the locals idly debating the meaning of life.

This strong regionalism has led to frequent conflict with, and hostility to, the central government in Paris. To resolve this long-standing problem, a series of decentralisation reforms was implemented in 1982, creating regional governments with considerable autonomy.

Regional capitals were established – in all cases a former historic seat of local power – to strike a balance between the capital and the countryside. Despite their long history and local tradition, these regional urban centres, well subsidised by Paris, tend to be resolutely turned towards the future and illustrate the thriving character of the French regions. In 2003, extensive further powers were devolved to the regions.

However, Paris , with her nine-and-a-half million inhabitants, remains the admin­istrative core of the country and a focal point for the whole nation. The seat of political power, and an important centre for world trade , ”the city of lights” is also an exceptional destination for visitors. In the country which attracts more tourists each year than any other, the capital is the main attraction, thanks to its wealth of architectural marvels, its extraordinary collection of world-class museums, and its high cultural standards.

This brief description would not be complete without mentioning the French themselves. Frequently misunderstood by foreign visitors, often condemned as brusque and unhelpful, they are nonetheless always ready to protect and safeguard their age-old traditions and support a cause in defence of the interests of France and the French way of life. To those who make the effort of going towards them, and who cherish that way of life as they do, the French will always extend a warm, genuine welcome.

Art and Culture

A Survey of French Art

From Prehistory to the Gallo-Roman Era


While stone and bone tools appeared in the Lower Paleolithic period, prehistoric art did not make its entrance until the Upper Paleolithic, (350–100C BC), and reached its peak in the Magdalenian Period. The art of engraved wood and ivory objects together with votive statuettes developed alongside the art of wall decoration, which is well illustrated in France by caves in the Dordogne, the Pyrenees, the Ardèche and the Gard. Early artists used pigments with a mineral base for their cave paintings and sometimes took advantage of the natural shape of the rock itself to execute their work in low relief.

The Neolithic revolution (6500 BC), during which populations began to settle, brought with it the advent of pottery as well as a different use of land and a change in burial practices – some megaliths (dolmens and covered passageways) are ancient burial chambers. Menhirs, a type of megalith found in great numbers in Brittany (Carnac and Locmariaquer), are as yet of unknown origin. The discovery of metal brought prehistoric civilisation into the Bronze Age (2300–1800 BC) and then into the Iron Age (750–450 BC). Celtic art showed perfect mastery of metalwork as in the tombs of Gorge-Meillet, Mailly-le-Camp, Bibracte and Vix in which the treasures consist of gold torques (necklaces) and other items of jewellery, various coins and bronzeware.

Romanesque Period 

In the early 11C, after the disturbances of the year 1000 (decadence of the Carolingian dynasty and struggles between feudal barons), the spiritual influence and power of the Church gave rise to the birth of Romanesque architecture.

Romanesque Architecture

Early Romanesque edifices were characterised by the widespread use of stone vaulting which replaced timber roofs, the use of buttresses and a return to architectural decoration (as in the churches of St-Martin-du-Canigou, and St-Bénigne in Dijon). The darkness of the nave was explained by the fact that for structural reasons wide openings could not be cut into the walls supporting the vaulting.

The basilica plan with nave and side aisles, sometimes preceded by a porch, predominated in France although some churches were built to a central plan (the church of Neuvy-St-Sépulcre). Depending on the church, the east end might have been flat or have had apsidal chapels; it was often semicircular with axial chapels (as in the church of Anzy-le-Duc) or may have featured radiating chapels. More complex designs combined an ambulatory with radiating chapels (the churches of Conques and Cluny).

The first attempts at embellishment led to a revival of sculptural decoration of which the lintel of St-Genis-les-Fontaines Church is one of the earliest exam­ples. Tympana, archivolts, arch shafts and piers were covered with carvings of a religious or profane nature (as in the illustration of the Romance of Renart in the church of St-Ursin in Bourges). Interior decoration consisted mainly of frescoes (the churches of St-Savin-sur-Gartempe and Berzé-la-Ville) and carved capitals with the occasional complex theme (as in the chancel capitals in Cluny). The Romanesque decorative style drew largely upon three main models, the Oriental (griffins and imaginary animals) which was spread by the Crusades, the Byzantine (illustrations of Christ in Majesty and a particular style for folds) and the Islamic (stylised foliage and pseudo-Kufic script).

Regional Characteristics

The Romanesque style spread throughout France affecting some areas earlier than others and developing special stylistic features according to the region. It first appeared in the south and in Burgundy, reaching the east of France at a much later date.

Romanesque architecture in the Languedoc owes much to Toulouse’s St-Sernin Basilica, whose tall lantern tower pierced by ornamental arcading served as a model for many local bell-towers. The sculptures on the Miégeville doorway, completed in 1118, have a distinctive style, with highly expressive folds and a lengthening of the figures which is repeated in Moissac and, to a lesser extent, in St-Gilles-du-Gard.

In Saintonge-Poitou , the originality of the edifices derives from the great height of the aisles which serve to reinforce the walls of the nave and thus lend balance to the barrel vaulting.

The gabled façades, flanked by lantern towers, are covered in ornamental arcading with statue niches and low relief (as in the church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers).

In Auvergne , the transept crossing is often covered by a dome, buttressed by high, quadripartite vaulting and supported on diaphragm arches.

This constitutes an oblong mass which juts out above the roof beneath the bell-tower. The use of lava, a particularly difficult stone to carve, explains the limited sculptural decoration (as in the churches of St-Nectaire, Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont-Ferrand and that of Orcival . The tympana lintels are gable-shaped.

The development of the Romanesque in Burgundy was strongly influenced by the Abbey of Cluny (now destroyed) with its great chancel with radiating chapels, a double transept and the hint of direct lighting in the nave through slender openings at the base of the barrel vaulting. The churches of Paray-le-Monial and Notre-Dame in La Charité-sur-Loire were built on the Cluniac model.

The basilica of Sainte-Madeleine in Vézelay in the north of the Morvan, with its harmonious, simplified church body and its covering of groined vaults, was also to influence churches in the region.

In the Rhine and Meuse regions, architectural characteristics from the Carolingian era, with an Ottonian influence, tend to prevail. This is borne out by double chancels and transepts (as in Verdun) and a central plan and interior elevation like that of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (as in Ottmarsheim).

Lastly, until a relatively late date the churches in Normandy faithfully retained the custom of a timber roof (as in Jumièges and Bayeux). As stone vaulting was introduced decorative ribs gradually came into use (as in St-Étienne in Caen). The monumental size of the edifices and their harmoniously proportioned façades with two towers, are also typical of the Anglo-Norman Romanesque style.

Apart from these regional features some buildings owe their individuality to their function. The pilgrimage churches , for instance, had an ambulatory around the chancel, transept aisles and two aisles on either side of the nave to give pilgrims easy access to the relics they wished to venerate. The main churches of this kind on the way to Santiago de Compostela were St Faith in Conques, St-Sernin in Toulouse, St-Martial in Limoges and St-Martin in Tours (the two latter have since been destroyed).

Romanesque Religious Art 

Liturgical items at the time consisted of church plate, manuscripts, precious fabrics and reliquaries. Church treasure would often include a Virgin in Majesty made of polychrome wood or embossed metal decorated with precious stones.

The blossoming of Limousin enamelware marked a great milestone in the history of the decorative arts during the Romanesque period when it was exported throughout Europe.

The champlevé method consisted of pouring the enamel into a grooved metal surface of gilded copper.

Enamel was used in a number of ways to decorate items ranging from small objects such as crosses, ciboria and reliquaries to monumental works like altars (high altar of Grandmont abbey church and items in the Cluny Museum, Paris).

Gothic Period (12C–15C)

Architecture Transitional Gothic

In about 1140, important architectural innovations in St-Denis Cathedral, such as intersecting ribbed vaulting and pointed arches in the narthex and chancel, heralded the dawn of the Gothic style.

In the late 12C, there were further innovations common to a group of buildings in Île-de-France and in the north of France. They included ogives and mouldings which extended down from the vaulting into bundles of engaged slender columns around the pillars of great arches. Capitals were simplified, became smaller with time and gradually diminished in importance. New concepts of sculptural decorating, including the appearance of statue-columns, affected building façades. In Sens Cathedral, the rectangular layout of the bays called for sexpartite vaulting with alternating major and minor pillars to support large arches.

The major pillars supported three ribs while the minor ones supported a single intermediary rib. Apart from sexpartite vaulting with alternating supports, this early Gothic architecture typical of Sens, Noyon and Laon was also characterised by a four-storeyed elevation, great arches, tribunes, a triforium and tall bays.

In the years 1180–1200, in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, raised vaults were reinforced by the addition of flying buttresses on the outside of the edifice while inside, alternating supports disappeared. These new measures gave rise to the emergence of a transitional style which led to Lanceolate Gothic.

Lanceolate Gothic

The Gothic style was at its peak during the reigns of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223) and St Louis (1226–70). The rebuilding of Chartres Cathedral (1210–30) gave rise to a model for what is known as the Chartres family of cathedrals (Reims, Amiens and Beauvais) which included oblong plan vaulting, a three-storeyed elevation (without tribunes) and flying buttresses. The chancel with its double ambulatory and the transept arms with side aisles made for a grandiose interior. The upper windows in the nave were divided into two lancets surmounted by a round opening.

The façades were subdivided into three horizontal registers, as in the cathedrals of Laon and Amiens. The doorways were set in deep porches with gables while above them was an openwork rose window with stained glass. A gallery of arches ran beneath the bell-towers.

There are a number of variations of Lanceolate Gothic in France. An example is Notre-Dame Church in Dijon where the ancient section of the sexpartite vaulting has been preserved.

Development of the 
Gothic Style to the 15C

The improvement in vaulting from a technical point of view, in particular the use of relieving arches, meant that the supporting function of walls was reduced and more space could be given over to windows and stone tracery as in St-Urbain’s Basilica in Troyes and the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (1248). This gave rise to the High Gothic style in the north of France from the end of the 13C to the late 14C. (Examples include the chancel in Beauvais Cathedral, Évreux Cathedral and the north transept of Rouen Cathedral ).

Gothic architecture in the centre and southwest of France developed along unusual lines in the late 13C. Jean Deschamps, master mason of Narbonne Cathedral, designed a massively proportioned building in which the vertical upsweep of the lines was interrupted by wide galleries above the aisles. St Cecilia’s Cathedral in Albi diverged completely from Gothic models in the north of France through the use of brick and a buttress system inherited from the Romanesque period. Throughout the 14C, church interiors were filled with sculptural decoration in the form of rood screens, choir screens and stalls , monumental altarpieces and devotional statues.

From the late 14C, development of the main principles of Gothic architecture came to a halt but decorative devices grew apace giving rise to the elaborate Flamboyant Gothic style with its gables, lancet arches, pinnacles and exuberant foliage. This ornamentation, occasionally referred to as Baroque Gothic, also played a part in civil architecture . An example is the Great Hall in the Law Courts at Poitiers, carved by Guy de Dammartin in the last 10 years of the 14C. Riom’s Sainte-Chapelle, built for the Duke Jean de Berry, is another early example. Flamboyant Gothic in France left its mark on a good number of public and religious edifices (Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges and the façade of St-Maclou Church in Rouen) as well as on liturgical furnishings (the choir screen and rood screen in Ste-Cécile ’s Cathedral in Albi ).

Throughout the Gothic period castle architecture remained faithful to feudal models (Angers Castle, the walled city of Cordes and the mountain fortress of Merle Towers) and did not develop further until the beginning of the Renaissance.

Sculpture, Decorative Arts 
and Painting Gothic Sculpture

Progress towards naturalism and realism, the humanism of the Gothic style, can be seen in the statuary and sculptural decoration of the time. Statue-columns of doorways in the 12C tended still to be rigidly hieratic but in the 13C took on greater freedom of expression as may be seen in Amiens and Reims (the Smiling Angel). New themes emerged including the Coronation of the Virgin, which first appeared in 1191, and thereafter became a popular subject.

Stained Glass

The four main areas producing stained glass in France in the 12C were St-Denis, Champagne, the west (Le Mans, Vendôme and Poitiers) and a group of workshops in the Rhine area in eastern France. Master glassworkers developed an intense blue-coloured glass known as Chartres blue which was to become famous. The invention of silver yellow in 1300–10 led to a more translucent enamelled glass with a subtler range of colour.

The combination of stained glass and Gothic architecture gave rise to larger bays – formerly opaque wall space could be opened up and filled with glass, thanks to new support systems. The fragility of stained glass explains the fact that there are very few original medieval windows intact today; many have been replaced by copies or later works. The windows of Chartres, Évreux and the Sainte-Chapelle are precious testimonies to the art.

Illumination and Painting

The art of illumination reached its peak in the 14C when artists freed from University supervision produced sumptuous manuscripts, including Books of Hours, for private use. Among them were Jean Pucelle (Les Heures de Jeanne d’Évreux) and the Limbourg brothers (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, dating from the early 15C).

Easel painting first made its appearance n 1350 (the portrait of John the Good, now in the Louvre, is an example). Italian and more particularly Flemish influences, evident as much in depiction of landscape as in attention to detail, may be seen in works by great 15C artists like Jean Fouquet, Enguerrand Quarton and the Master of Moulins .

The Renaissance

Gothic art persisted in many parts of France until the middle of the 16C. In the Loire region, however, there were signs of a break with medieval traditions as early as the beginning of the century.

Italian Style and 
Early Renaissance 

Renaissance aesthetics in Lombardy, familiar in France since the military campaigns of Charles VIII and Louis XII at the end of the 15C, at first affected only architectural decoration, through the introduction of motifs from Antiquity such as pilasters, foliage and scallops (as in the tomb of Solesmes, Château de Gaillon). Little by little, however, feudal, military and defensive architecture gave way to a more comfortable style of seigniorial residence. The Château de Chenonceau (begun before 1515) and that of Azay-le-Rideau (1518–27) are exam­ples of this development, particularly in their regular layout, the symmetry of the façades and the beginnings of a new type of architectural decoration. However, it was the great royal undertakings of the time that brought about the blossoming of the Renaissance style.

Architecture Under François I (1515–1547)

The Façade des Loges (1520–24) in the Château de Blois (begun in 1515) is a free replica of the Vatican loggia in Rome. While the castle’s irregular fenestration recalls the old medieval style, its great novelty is the preoccupation with Italianate ornamentation. During the reign of François I, the Château de Chambord (1519–47) which combines French architectural traditions (corner towers, irregular roofs and dormer windows) with innovative elements (symmetrical façades, refined decoration and a monumental internal staircase) served as a model for a good many of the Loire castles including Chaumont, Le Lude and Ussé.

After his defeat at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, François I left his residences in the Loire valley to turn his attention to those in Île-de-France. In 1527 building began on the Château de Fontainebleau under the supervision of Gilles Le Breton. The interior decoration by artists from the First School of Fontainebleau was to have a profound influence on the development of French art.

The Italian artist Rosso (1494–1540) introduced a new system of decoration to France that combined stuccowork, wood panelling and allegorical frescoes which drew upon humanistic, philosophical and literary references and were painted in acid colours.

The Mannerist style, characterised by the influence of antique statuary, a lengthening of lines and overabundant ornamentation, became more pronounced after Primaticcio (1504–70) arrived at the court in 1532.

The influence of this art could be felt until the end of the century in works by sculptors such as Pierre Bontemps, Jean Goujon (reliefs on the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris) and Germain Pilon (monument for the heart of Henri II in the Louvre) and painters like Jean Cousin the Elder. Court portraitists, on the other hand ( Jean and François Clouet and Corneille de Lyon ), were more influenced by Flemish traditions.

Henri IV and Pre-Classicism

After the Wars of Religion (1560–98) new artistic trends revived the arts and heralded the dawn of Classicism. Royal interest in town-planning gave rise to the regular, symmetrical layout of squares (Place des Vosges and Place Dauphine in Paris) and to the harmonisation of the buildings that surrounded them (ground-level arcades and brick and stone façades). These were copied in the provinces (Charleville and Montauban) foreshadowing the royal squares of the 17C, France’s Grand Siècle.

The Fontainebleau style of adornment continued to develop under the auspices of the Second School of Fontaine­bleau . This was made up of all the court painters working during the reign of Henri IV and the regency of Marie de’ Medici. The style was further shaped by decoration in other royal palaces including the Tuileries, the Louvre and Château-Neuf in St-Germain-en-Laye. Toussaint Dubreuil (1561–1602), Ambroise Dubois (1542–1614) and Martin Fréminet (1567–1619) continued the Mannerism of Fontainebleau (light effects, half-length figures and a lengthening of perspectives) in their works and at the same time sought greater classicism as well as a revival of themes from contemporary literature ( La Franciade by Ronsard).

In the late 16C, castle architecture took on a new form with a single main build­ing centred on a projecting section flanked by corner pavilions (Rosny-sur-Seine, and the Château de Gros-Bois). Right-angled wings were done away with and façades were given a brick facing with stone courses.

During the regency period, the architect Salomon de Brosse (Palais de Justice in Rennes, Palais du Luxembourg in Paris) designed sober, impressive monuments with a clarity of form which contained some of the characteristics of Classical architecture.

16C Decorative Arts

The 16C was a productive period for jewellery-making, in particular for small brooches fastened in the hair or hat and pendants which were used as articles of dress or simply as collectors’ items. Étienne Delaune (1518–83) was one of the great goldsmiths of the time.

There was rich regional variety in ceramics. Beauvaisis produced famous blue-tinged stoneware. Following the example of Italy, Lyon and Nevers manufactured majolica (glazed and historiated earthenware).

The decorative arts in Saintonge were dominated by Bernard Palissy (c. 1510–c. 1590) who, apart from making a great many plates covered in reptiles, fish and seaweed, all modelled from nature, also decorated the grotto at the Château d’Écouen and that of the Tuileries. Some of his ceramics (nymphs in a country setting) were influenced by engravings from the Fontainebleau School.

The technique for painted enamel on copper with permanent colours was developed in Limoges in the 15C during the reign of Louis XI. J C Pénicaud and especially Léonard Limosin (1501–75) excelled in the technique, which was favoured in portrait painting by the French court.

French Classicism in the Early 17C


Three famous architects, Jacques Lemercier (c. 1585–1654), François Mansart (1598–1666) and Louis le Vau (1612–70), played an essential part in drawing up the standards for the French Classical architectural style.

J Lemercier, who built the Château de Rueil, the town of Richelieu and the Église de la Sorbonne in Paris, supported the Italian style which was particularly evident in religious architecture: two-storeyed façades and projecting central sections with columns and triangular pediments. F Mansart was even more inventive ( Château de Balleroy , Château de Maisons-Laffitte and the Gaston of Orléans Wing in the Château de Blois). From his time on, castle plans with a central pavilion and projecting section, architectural decoration that accentuated horizontal and vertical lines, and the use of orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), remained constant features of Classical architecture. Le Vau, who began his career before the reign of Louis XIV by designing town houses (Hôtel Lambert in Paris) for the nobility and the upper middle classes, favoured a grandiose style of architecture characteristic of Louis XIV Classicism (Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte).


The French school of painting blossomed as a result of Simon Vouet’s (1590–1649) return to France in 1627 after a long stay in Rome and the foundation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648. References to Italian painting, in particular Venetian (richness of colour) and Roman (dynamism of composition), albeit tempered by a concern for order and clarity, are evident in the work of Vouet and that of his pupil Eustache le Sueur (1616–55). Painters such as Poussin (1595–1665) and Philippe de Champaigne (1602–74) produced highly intellectual works that drew upon philosophical, historical and theological themes – all emblematic of French Classicism. Other trends in French painting flourish­ed in the first half of the century. The realism of the Italian painter Caravaggio influenced the Toulouse school of which the major artist was Nicolas Tournier (1590–post 1660). In Lorraine, Georges de la Tour (1593–1652) was deeply affected by Caravaggio’s style, notably in the use of light and shade and the portrayal of people from humble blackgrounds. The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (c. 1588–1648), Louis (c. 1593–1648) and Mathieu (c. 1607–77), who painted first in Laon and then in Paris, belonged to a trend known as “painters of reality” that favoured genre scenes, drawing more upon the world of the landed upper-middle classes than that of peasant farmers. Their work bore the stamp of Flemish craftsmanship.


Sculpture in the early 17C was influenced by contemporary Italian models. Jacques Sarrazin (1588–1660), who studied in Rome, worked in a moderate, Classic mode that derived from Antiquity and also drew upon paintings by Poussin (decoration in the Château de Maisons-Laffitte and the tomb of Henri of Bourbon in the Château de Chantilly). François Anguier (Montmorency Mausoleum in the Lycée chapel in Moulins) and his brother Michel (sculptural decoration on the St-Denis gateway in Paris) showed a more Baroque tendency in their treatment of dynamism and the dramatic stances of their sculptures.

Versailles Classicism

During the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) the centralisation of authority and the all-powerful Royal Academy gave rise to an official art that reflected the taste and wishes of the sovereign. The Louis XIV style evolved in Versailles and spread throughout France where it was imitated to a lesser degree by the aristocracy in the late 17C.

The style was characterised by references to Antiquity and a concern for order and grandeur, whether in architecture, painting or sculpture. French resistance to Baroque, which had but a superficial effect on French architecture, was symbolised by the rejection of Bernini’s projects for the Louvre. One of the rare examples of the style is Le Vau’s College of Four Nations (today’s Institute of France) which consists of a former chapel with a cupola and semicircular flanking buildings.

In Versailles Louis le Vau and later Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646–1708) favoured a majestic type of architecture: rectangular buildings set off by project­ing central sections with twin pillars, flat roofs and sculptural decoration inspired by Antiquity. Charles le Brun (1619–90), the leading King’s Painter, supervised all the in­terior decoration (paintings, tapestries, furniture and objets d’art ), giving the palace remarkable homogeneity. There were dark fabrics and panelling, gilded stuccowork, painted coffered ceilings, and copies of Greco-Roman statues. The decoration became less abundant towards the end of the century.

In 1662, the founding of the Gobelins , the “Royal Manufactory for Crown Furniture“, stimulated the decorative arts. A team of painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, warp-weav­ers, marble-cutters, and cabinet-makers worked under Charles le Brun, achieving a high degree of technical perfection. Carpets were made at the Savonnerie factory in Chaillot.

The massive furniture of the period was often carved and sometimes gilded. Boulle marquetry, a combination of brass, tortoiseshell and gilded bronze, was one of the most sumptuous of the decorative arts produced at the time.

Versailles park, laid out by Le Nôtre (1613–1700), fulfilled all the requirements of French landscape gardening with its emphasis on rigour and clarity. Its geometrically tailored greenery, long axial perspectives, fountains, carefully designed spinneys and allegorical sculptures reflect the ideal of perfect order and control over nature.

Sculptures were placed throughout the gardens. Many of the works were by the two major sculptors of the time, François Girardon (1628–1715) and Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720) who drew upon mythology from Antiquity. The work of Pierre Puget (1620–94), another important sculptor, was far more tortured and Baroque – an unusual style for the late 17C.

French Rocaille (1715–1750)

The 18C style in France grew from a reaction against the austerity and grandeur of the Louis XIV style, which was considered ill-adapted to the luxurious life and pleasures of the aristocracy and the upper-middle classes during the regency of Philippe of Orléans (1715–23) and the reign of Louis XV (1723–74). Rocaille was an 18C Rococo style or ornamentation based on rock and shell motifs.


Rocaille architecture, at least on the outside, remained faithful to some of the principles of Classical composition – plain buildings with symmetrical façades and projecting central sections crowned by a triangular pediment – but the use of Classical orders became less rigid and systematic. The most representative examples of this new type of architecture were town houses such as the Hôtel de Soubise by Delamair and Hôtel Matignon by Courtonne , both in Paris.

The majestic formal apartments of the previous century gave way to smaller, more intimate rooms such as boudoirs and studies. Inside, woodwork, often white and gold, covered the walls from top to bottom (Hôtel de Lassay in Paris and the Clock Room or Cabinet de la Pendule in Versailles). The repertoire of ornamentation included intertwining plant motifs, curved lines, shells and other natural objects. Paintings of landscapes and country scenes were inserted in the woodwork above doors or in the corners of ceilings. Verberckt , who worked in Versailles for Louis XV, was an exception­ally skilled interior decorator.


The generation of painters working at the turn of the century was influenced by Flemish art. Artists such as Desportes (1661–1743), Largillière (1656–1746) and Rigaud (1659–1743) painted sumptu­ously decorative still lifes and formal portraits. Secular themes including scenes of gallantry (fêtes galantes) , and fashionable society life became popular. Watteau (1684–1721), Boucher (1703–70), Natoire (1700–77) and Fragonard (1732–1806) reflected the taste of the day in their elegant genre scenes, some with mythological overtones, of pastoral life and the game of love.

Religious painting was not neglected in spite of these trends. Charles de la Fosse (1636–1716), one of Le Brun’s pupils, Antoine Coypel (1661–1722) and especially Restout (1692–1768) adapted it to the less stoical ideals of the 18C by stripping it of too strong a dogmatism.

There was a revival in portraiture during the 18C. Nattier (1685–1766), official painter of Louis XV’s daughters, produced likenesses in mythological guise or half-length portraits which were far less pompous than the usual court picture. The pastellist Quentin de la Tour (1704–88) excelled in portraying his subjects’ individual temperament and psychology rather than their social rank by concentrating more on faces than dress and accessories.

The lesser genres (still-lifes and land­scapes), scorned by the Academy but favoured by the middle classes for the decoration of their homes, blossomed considerably at the time. Chardin (1699–1779) painted simple still lifes in muted tones and Flemish-inspired scenes of everyday life, giving them a realistic, picturesque quality.


Baroque influence swept through sculpture in the first half of the century. The Adam brothers (Neptune Basin at Versailles), Coustou (1677–1746) (Horses of Marly), and Slodtz (1705–64) introduced the style’s expressiveness into their work to lend movement and feeling. The main characteristics of Baroque art were flowing garments, attention to detail and figures shown in action.

In contrast, the contemporary work of Bouchardon (1698–1762) who trained in Rome and was therefore influenced by Antique sculpture, tended to be more Classical (Fountain in the Rue de Grenelle in Paris).

Decorative Arts

The rise of fashionable society brought with it a great need for luxury furniture that matched the style of woodwork inside elegant homes. New types of furniture were created: after commodes (chests of drawers) came writing-desks – upright or inclined, escritoires, chiffoniers and countless small tables. For the comforts of conversation there were wing-chairs and deep easy chairs. There were also voyeuses or conversation chairs (special seats in gaming houses placed behind players to allow spectators to watch) and all manner of sofas and seats on which to recline (couches, lounging-chairs, divans and settees). Curved lines were favoured, as were rare and precious materials like exotic woods and lacquered panelling often set off by floral marquetry and finely chased gilded bronze. Among the great rocaille cabinet-makers were Cressent, Joubert and Migeon, while the principal seat carpenters of the time were Foliot, Sené and Cresson.

The Vincennes Porcelain Factory moved to Sèvres in 1756 and produced luxury items of which some were decorated in deep blue known as Sèvres blue. Gilt ornamentation was theoretically used only for royal services. Rocaille gold and silver plate was adorned with reed motifs, crested waves, scroll-work and shells often arranged in asymmetrical patterns. Thomas Germain (1673–1748), one of the most prestigious names in the trade, supplied the princely tables of the time.

Neoclassical Reaction

The middle of the century brought a reaction against rocaille on moral and aesthetic grounds. The style was considered to be too florid and frivolous, the result of decadence in both morals and the arts. Classical models from Antiquity and the 17C were then deemed the only recourse to revive proper artistic creation.


The new style of architecture that emerged was more austere and tended towards the monumental. Sculptural decoration on façades grew more restrained and the Doric order became widespread (Église St-Philippe-du-Roule by J F Chardin in Paris). Some buildings, like the Église Ste-Geneviève (the present-day Panthéon) in Paris by G Soufflot (1713–80), were direct copies of Antique models. Louis XVI commissioned men like Victor Louis (1731–1802) who designed the Bordeaux theatre, A T Brongniart (1739–1813) and J F Bélanger (1744–1818) for most of the great architectural undertakings of the time. The philosophical influence of the Enlightenment led to a keen interest in the architecture of functional, public buildings such as the Royal Salt-works in Arc-et-Senans by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806).


Sculptors distanced themselves from rocaille extravagance by striving towards a natural portrayal of anatomy.

E M Falconet (1716–91), P Julien (1731–1804) and G C Allegrain (1710–95) drew upon Greco-Roman models for their greatly admired sculptures of female bathers. J A Houdon (1741–1828), one of the greatest sculptors of the late 18C, made busts of his French and foreign contemporaries (Voltaire, Buffon and Madame Adélaïde for the first, and Benjamin Franklin and George Washington for the second) which constituted a veritable portrait gallery. The busts, executed in an extremely realistic manner, many without wigs or articles of dress to detract from the faces, were the culmination of modelled portraiture in France. Houdon also sculpted tombs and mythological statues. J B Pigalle (1714–85) maintained the style of sculpture predominant at the beginning of the century that the Neoclassical reaction had not managed to stifle entirely (mausoleum of the Marshal de Saxe in the Église St-Thomas in Strasbourg).


In the 1760s, attempts by the Royal Academy to restore a style of painting known as the grand manner encouraged the emergence of new themes such as antique history, civic heroism and 17C tragedies. These were adopted by painters like J L David (1748–1825), J B M Pierre (1714–89) and J F P Peyron (1744–1814). The style drew upon low-reliefs and statuary from Antiquity and followed the principles of composition used by painters like Poussin and other 17C masters.

Works by J M Vien (1716–1809) and J B Greuze (1725–1805) showed a less austere approach to painting, with more room for sensibility and emotion, that heralded the romanticism that was to blossom after the Revolution.

Decorative Arts

Louis XVI furniture kept some of the characteristics inherited from the beginning of the century such as the use of precious materials and chased gilt bronze ornamentation, but curves and sinuous shapes gave way to straight lines. As far as decoration was concerned, while the floral motifs and ribbons of the past were maintained, ovoli friezes, Greek fretwork and fasces were willingly introduced. René Dubois (1738–99) and Louis Delanois (1731–92) initiated the Greek style derived from Antique furniture seen in friezes at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Prestigious artists of the genre included Oeben and Riesener while Carlin followed by Beneman and Levasseur specialised in furniture adorned with plaques of painted porcelain.

At the end of the century new decorative motifs including lyres, ears of corn, wickerwork baskets and hot-air balloons were imported from England.

The technique of hard-paste porcelain that was introduced into France at the beginning of the 1770s took the lead over soft-paste porcelain in the factory at Sèvres. Figurines of biscuit porcelain (white, fired, unglazed pottery) shaped on models by Fragonard, Boucher and other artists, became very popular.

The iconoclasm that prevailed during the Revolution marked a break in the history of French art. The Louvre opened in 1793 paving the way for many more museums in France.


Art During the First Empire

After his investiture in 1804, Napoleon favoured the emergence of an official style of art by commissioning palace decoration (Tuileries, destroyed in 1870, and Fontainebleau) and paintings that related the great events of the Empire. The artists to benefit from the Emperor’s patronage were men like J L David and his pupils A J Gros (1771–1835) and A L Girodet-Trioson (1767–1824).

Paintings of the time took on new themes derived from the romanticism in contemporary literature, orientalism and an interest in the medieval. Nation­al historic anecdotes were painted by artists who, like the troubadours, praised heroic deeds and fine sentiment.

Artistic development in the realm of architecture was less innovative. Napoleon commissioned large edifices commemorating the glory of the Grande Armée including the Carrousel Arch, the column in Place Vendôme and the Temple de la Madeleine (now a church). The official architects Percier (1764–1838) and Fontaine (1762–1853) were responsible for the overall supervision of the undertakings, setting models not only for buildings but also for decoration at official ceremonies and guidelines for the decorative arts.

Ambitious town-planning projects like the reconstruction of Lyon were also completed under the Empire.

Former royal palaces were refurnished. The style of First Empire furniture de­rived from the Neoclassical with massive, quadrangular, commodes and jewel-cases made of mahogany with gilt bronze plating and Antique decorative motifs. Desmalter (1770–1841) was the main cabinet-maker of the imperial court. The sculptors Chaudet (1763–1810) and Cartellier (1757–1831) supplied models for furniture ornamentation in the Neoclassical style which also inspired their statues. After the Egyptian Campaign motifs like sphinxes and lotuses began to appear in the decorative arts.

Restoration and the 
July Monarchy 

Two major trends affected French art between 1815 and 1848. The first was the gradual disappearance of the Neoclassical style which, however, still influenced church building (Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and St-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris); and the second was the birth of historicism, a style that fostered regard for the architecture of the past, particularly of the medieval period (Église Notre-Dame in Boulogne-sur-Mer and Marseille Cathedral by Léon Vaudoyer). The trend was furthered by the founding of the Monuments Historiques (a body set up for the classification and preservation of the national heritage) in 1830 and the enthusiasm of Viollet-le-Duc (1814–79) .

The Second Empire

On the accession of Napoleon III the arts in general were affected by a spirit of eclecticism . The Louvre, completed by Percier’s disciple Visconti (1791–1853) and H Lefuel (1810–80), and the Paris Opera by Garnier (1825–98) were among the greatest undertakings of the century. References to architectural styles of the past (16C, 17C and 18C) were present everywhere. Nevertheless, the introduction of new materials like glass and cast iron (the Gare du Nord by Hittorff and the Église St-Augustin by V Baltard) showed the influence of technological progress and a new rational approach to building.

Baron Haussmann (1809–91), Prefect of the département of the Seine, laid down the principles for a public works programme that was to modernise the capital. Prefect C M Vaïsse carried out a similar plan in Lyon.

Academicism reigned over the painting of the time. Cabanel (1823–83), Bouguereau (1825–1905) and the portraitist Winterhalter (1805–73) drew their inspiration just as easily from Antique statuary as from works by 16C Venetian masters or Rococo ornamentation. However, Courbet (1819–77), Daumier (1808–79) and Millet (1814–75) formed an avant-garde group that fostered realism in painting with subjects from town and country life.

Ingres (1780–1867) who represented the Classical trend, and Delacroix (1798–1863), the great romantic painter of the century, were both at the height of their powers. Great architectural projects stimulated the production of sculpture. Carpeaux (1827–75), responsible for the high-relief of Dance on the façade of the Paris Opera, transcended the eclecticism of his time by developing a very personal style that was reminiscent of, and not simply a copy of, Flemish, Renaissance and 18C art. Dubois (1829–1905), Frémiet (1824–1910) and Guillaume (1822–1905) were more academic in their approach.

A taste for pastiche prevailed in the decorative arts. The shapes and ornamental motifs of the Renaissance, the 16C and 18C were reproduced on furniture and objets d’art. The advent of industrialisation affected certain fields. The goldsmith Christofle (1805–63) and the bronze-founder Barbedienne (1810–92) made luxury items for the imperial court as well as mass-produced articles for new clients among the rich upper-middle classes.

Late 19C Artistic trends

Architecture during the Third Republic was mainly marked by edifices built for Universal Exhibitions held in Paris (the former Palais du Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower, the Grand-Palais and the Pont Alexandre-III). The pompous style of the buildings with their exotic ornamentation derived from the trend for eclecticism.

In the 1890s Art Nouveau architects, influenced by trends in England and Belgium, distanced themselves from the official style of the day. They harmonised decoration on façades with that inside their buildings and designed their creations as a whole – stained glass, tiles, furniture and wall-paper. Decoration included plant motifs, stylised flowers, Japanese influences and asymmetrical patterns. Guimard (1867–1942) was the main proponent of the style in France (Castel Béranger in Paris and entrances to the capital’s metro stations).

The decorative arts followed the Art Nouveau movement with works by the cabinet-maker Majorelle (1859–1929) and the glass and ceramics artist Gallé (1846–1904) in Nancy.

In the field of painting, the Impressionists began exhibiting their work outside official salons in 1874. Monet (1840–1926), Renoir (1841–1919) and Pissarro (1830–1903) breathed new life into the technique and themes of landscape painting by working out of doors, studying the play of light in nature and introducing new subjects drawn from contemporary life. Manet (1832–83) and Degas (1834–1917) joined the group temporarily.

Between 1885 and 1890, Neo-Impressionists like G Seurat (1859–91) and Signac (1863–1935) brought the Pointillist (painting with small dots) technique known as divisionism to a climax. The Dutch painter Van Gogh (1853–90) settled in France in 1886. His technique of using pure and expressionist colours with broad swirling brushstrokes coupled with his belief that expression of emotional experience should override impressions of the external world were to have a great influence on early 20C painters. Cézanne (1839–1906) and Gauguin (1848–1903), who were influenced by primitive and Japanese art, partly dispensed with Impressionism to give more importance to volume. In 1886, seeking new inspiration, Gauguin moved to Pont-Aven, a small town east of Concarneau in Brittany that had often been visited by the painter Corot in the 1860s. Fellow artists Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier formed the Pont-Aven School that favoured synthesist theories and symbolic subjects which paved the way for the Nabis .

Among the Nabis were artists like Denis (1870–1943), Bonnard (1867–1947) and Vuillard (1868–1940) who advocated the importance of colour over shape and meaning. Sculpture at the end of the century was dominated by the genius of Rodin (1840–1917). His expressionistic, tormented, symbolic work stood free from formal academic conventions and was not always understood in his time.


Avant-Garde Movements 

At the beginning of the 20C, proponents of the avant-garde reacted against the many trends of the 19C including the restrictions laid down by official art, academicism in painting and Art Nouveau in architecture.

The Stijl movement was characterised in architecture by simple, geometric buildings adorned with sober low-reliefs. One of its most magnificent examples was the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées by the Perret brothers with sculptural decoration by Bourdelle (1861–1929). In the field of sculpture, the artists Maillol (1861–1944), Bartholomé (1848–1928) and J Bernard (1866–1931) opposed Rodin’s aesthetic concepts and pro­duced a very different type of art by simplifying their figures, in some cases to the point of schematic representation.

Fauvism was the great novelty at the Autumn Salon of painting in 1905. A Derain (1880–1964), A Marquet (1875–1947) and M de Vlaminck (1876–1958) broke up their subject-matter through the vivid and arbitrary use of colour, a technique which was to pave the way for non-figurative painting. After an early period with the fauvist movement, Matisse (1869–1904) went his own way developing a personal style based on the exploration of colour.

A further major avant-garde movement in painting followed on from Cézanne ’s (1839–1906) structural analysis in which he broke up his subject matter into specific shapes. The trend was taken up by artists like Braque (1882–1963) and Picasso (1881–1973) whose exploration led to Cubism , a new perception of reality based not on what the eye saw but on an analytical approach to objects, depicting them as a series of planes, usually in a restricted colour range. The style dominated their work from 1907 to 1914.

Members of the Section d’Or (golden section) Cubist group like A Gleizes , J Metzinger and F Léger (his early works) were less revolutionary and more figurative. The main contribution to French cubism in the field of sculpture came from Henri Laurens ,who was influenced by Braque.

Surrealism breathed new life into the art world in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a subversive art form that created an irrational, dreamlike, fantasy universe. For the first time chance and promptings from the subconscious were integrated into the creative process. Duchamp (1887–1968), Masson (1896–1997), Picabia (1879–1953) and Magritte (1898–1967) all formed part of the movement.

Artistic Creation Since 1945

Abstract art began to affect the field of painting after World War II. Herbin defined it as the triumph of mind over matter. In 1949 he published Non-figurative, Non-objective Art (L’Art non figuratif non objectif) and greatly influenced young artists of the geometric abstract art movement. All his works from the 1950s onwards have been one-dimensional patterns of letters and simple geometric shapes painted in pure colours.

The lyrical abstract artists focused on the study of colour and texture. Riopelle applied his paint with a knife while Mathieu applied it directly from the tube. Soulages , who was influenced by art from the Far East, produced meditative, expressive work in shades of black. Nicolas de Stael ’s art constituted a link between abstract and figurative in that his abstract compositions were the result of observations of real objects which could sometimes be distin­guished in the final work.

There was an important revival in architecture with Le Corbusier (1897–1965) whose buildings fulfilled functional requirements with great clarity of form (Cité Radieuse in Marseille and Ronchamp Chapel).

In the 1960s, New Realism (Nouveau Réalisme) , a form of pop art, with Pierre Restany as its leading theoretician, at­tempted to express the reality of daily life. Industrial items, the symbols of modern society, were broken up (by the artist Arman ) and assembled (by César ) or trapped in glass.

Yves Klein (1928–62) took his adherence to New Realism a step further in his Monochromes by trying to capture the universal essence of objects. He worked in pure colours and created I B K, or International Klein Blue. He rejected formal and traditional values as did Dubuffet (1901–85) who, in 1968, wrote a pamphlet entitled Asphyxiating Culture (Asphyxiante culture) which made a stand for permanent revolution. Dubuffet’s later art consisted of puzzles of coloured or black and white units.

Since the 1960s, the problems posed by town-planning have led to a re-evaluation of the relationship between architecture and sculpture and an attempt to reconcile the two arts. Architects and sculptors often work together as in the case of the project by Ricardo Bofill and D Karavan in Cergy-Pontoise northwest of Paris. Artists are increasingly being asked to modify townscapes.

The Support-Surface movement ( Claude Viallet , Pagès and Daniel Dezeuze ) of the 1970s reduced paint­ing to its pure material state by focus­ing on the way the paint was applied. Paintings were removed from their stretchers and cut up, suspend­ed and folded.

The 1980s saw the return of Figuration in manifold ways. References to tradition are evident in the work of artists like Gérard Garouste and Jean-Charles Blais . The great vitality of contemporary art can be seen in the extremely wide variety of styles and trends favoured by artists today.

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