11 French painters you should know

Posted by Josh on 24th May 2024 in the blog in the french culture category

France has produced some of the most influential artists the world has ever known. Many were born and raised there, while others were drawn to the country by its reputation for artistic excellence. Read on to learn about some of the most famous artists in the history of France – and the world.

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Nicolas Poussin is considered the founder of the French Classical tradition, although he worked for most of his life in Rome. He was encouraged to visit Italy initially after completing a series of works for the Jesuits, although these are, unfortunately, now missing. The clergy discovered his skill at depicting stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and so his career took off as an artist of historical, mythological and Biblical scenes (hence the 'classical' tradition).

Bold primary colours abound in Poussin's works, which evoke the reliefs of the ancient world in their friezelike composition, featuring isolated figures often in procession or standing at a distance from one another. They are often allegorical, imbued with deep meaning, which might only be apparent to viewers who are well-versed in the myths and stories they depict. His most famous piece, Dance to the Music of Time, which depicts Father Time playing a lyre as human embodiments of Poverty, Labour, Riches, and Pleasure dance around in a circle, is a case in point, and paradigmatic of many of his other works.

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Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)

You may not know his name, but you’ll almost certainly have seen Liberty Leading the People, his seminal painting of the personification of French Revolutionary fervour. It was commissioned in 1830 to commemorate the July Revolution, and was restored to its fully glory in April this year, undoing the 'yellowish layers' it had accrued over the past two centuries, according to the director of the Louvre, where it is on display.

The painting was bought by the French state, and indeed many of his works, especially his, murals and plafonds, were commissioned for the Republic, making Delacroix one of the most overtly political painters on this list. His works are often stark, full of dramatic contrasts. As the old saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words; and each of Delacroix's paintings, from The Death of Sardanapalus to Horse Frightened by a Storm, is not only striking to behold, but has a dynamic story to tell.

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Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Synonymous with Impressionism, Pissarro’s works specialised in rustic settings which tended to foreground labourers and peasants. Unlike many of the other painters in this list, he was not born in France but in the West Indies, and his childhood home furnished him with inspiration for many of his paintings, although he later favoured the French countryside for his landscape paintings, and eventually cities, too. There is a hazy, nostalgic quality to Pissarro's work, which often encapsulates the light and heat of summer. His paintings were painstaking and sophisticated, and it's no surprise that he became something of a mentor to Monet, Renoir and Cézanne, as well as other French painters of the time.

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Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Opting for dark hues and scenes of everyday life, Édouard Manet cultivated a unique style, but it was perhaps his choice of subjects that caused him to become embroiled in a series of scandals. One of his most well-known paintings, Olympia, for example, which features a nude woman reclining on a bed, was considered grossly indecent by the public and critics alike, while his other paintings featuring naked women received a similar reception. But they were some of his most accomplished works, and somewhat overshadowed his many other portraits.

His notoriety followed him throughout his life, and it wasn't until the 20th century that his reputation was re-evaluated by historians and art critics, leading to his canonisation as one of the most important figures in French art.

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Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

One of the most elegant painters in the history of art, Degas' paintings of ballerinas are world famous. While employing a more muted palette than the other artists on this list, his work has an unparalleled sense of sophistication, and beautifully evokes the upper echelons of Paris society, particularly in its balancing of light and dark shades.

Degas is usually considered an Impressionist, although he didn't enjoy the label, preferring to think of his art as 'realist', and sought to distance himself from Monet and the other Impressionists. Alongside painting, he also indulged in sculpting and photography.

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Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Cézanne trained to be a lawyer, but his true vocation was for painting, and he went to Paris to study the art. He did not feel as qualified as the other students, however, and he only stayed at his craft because the author Émile Zola urged him to.

Despite that, Cézanne quickly built up a reputation as a talented artist. His paintings were eclectic, encompassing both landscapes and portraits, with subjects ranging from fruit bowls to mountains, but all exhibit an unparalleled sense of solidity and depth. His fondness for strong black lines, distinguishing the different elements of his paintings, and his tendency to overrule the dimensional restrictions of his subjects – for instance, painting a tree or an orange or a person from several angles simultaneously – would later inspire the Cubism movement.

Cézanne was inspired by, and lived in, Aix-en-Provence, which will be the location of Alexa's special guest immersion programme later this year.

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Claude Monet (1840-1926)

If you ever find yourself in Paris, take a trip to the Musée de l'Orangerie. After Claude Monet’s death in 1927, a number of his famous water lily paintings – there were 250 in total – found a permanent exhibition space in the former orangerie. These wide paintings span the lengths of the main rooms and showcase some of the most vivid and surreal arrangements of colour ever painted.

Monet is renowned for his paintings of nature; alongside water lilies, he also painted seashores, woodlands and sunsets. His pictures are not only beautiful and calming but vivid and full of colour. They are also credited with kickstarting the Impressionist movement, which takes its name from his painting Impression, soleil levant, and focuses on the painter's subjective impression of a scene, rather than a strictly realistic depiction.

You can visit Monet's house and gardens, where he painted his famous Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, in Giverny.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was another figurehead of the Impressionist movement. Like Monet, his earlier works are typically pastoral, gently evoking the beauty of the French countryside. But as he matured, he came to focus more on people and society, women in particular. One of his most famous paintings, Bal du moulin de la Galette, brings out the vibrancy of late 19th century Paris, with its crowds of well-dressed Parisians and dazzling streetlights.

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Georges Seurat (1859-91)

Seurat is often mentioned in the same breath as Pointilism, an artistic style he pioneered, which involves painting lots of little dots to form a picture, rather than traditional brushstrokes. The most famous example of this style is Seurat’s A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Natural elements depicted in pastel shades, in particular grass and water, are a mainstay of his works, and the further you stand back, the more the individual dots cohere to form a complete picture.

There was a theoretical dimension to Seurat's work which is often absent from many of his contemporaries; arrangement and structure were emphasised at the expense of spontaneity, which is why his paintings appear so precise and orderly.

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Henri Émile Benoît Matisse (1869-1954)

Although Matisse is mostly known for his bold, expressionistic paintings nowadays, he was educated in traditional styles of art. But it was only when he broke away from the strictures of classical technique that he started to gain renown, particularly when Gertrude Stein began to collect his work. An early example of this originality is Woman with a Hat, a dreamlike painting of his wife that captured the imagination of French society.

Other painters found themselves flocking to Matisse, and before long he became the leader of the Fauvist movement, named after the French word for wild beasts – les fauves – a term which referred to the artists themselves, painting as they did outside of the civilised conventions of the mainstream art world.

Some of Matisse’s paintings embody the pointilistic style of Seurat, while others are brazenly abstract in a way that would prefigure later generations of artists; but they all have in common Matisse's signature colourfulness and playfulness.

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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Chagall was born in Belorussia but moved to Paris as a young man to pursue studies in art. It was under the influence of the art galleries of the French capital, with their displays of paintings by the other artists in this list, that Chagall left aside the sombre, more traditional style of painting he initially developed, and adopted a more daring approach to art.

His paintings are bold and otherworldly, with carnivalesque subjects as diverse as clowns and mythical beasts, and it’s little surprise that he is often considered a precursor to the surrealist movement. Alongside paintings he also made etchings and prints and designed stained glass windows.

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