Very few cities in the world are thought of quite as synonymously with art and art history as is Paris.
Over several centuries, Paris has set the stage for the creation of some of the world’s best known art
movements, art styles, and art pieces.
To prep yourself for an engaging trip to Paris, it definitely helps to familiarise yourself somewhat with the basics of Paris art... even if you don’t plan to go to an art museum... because in Paris, art is everywhere. If you have a good general knowledge base, you will notice and appreciate more art, you will be more interested in the art you come across and you will have clearer memories of your Paris experience after you go home.
Not to mention, you’ll be more conversant on the subject of art in general which may come in handy some day...
There is billions of dollars of art on public display in Paris. Unless you have years of available time to study, you don’t want to try to learn it all!
So let’s narrow it down: the way that I will present Paris art to you, is that I will talk about artists, but only the ones who lived and worked in Paris, I will talk about works of art but only my favourite of the famous ones. And perhaps a few less famous ones I think you may be happy to discover... I will talk about art movements, but only ones where Paris set the stage.
And then of course, being a discussion of Paris art and all, I will talk about art museums and attractions that can’t be missed: beyond the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, there are so many interesting and amazing smaller niche museums that you may find more tailored to your own interests and they won’t make your feet sore or use up your whole day.
Paris Art in the 17th Century: Baroque and Classicism.
Let’s start our synopsis with the golden age of the arts: the seventeenth century.
The turn of the sixteenth century brought the baroque period. Catholics hearkened back to the days of the middle ages, when the Catholic Church was at its peak of power. They wanted their cathedrals’ altarpieces, murals and ceilings to have a big effect on its audience again, so they were painted in such a way as to become, once again, theatrical, imposing and impressive.
Catholics used the baroque style to celebrate their faith and to get people excited about Catholicism again.
Baroque paintings were flamboyant, richly coloured and imposingly emotional. This kind of art with such sense of theatre and opulence was expensive to make, but France, like much of Europe, was becoming wealthier, (largely from bringing back riches they were taking from the people of the Americas and East Indies), so money was not an obstacle to creating art in Paris.
The primary painter from the baroque period whose name and works you will encounter touring Paris is Peter Paul Rubens. The Louvre has many of his paintings, but you will also see prints of his artwork throughout Paris.
The painter Nicolas Poussin was more interested in the classical style than baroque and served for awhile as First Painter to King Louis XIII. His success allowed classicism to be an alternative style during the baroque period.
King Louis XIV, who ruled the last half of the century until 1715, was otherwise known as “Le Roi Soleil” or “The Sun King” because he surrounded himself with beautiful things such as art and treasures. You’ll see obvious hints of this if you tour Versailles, his palace. Versailles is decorated in the baroque style.
In art, Louis XIV preferred classicism to baroque. Classicism was a look back to the art and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome. He felt these had the image of imperial grandeur, political stability and military strength.
Paris Art in the 18th Century: Rococo and Neo-Classicism.
Then came the eighteenth century: a period of sophistication, elegance, and good taste. In art, the first part of the eighteenth century was spent focussing on grace and beauty and resulted in the evolution of baroque style to rococo. Rococo was a highly stylistic fashion that was meant to be fun and frivolous, as opposed to the imposingly emotional drama of baroque.
This was some of the first art known to be made for the sake of “escapism”. People had started to question traditional values about organised religion and absolute monarchy. Much of Europe was at war and people did not want to be reminded of all the upheaval while enjoying their artwork. Paris also was seeing its first tourists: people, primarily young gentleman, were starting to travel for pleasure to places like Paris and Rome, and wanted paintings that would remind them of their travels.
The main painters during the rococo period were Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honore Fragonard. They were creating art in Paris that would remain famous and on display for several centuries thereafter.
The last third of the 18th century produced a backlash to the stylistic escapism of the earlier part, and rococo fell out of fashion. This made way for neoclassicism, which was pretty much rococo’s opposite. Serious and meaningful, neoclassical paintings did not use hazy pastel colours or frivolous subjects, but clear and contrasting light and dark colours and subjects from mythology or history.
Jacques-Louis David was the primary French painter of neoclassicism. His active support of the French Revolution (1789) showed through in his paintings.
As a whole, the entire eighteenth century produced some of the most elegant art in history.
Paris Art in 19th Century: Realism leads to Impressionism which leads to Post-Impressionism.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Paris was the undisputed centre of the art world.
There was still a rather strict and conservative system due to the French Academy of Fine Arts. The French Academy held an annual exhibit called the ‘Salon de Paris’. This was the most prestigious art event in the world back then, and had been for about 150 years, so to really “make it” as an artist in France, you had to show your work at one of these Salon exhibits.
The Salon juries who decided who gets to exhibit had specific, traditional and conservative ideas about art. The theme had to be uplifting, the subject historical or mythological, and the technique, precise and detailed.
They were not interested in pictures of ordinary objects.
One of the first major Paris artists to challenge these criteria was Gustave Courbet. He was one of the main artists of realism. He felt it was important to paint from one’s own experience which includes everyday objects and people. He was nonetheless able to show his work in the Paris art Salon of 1850-51.
In the late nineteenth century, if you were a budding Paris artist, chances are good you would eventually come across other like-minded artists. Most Paris artists spent their time in the neighbourhood of Montmartre, so many knew their contemporaries personally.
Paris’ new cafe culture at the time provided the perfect breeding ground for discussions of new ideas about art. The artists would meet in Paris cafes with like-minded artists to debate with each other and build on new ideas, philosophies and new directions for art. From this artist cafe culture arose several art movements that we can now say created a movement towards modern art.
Here is a brief description of a few of the art movements you may wish you knew more about while you are in Paris:
In the late 1800s, photography was taking over the role painters had once had to record the appearance of people, places and events in the world around them. Since painting and, in fact, art in general were no longer needed for this, art became more a matter of creative expression than ever before.
This can be seen in Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, pointillism, symbolism, fauvism, cubism, and other art movements that started from the discussions in the cafes around Paris.
While in Paris, you will likely see and hear references to Impressionism most often. It seems to be the best known, or maybe most popular, Paris art movement. Also, some of the most famous Paris artists were Impressionists.
Impressionists were still interested in painting real life around them, but differently than painters had until then. Up until then, painting was a long painstaking process that took place indoors in studios highly equipped with bulky tools and paint.
In the late 1800s, paint started being sold in small tubes that could be taken anywhere easily. For the first time, painters were able to conveniently paint wherever they wanted to, and the practise of painting “en plein air” (“out in fresh air”) started growing.
To paint live outdoor scenery, however, you have to be quick or else the scene changes, so the painstaking detailing and blending of the traditional painting techniques would not work. To catch that moment in time, the Impressionists had to paint quickly.
The Impressionists’ goal was to catch not only the scene itself, but the momentary mood, lighting effect, and, as well, to show movement, so the details had to go to the wayside.
At first, people thought the finished product looked very unfinished and sketch-like. The people in charge of the Salon exhibit didn’t like it either, so a group of artists held their own exhibit in Paris in 1874 at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, on the corner of the Rue Daunou.
The critics didn’t care for this exhibit and one made fun of them by referring to Monet’s painting called “Impression: Rising Sun”, saying the exhibitors were just “impressionists”. The artists found it to be fittingly descriptive and adopted the name for themselves. They were indeed just trying to paint ‘impressions’ of scenes.
The main Impressionists painted what they saw so they were realists, but they only painted things they found pretty. (Not like their contemporary, Gustave Courbet, who was interested in painting realities of life, even the ugly ones.)
Impressionists did not use black. They considered it too unnatural and used blue instead. They used quick brush strokes of vibrant colour, leaving to the eye of the viewer to do the blending. They didn’t wait for paint to dry between layers and they didn’t use glaze. The favourite subject of Impressionists was Paris.
They held 8 Paris art exhibits from 1874-1886.
Over time, Impressionism became respected and gained a huge audience. In fact, it can be considered the movement that began modern art in general.
Post-Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism
Paul Cézanne was not technically an Impressionist, but a contemporary and friend. He exhibited work at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but is considered a Post-Impressionist, along with Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Amedeo Modigliani.
Then there’s Neo-Impressionism....or otherwise known as ‘pointillism’.
The Neo-Impressionists were much like the Impressionists but they used small dots of colour instead of quick brushstrokes.
These paintings look like colourful dots of paint on canvas from close up, but the further back you look at them, the smoother the picture looks as your eyes blur the dots together. Pointillists created vibrancy in their paintings by painting complementary coloured dots side by side. It was very methodical, took a lot of patience, and was not great at conveying movement.
The two painters who led this were two friends living in Paris, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
By the mid 1880s, many artists felt the Impressionists were too realistic. Some artists wanted to explore the imagination much further in their art. They wanted to experiment in ways to represent emotions and feelings. These artists became part of the symbolist movement.
“Paint not the thing, but the feeling it produced” –Stephane Mallarme, symbolist poet.
Paul Gauguin was an important member of this movement. This is also the movement of Fernand Knopff, who painted hybrid animals (half human, half animal) and of Henri Rousseau and his naive, dreamy paintings.
Another spin-off of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism was ‘fauvism’. This art movement started just after the turn of the twentieth century and was characterised by bright colours, visible brushstrokes and abstraction.
This art movement got its name from an art critic’s review of their first exhibition, referring to them as “des fauves” or “wild beasts”. Henri Matisse and André Derain are representative of this art movement.
In 1907, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, while living in Montmartre, Paris, were inspired to present their position that an art subject can be deconstructed into simple shapes and that various viewpoints of a scene can be presented on one canvas.
The name for this art movement of Picasso and Braque came about from a review by the same art critic who was responsible for the term ‘fauvism’.
Cubism became one of the most transformational art styles of the twentieth century.
The Surrealists circulated their manifesto in 1924. they believed art should be an extension or expression of the subconscious. Joan Miro and Marc Chagall held significant roles in Surrealism in Paris.
Paris Art Today
So as you can see, Paris has been the setting of an amazing amount of art history. Paris inspires artists to greatness, great artists to great works, and these great works lure more artists to Paris. It is an endless feedback loop that persists with fervour to this day.
....and return to this page on Paris art soon, as I will be writing about the best Paris art museums and attractions as well as some artwork that just can’t be missed...