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Architecture of france:

"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony. The sublime idea men have of the
universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of
art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no
thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere."

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), Italian-born French poet, critic.


To say that the French revere their time spent soaking up arts and culture is an
understatement. Particularly in Paris — where an abundance of venues is concentrated within
a few square miles — it is common to find the French devoting their weekends to exploring the
wealth of museums and cultural havens; many of the provincial areas are likewise blessed
with impressive monuments to art and architecture.

Not surprisingly, one can attribute both the people's pride in their heritage, as well as the
sheer extent of France's artistic wealth, to a long, colorful and often tumultuous history. Much
of the French thirst for cultural enrichment and education dates back to the Crusades, when
books, artistic influences, mathematics, and philosophical thought were carried back to the
Gallic people from distant, advanced civilizations. Though relatively few artifacts remain from
earlier eras, art in ancient Gaul may be traced back through the Merovingian period (beginning
in the late fifth century), to the Roman Empire (starting in the first century B.C.), the ancient
Celts (fifth century B.C.), and even to the Cro-Magnons of Paleolithic times (10,000 to 32,000
years ago).

During the past millenium, many of the icons and most prolific minds in philosophy, literature,
poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture, architecture, and science can be credited to the French —
or, in some cases, expatriates living in France. Encouragement and support for artistic
endeavor has been a hallmark of France's kings, emperors, and presidents to this day. In
order to preserve such a rich cultural heritage, and to make it more widely available outside of
Paris, a Ministry of Culture was established by the French government in 1959. In this
chapter, we will discuss France's fascinating history of art — painting, sculpture, and
architecture — while related topics such as literature, theatre and music may be accessed
through the Table of Contents on other parts of this site.

Author: Ian C. Mills © 1998-2002 — All rights reserved


The earliest artistic remains in France date from the Paleolithic Period. By far the best known
examples of prehistoric rock art are the cave paintings of Altamira, Font de Gaume, Lascaux,
Les Combarelles, Niaux Cave, Les Trois Frères, and other sites in southern France and
northern Spain, which were discovered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These
paintings, associated with the remains of the Cro-Magnon peoples, have been widely
reproduced in popular books and periodicals and have thus become familiar to the general

Periods of Celtic culture from the late 5th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., and of Roman
occupation from the 1st century to the 5th century A.D., saw the building of towns and the
creation of artifacts.

It is not possible, however, to speak of a nationally distinct French art before the mid-5th
century A.D., when the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties established authority over this


After the decline of the Roman Empire, France was left as it had been before the Roman
conquest, divided among many small regional tribes. These became small kingdoms and
duchies between the 2nd and the 5th century A.D. Christianity spread during this period,
leading to the foundation of many abbeys and monastic communities in the 5th to the 7th
century. Few artifacts survive from the Merovingian period, named for the dynasty of Frankish
kings that began with Clovis (c.481). The most notable Merovingian survival is the baptistery
of Saint Jean at Poitiers, dating from the 7th century. Merovingian churches, with floor plans
based on the Roman basilica, had stone walls, timber roofs, prominent bell towers, and
echoed classical motifs in their ornamentation.

In the 8th century, under the authority of Charlemagne — the first king to create a unified
realm — a great building campaign began. Carolingian churches were intricately decorated
with pictorial murals, mosaics, goldwork, and tapestries. The richness of Carolingian church
interiors was equaled by the illuminated manuscripts created at the monasteries of Reims,
Tours, Metz, and Paris. The best preserved of Carolingian churches is the Chapel of
Charlemagne (796-804) at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), whose octagonal sanctuary reflects the
influence on Carolingian art of the Early Christian, Byzantine, and Greco-Roman traditions. The
Aachen chapel is modeled on the octagonal Byzantine church of San Vitale (526-47) in

In larger Carolingian churches, built from the 8th to the 10th century, several important
innovations were made, including the construction of an elaborate westwork, or entrance
facade flanked by towers; an ambulatory, or semicircular aisle around the altar, allowing
worshipers to circulate without disturbing services; and the use of the composite pier instead
of a simple, massive column to support the upper walls and roof above the nave.



Two forces affected the development of church architecture in France from the 10th to
the 12th century. One was the growth of large, wealthy monastic orders, and the other
was a rapid increase in the number of religious pilgrimages to holy shrines.

The Romanesque style in architecture can be thought of as a product of the architectural

experiments of the Carolingian period and as a response to the needs of monasteries and
pilgrimage churches. Romanesque style varied from region to region, reflecting local
traditions and requirements. The largest and most important Romanesque structure was
the Benedictine monastery church at Cluny in Burgundy (begun in 1088 and destroyed in
the 19th century). Cluny was the center of the Benedictine order in France. The massive
monastery church, crowned with a stone vault, contained five aisles, two transepts, a
chevet (an ambulatory with chapels radiating from the apse), an imposing westwork, and
a narthex. The pattern established at Cluny was imitated by Benedictine churches
throughout France.

The ability to surpass the limitations of a wooden beam ceiling by constructing a stone
barrel vault allowed the builders of Cluny to make the body of the nave unusually broad.
Although the use of wooden roofs continued in northern France, the stone vault was one
of the most successful Romanesque innovations. The stone roof took several forms: a
barrel vault, pointed as at Autun Cathedral (1120-32), or a groin vault, as at Vezelay
(1089-1206). Although the walls were made extremely thick to support the stone vaults
and give an impression of enormous weight, the interiors were well lit through clerestory
windows set high in the walls of the nave above the lower roofs covering the side aisles.


The principal fulfillment of the devout medieval Christian was a pilgrimage to Rome, or
to one of the many European shrines that contained holy relics. Pilgrimage routes crossed
national boundaries to shrines as distant as Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and
churches were built along these well-traveled routes, many of which traversed France.
Romanesque sculpture developed as decorations in these pilgrimage churches and is
characterized by its highly stylized depictions of natural forms. The most prominent
location for religious sculpture was in the tympanum over the main west door leading to
the center aisle of the church. Here artists depicted scenes from the life of Christ or other
subjects familiar to pilgrims and suitable for their contemplation. A fine example of such
a carved tympanum survives at the church of Saint Pierre in Moissac. Sculpture also
adorned columns, capitals, wells in cloisters, and crypts.


The ancient art of enamelwork, which had continued to develop in France throughout the
Merovingian and Carolingian periods, reached unprecedented heights in the 11th and
12th centuries, when the technique of champleve came into general use. Limoges was a
center of production, and its enamelwork was prized throughout Europe.

The Gothic style grew out of the Romanesque in a surge of activity that began in the
mid-12th century. The increasing affluence of that period brought new commercial
centers into prominence. Mercantile interests sponsored the construction of great
cathedrals, thus giving the cities the initiative in artistic innovation over the rural
monastic and pilgrimage churches that had dominated the preceding centuries. Gothic art
evolved in Northern France and spread throughout Europe, becoming the universal style
from the 13th through the 16th century. Although the influence of Romanesque
architecture had spread beyond France, Gothic was the first French style to dominate


Gothic architecture began with the construction of cathedrals in Noyon (begun c.1150-
70) and Laon (begun c.1160) and of the abbey church of Saint-Denis near Paris. It
continued to develop in churches close to Paris, at Senlis (1153-84) and Sens (begun
c.1140), and in the cathedrals of Reims (begun 1210) and Rouen (begun after 1200).
Saint-Denis, the most important achievement of early Gothic architecture, was built on
the foundations of an earlier church between 1137 and 1144. The Abbott Suger intended
to make Saint-Denis a splendid showplace in keeping with its function as the royal abbey
church of France and burial place of French kings.

In order to make these Gothic churches larger, the ribbed vault, capable of spanning large
areas, was devised. Ribbed vaults were made loftier by enlarging the clerestory zone and
its windows to enormous size, inserting a new zone, the triforium, below it, and
supporting them on an arcade of high piers lining the nave. To bear the greater stress of
these taller, broader interiors, and to create larger window areas, a system of external
supports or flying buttresses was developed. This created a greater sense of unity between
the spaces of the nave and the adjacent aisles and ambulatory chapels. As the builders
became more sophisticated, they were able to achieve ever grander effects at Notre Dame
de Paris (begun 1163), Chartres Cathedral (1145; rebuilt after a fire begun 1194), Amiens
Cathedral (begun 1220), the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (begun after 1243, completed 1248),
and Reims. The windows were enlarged, not to lighten the interiors, but rather for
extensive use of stained glass, which attained the height of its development in the late
12th and 13th centuries at Chartres and the Sainte-Chapelle.


Both the exteriors of these churches and certain interior elements were decorated with
elaborate sculpture. Facades were populated with large figures of kings; portals were
flanked by pillar-statues, called jamb figures, of saints, angels, and apostles; and other
parts of the building were encrusted with decorative cusps, finials, and grotesque
gargoyles. Gothic sculptors took a revolutionary step beyond their Romanesque
predecessors in their conception of the figures as independent, almost free-standing
statues rather than as reliefs. From the columnar verticality of the jamb statues at
Chartres, Gothic sculpture evolved quickly toward the sympathetic depiction of character
in the figures at Reims (c.1224-45). Gothic sculpture became more sophisticated in the
ensuing centuries. One of the finest 14th-century creations is the refined and mannered
figure of the Virgin that stands in the south transept of Notre Dame de Paris.


The Italian Renaissance began to influence French art in the last decade of the 15th
century, when Charles VIII returned (1496) from his conquest of Naples accompanied by
several Italian artists. Italian styles first appeared in the chateaux of the Loire Valley and
became predominant during the reign (1515-47) of Francis I. Initially, however, Italian
decorative elements were superimposed on Gothic principles. The earliest example is the
Chateau d'Amboise (c.1495), where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years. The Chateau
de Chambord (1519-36) is a more elaborate marriage of Gothic structure and Italianate
ornament. This style progressed in the work of Italian architects such as Sebastiano
Serlio, who was engaged after 1540 in much of the work at the Chateau de

At Fontainebleau grand interior galleries and ballrooms were decorated by Italian artists
who formed the first school of Fontainebleau. The principal figures of this school were
Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Niccolo dell' Abbate (1512-c.1570). The
art of engraving was also developed in France by foreign artists who helped disseminate
the Italianate style.

The climate of active royal and aristocratic patronage encouraged many talented artists
and architects, including Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c.1520-1585), Philibert Delorme,
(c.1510-70), Giacomo Vignola, and Pierre Lescot. One of the finest surviving monuments
of the French Renaissance is the southwest interior facade of the Cour Carree of the
Palais du Louvre in Paris, designed by Lescot and covered with exterior carvings by Jean
Goujon. Strong regional schools appeared in Lorraine as the arts continued to flourish
under the reigns of Henry II and Henry III.

"Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth."

George Sand (1804-76), French novelist.


The reign of Henry IV (1589-1610) was a period of competent and enlightened

government. The king's marriage to Marie de Medici of the ruling house of Florence
helped to ensure high esteem for Italian artistic accomplishments. The Place des Vosges
(1605), then called the Place Royale, and the Place Dauphine (1607) were planned and
built. In Paris a second generation of artists--called the second school of Fontainebleau--
were trained or inspired by Italian painters to perpetuate the Italianate tradition under the
patronage of Henry IV.

In the second and third quarters of the century, during the ministries of Cardinal
Richelieu to Louis XIII and of Cardinal Mazarin to the child-king Louis XIV, France
became a great European power. These sage men required prestigious dwellings suited to
their station. The architects Jacques Lemercier--builder of Richelieu's Palais Cardinal
(begun 1633), now site of the the Palais Royale, and of the Church of the Sorbonne
(begun 1635)--Francois Mansart and Louis Le Vau adapted the Italian baroque style to
French needs.

During the personal reign of Louis XIV (1661-1715) the arts served the state under the
direction of the powerful minister of commerce and of royal works, Jean Baptiste
Colbert. The Louvre was enlarged, and the magnificent palace of Versailles (c.1669-90)
was built as a fitting residence for the powerful king of France. The leading architect of
the latter half of the 17th century was Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who designed parts of the
palace of Versailles, the Orangerie, and numerous squares and public buildings in Paris.


Italy played a fundamental role in the redirection of French painting in the 17th century.
Some French artists, notably Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, created new modes of
painting while living in Italy. Other artists, such as Simon Vouet, fostered a native French
baroque style. Colbert founded the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1663) to
protect this group of artists and enlist their services for the state. Charles Le Brun was
named first painter to the king and guided the academy. Under his leadership, artists
celebrated the triumphs of the Sun King. Their work included mural paintings,
altarpieces, tapestry cartoons, and other large-scale narrative works associating Louis
XIV and his reign with great men and events from classical literature. The same was true
in sculpture--monumental figures of the king or large-scale structures were needed to
ornament public squares and formal gardens.

Recognizing that Italy was the great school of both classical and Renaissance art, Colbert
founded the French Academy in Rome in 1666, to which gifted French artists and
architects were sent at the expense of the crown.


On the death of Louis XIV in 1715, his 5-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV, became
king. The realm was guided until 1723 by a regent, Louis XIV's nephew Philippe
d'Orleans. During the regency, the single-minded direction given the arts by Louis XIV
was relaxed in favor of individualism and personal indulgence.

Painting and Sculpture

During the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and the first half of the 18th century, the
French became enamored of the small genre subjects of 17th-century Holland and of the
more lighthearted, mythological scenes of the Italian baroque. In French hands, these
subjects gave new definition to social refinement and luxury. Decorative arts and interior
design were transformed by the growing popularity of the rococo style, a light-hearted
and elegant style based on asymmetrical natural forms.

While the academies continued to pay lip service to the grandeur of the age of Louis
XIV, public attention shifted from the courtly taste set at Versailles to the fashion set by
the nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie in their private Parisian residences, called hotels.
Here literate free-thinking tastes led to a delightful style of painting and sculpture rich in
decorative effect and expressive of human sentiment. This new spirit received its finest
expression in the brilliant work of the Flemish painter Antoine Watteau, whose scenes of
revelers in contemporary dress, inhabiting a mythological realm of pleasure, changed the
direction of private patronage in France. Artists such as Francois Boucher were inspired
by the subject matter and technical brilliance of Watteau to create ravishing combinations
of color and graceful forms. This development was encouraged by the court of Louis XV,
who adopted the taste of Paris as his courtly style in the second quarter of the 18th

In the third quarter of the 18th century, an effort was made by members of the Royal
Academy and Arts administration, notably the Marquis de Marigny (1727-81), director of
Royal Works, to revive the disciplined and elevated goals of art established in the 17th
century by Louis XIV and his minister Colbert. The demand for a didactic, grand style
led to the emergence in the last quarter of the century of a generation of artists devoted to
high principles of art and the service of the state. Most famous of these was the painter
Jacques Louis David, pioneer of a pure classicizing style based on that of Poussin. A
wide divergence existed between the didactic art of David and the courtly taste of Louis
XV and his grandson, Louis XVI, who preferred artists such as Jean Honore Fragonard
and Hubert Robert. Consequently, a healthy variety characterized the art of late-18th-
century France. With the radical change of political and social structure that came with
the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon I, the didactic art of David found a new
outlet never anticipated by his royal sponsors.


French architecture of the 18th century continued the classicizing tendencies of the 17th
century in France with greater reserve and refinement, using classical motifs in a late
baroque style. Restrained ornament, delicate carved limestone details, and the
sophisticated play of volume and lighting give the domestic and public architecture of the
period a sense of calm grandeur. Among the architectural gems of the reign of Louis XV
is the Petit Trianon (1762) by Ange Jacques Gabriel, a leisure retreat in the park at
Versailles. The regular and sedate proportions of the nearly cubic Petit Trianon never
become ponderous or dull, so refined are the rhythms of the surface ornamentation,
arrangement of windows, and crowning balustrade.

Late-18th-century architecture was affected by a neoclassical revival comparable to that

in painting, and quoted architectural usages of the past with archaeological correctness.
Neoclassicism was particularly well suited to monumental buildings, such as Jacques
Germain Soufflot's Sainte-Genevieve, now called the Pantheon, in Paris.

The 18th century interest in sentiment and emotion led to an interest in extremes of
sensibility in the romantic art of the following century.


The greatest practitioners of romantic painting in France were Theodore Gericault,

Eugène Delacroix, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Gericault's Raft of the Medusa
(1818-19; Louvre, Paris), a depiction of the victims of a shipwreck, exposed the full
range of human emotions from despair to exhilaration. Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus
(1827; Louvre) explored the potential of color and vibrant brushwork as a means of
heightening the sensations aroused by a dramatic narrative episode. In harem scenes such
as The Great Odalisque (1814; Louvre) Ingres reflects 19th-century European fascination
with the life of the senses and exotic foreign cultures.

By the mid-19th century the self-indulgence of romanticism was tempered by the

changing relationship of the artist to the subject matter. Gustave Courbet insisted that his
painting owed no debt to any school or style and that art should offer detached
observations of unidealized reality. Courbet's paintings of peasants, such as Funeral at
Ornans (1850; Louvre), caused a scandal at that time, but his powerful depiction of nature
found other exponents in Jean Francois Millet and Honore Daumier.

An outgrowth of realism was a new conception of art as an activity that was worthwhile
for its own sake regardless of its subject matter or allegiance to institutional values. This
attitude was a necessary precondition for the emergence of impressionism, a movement
in painting that concentrated on the effects of light and color. The favored subjects of
Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, were coastal and river
scenes in which light dissolves form and softens focus. The loosely associated
impressionist group also included Edgar Degas, whose interior scenes challenged
conventional theories of formal composition and subject matter.

Postimpressionism, a general term for the work of such painters as Paul Cezanne, Paul
Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Pierre Bonnard, evolved in reaction to
the neutrality of subject matter and dissolution of form inherent in impressionism. These
artists had few qualities in common, but their individual styles did much to determine the
directions that painting would take in the 20th century.


In sculpture, the 19th century tended to be conservative. The romantic sculpture of

Francois Rude, Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, and Antoine Louis Barye stands out. Auguste
Rodin revitalized sculpture by returning to the direct study of the human form. Rodin's
portrayal of physical and emotional stress led to a fresh appreciation of the Renaissance
masters Michelangelo and Donatello and exercised a profound influence on 20th-century

In architecture, the neoclassicism of the late 18th century was perpetuated by

monumental forms serving the political ambitions of the Second Empire (1852-70) of
Napoleon III. Later, an eclectic style based on both classical and baroque architecture
emerged in the work of architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Beaux-Arts
buildings such as Jean Louis Charles Garnier's spectacular Paris Opera (1861-75) played
an important role in Baron Haussmann's modernization of the city during the Second
Empire. Properties of new industrial materials and construction techniques were
investigated by such pioneers as Henri Labrouste and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose
Eiffel Tower (1889) has become a symbol of Paris.

"When I am finishing a picture I hold some God-made object up to it -- a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree
or my hand -- as a kind of final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is
authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it is bad art."

Marc Chagall (1889-1985), French artist.


Painting and Sculpture

In the early 20th century Paris was the center of the art world, but art in France--not
French art--must be considered when describing the international influence of the
Parisian avant-garde, because many expatriate artists worked in the city. The course of
20th-century art was shaped from Paris by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, the Russian
Wassily Kandinsky, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, and many lesser figures. The
history of 20th-century expressionist art descends from van Gogh and other post-
impressionists through the Fauve group that formed around Henri Matisse, one of the
most influential French artists of the 20th century. Picasso and Georges Braque changed
the direction of painting through their cubist experiments with the pictorial values of
composition, color, and form. The last influential Parisian artistic movement was
surrealism, a literary and artistic movement devoted to the exploration of irrational and
subconscious states of mind.


In architecture, France was at the forefront of the creation of a new 20th-century

aesthetic. At the turn of the century, the experiments of Art Nouveau led to the creation
of graceful decorative motifs based on natural forms. The Swiss-French architect Charles
Edouard Jeanneret, called Le Corbusier, pioneered a philosophy of functionalism in
architecture that can be summarized by this famous dictum: "Buildings are machines to
live in." The theory and practices of Le Corbusier, reinforced by those of the Bauhaus, in
Germany, became the fundamental principles of the International Style, typified by Le
Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1929-31; Poissy-sur-Seine).
Major achievements of French art since World War II include the paintings of Jean
Dubuffet, and the Hungarian-born Victor Vasarely, the brilliantly colored paper cutouts
of Matisse, and Le Corbusier's Pilgrim Church of Notre Dame at Ronchamp (1950-55).