Gothic (1100-1400)

Almost all artistic expression in medieval France was church-related. Paris retains almost no art from the Classical or Romanesque eras, but much remains from the medieval Gothic era, when artists created sculpture and stained glass for churches.

Because Mass was in Latin, many images were used to communicate the Bible's most important lessons to the mostly illiterate populace. Bas reliefs (sculpture that projects slightly from a flat surface) were used to illustrate key tales that inspired faith in God and fear of sin (last judgments were favorites). These reliefs were wrapped around column capitals, festooned onto facades, and fitted into the tympanum (the arched spaces above doorways; the complete door, tympanum, arch, and supporting pillars assemblage is the portal).

The French were also becoming masters of stained glass. Many painterly conventions began in this era on windowpanes, or as elaborate doodles in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, which developed into altarpieces of the colorful International Gothic style.

In both Gothic painting and sculpture, figures tend to be highly stylized, flowing, and rhythmic. The figures' features and gestures are exaggerated for symbolic or emotional emphasis.

Outstanding examples include:

·                     Cathédrale de Chartres (1194-1220). A day trip from Paris, Cathédrale de Chartres boasts magnificent sculpture and some of the best stained glass in Europe.

·                     Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (1163-1250). The Gothic high points of this cathedral are the sculpture on the facade, an interior choir screen lined with deep-relief carvings, and three rose windows filled with stained glass.

·                     Sainte-Chapelle (1240-50). The finest stained glass in the world adorns this tiny chapel.

·                     The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries (1499-1514). These famed tapestries shine brightly as a final statement of medieval sensibilities while borrowing some burgeoning Renaissance conventions. Find them in the Musée de Cluny.

The Renaissance (1400-1600)

Renaissance means "rebirth," in this case the return of classical ideals originating in Greece and Rome. Humanist thinkers rediscovered the wisdom of the ancients, while artists strove for greater naturalism, using newly developed techniques such as linear perspective to achieve new heights of realism. Famous practitioners of the style include Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Mannerism, the late 16th-century branch of the High Renaissance, took Michelangelo's bright color palate and twisting figures to extremes and exhausted the movement.

Aside from collecting Italian art, the French had little to do with the Renaissance, which started in Italy and was quickly picked up in Germany and the Low Countries. France owes many of its early Renaissance treasures to François I, who imported art (paintings by Raphael and Titian) and artists (Leonardo da Vinci). Henri II's Florentine wife, Catherine de Médicis, also collected 16th-century Italian masterpieces.

Significant artists and examples to look for in Paris include:

·                     Italian Artists. Many works by Italy's finest reside in the Louvre, including paintings by Giotto, Fra' Angelico, and Veronese; sculptures by Michelangelo; and a handful of works by Leonardo da Vinci, who moved to a Loire Valley château for the last 3 years of his life and whose Mona Lisa (1503-05), perhaps the world's most famous painting, hangs here.

·                     The School of Fontainebleau. This group of artists working on the Palais de Fontainebleau outside Paris from 1530 to 1560 were imported Italian mannerists who combined painting, stucco, sculpture, and woodwork to decorate the château's Galerie François I. They included Niccolò dell'Abbate, Benvenuto Cellini, Primaticcio, and Rosso Fiorentino. (If you don't make it out to Fontainebleau, check out Cellini's sculpture Diana of Fontainebleau [1543-44] in the Louvre.)

The Baroque (1600-1800)

The 17th-century baroque style is hard to pin down. In some ways it was a result of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, reaffirming spirituality in a simplified, monumental, and religious version of Renaissance ideals. In other ways it delved even deeper into classical modes and a kind of super-realism based on using peasants as models and the exaggerated chiaroscuro (interplay or contrast of light and dark) of Italian painter Caravaggio.

Some view those two movements as extensions of Renaissance experiments, and find the true baroque in later compositions -- all explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures -- that are well balanced, but in such cluttered abundance as to appear untamed. Rococo is this later baroque art gone awry, frothy, and chaotic.

Significant practitioners of the baroque with examples in the Louvre include:

·                     Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The most classical French painter, Poussin created mythological scenes that presaged the Romantic Movement. His balance and predilection to paint from nature influenced French Impressionists such as Cézanne.

·                     Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Watteau indulged in the wild, untamed complexity of the rococo. Cruise the Louvre for his colorful, theatrical works. He began the short-lived fête galante style that featured china-doll figures against stylized landscapes of woodlands or ballrooms.

·                     François Boucher (1703-70). Louis XV's rococo court painter, Boucher studied Watteau and produced lots of decorative landscapes and genre works.

·                     Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Boucher's student and the master of rococo, Fragonard painted an overindulgence of pink-cheeked, genteel lovers frolicking against billowing treescapes. The Louvre hangs his famous The Bathers.

Neoclassical & Romantic (1770-1890)

As the baroque got excessive, the rococo got cute, and the somber Counter-Reformation got serious about the limits on religious art, several artists looked for relief to the ancients. Viewing new excavations of Greek and Roman sites (Pompeii and Paestum) and statuary became integral parts of the Grand Tour through Italy, while the Enlightenment (and growing Revolutionary) interest in Greek democracy beat an intellectual path to the distant past. This gave rise to a neoclassical artistic style that emphasized symmetry, austerity, clean lines, and classical themes, such as depictions of events from history or mythology.

The romantics, on the other hand, felt both the ancients and the Renaissance had gotten it wrong and that the Middle Ages was the place to be. They idealized romantic tales of chivalry and held a deep respect for nature, human rights, and the nobility of peasantry, and a suspicion of progress. Their paintings were heroic, historic, and (melo)dramatic, and quested for beauty.

Some great artists and movements of the era, all with examples in the Louvre, include:

·                     Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). David dropped the baroque after a year of study in Rome exposed him to neoclassicism, which he brought back to Paris and displayed in such paintings as The Oath of the Horatii (1784) and Coronation of Napoléon and Josephine (1805-08).

·                     Jean Ingres (1780-1867). Trained with David, Ingres become a defender of the neoclassicists and the Royal French Academy, and opposed the romantics. His Grand Odalisque (1814) hangs in the Louvre.

·                     Theodore Géricault (1791-1824). One of the great early romantics, Géricault produced the large, dramatic history painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819), which served as a model for the movement.

·                     Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). His Liberty Leading the People (1830) was painted in the romantic style, but the artist was also experimenting with color and brushstroke.

·                     The Barbizon School. This school of landscape painters, founded in the 1830s by Théodore Rousseau (1812-67), painted directly from nature at Barbizon near Paris. Jean François Millet (1814-75) preferred classical scenes and local peasants; his works are at the Musée d'Orsay. Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875), the third Barbizon great, was a sort of idealistic proto-Impressionist.

Impressionism (1870-1920)

Formal, rigid neoclassicism and idealized romanticism rankled some late 19th-century artists interested in painting directly from nature. Seeking to capture the impression light made reflecting off objects, they adopted a free, open style; deceptively loose compositions; swift, visible brushwork; and often light colors. For subject matter, they turned away from the classical themes of previous styles to landscapes and scenes of modern life. Unless specified below, you'll find some of the best examples of their works in the Musée d'Orsay.

Impressionist greats include:

·                     Edouard Manet (1832-83). His groundbreaking Picnic on the Grass (1863) and Olympia (1863) weren't Impressionism proper, but they helped inspire the movement with their harsh realism, visible brushstrokes, and thick outlines.

·                     Claude Monet (1840-1926). The Impressionist movement officially began with an 1874 exhibition in which Monet exhibited his loose, Turner-inspired Impression, Sunrise (1874), now in the Musée Marmottan, which one critic picked to lambaste the whole exhibition, deriding it all as "Impressionist." Far from being insulted, the antiestablishment artists in the show adopted the word for their exhibits, held through the 1880s.

·                     Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Originally, Renoir was a porcelain painter, which helps explain his figures' ivory skin and chubby pink cheeks.

·                     Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas was an accomplished painter, sculptor, and draughtsman -- his pastels of dancers and bathers are particularly memorable.

·                     Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The greatest Impressionist-era sculptor, Rodin crafted remarkably expressive bronzes, refusing to idealize the human figure as had his neoclassical predecessors. The Musée Rodin, his former Paris studio, contains, among other works, his Burghers of Calais (1886), The Kiss (1886-98), and The Thinker (1880).

Post-Impressionism (1880-1930)

Few experimental French artists of the late 19th century were technically Impressionists, though many were friends with those in the movement. The smaller movements or styles are usually lumped together as "post-Impressionist."

Again, you'll find the best examples of their works at the Musée d'Orsay, though you'll find pieces by Matisse, Chagall, and the cubists, including Picasso, in the Centre Pompidou. Important post-Impressionists include:

·                     Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). He adopted the short brushstrokes, love of landscape, and light color palate of his Impressionist friends, but Cézanne was more formal and deliberate in his style. He sought to give his art monumentality and permanence, even if the subjects were simple still lifes, portraits, or landscapes.

·                     Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Gauguin could never settle himself or his work, trying Brittany first, where he developed synthetism (black outlines around solid colors), and later hopping around the South Pacific, where he was inspired by local styles and colors.

·                     Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Signac (1863-1935), and Camille Jacob Pissarro (1830-1903). Together these artists developed divisionism and its more formal cousin, pointillism. Rather than mixing, say, yellow and blue paint together to make green, they applied tiny dots of yellow and blue right next to each other so that the viewer's eye mixes them together to make green.

·                     Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Most famous for his work with thinned-down oils, Toulouse-Lautrec created paintings and posters of wispy, fluid lines anticipating Art Nouveau and often depicting the bohemian life of Paris's dance halls and cafes. In Montmartre you can still visit the Moulin Rouge, the cabaret he immortalized on canvas.

·                     Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) spent most of his tortured artistic career in France. He combined divisionism, synthetism, and a touch of Japanese influence, and painted with thick, short strokes. Never particularly accepted by any artistic circle, he is the most popular painter in the world today (his paintings fetch record sums at auction, and he sells more postcards and posters than any other artist), even though he sold only one painting in his short life.

·                     Henri Matisse (1869-1954). He took a hint from synthetism and added wild colors and strong patterns to create fauvism (a critic described those who used the style as fauves, meaning "wild beasts"). Matisse continued exploring these themes, even when most artists were turning to cubism. When his health failed, he began assembling brightly colored collages of paper cutouts.

·                     Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Along with Georges Braque (1882-1963), this Barcelona-born artist painted objects from all points of view at once, rather than use optical tricks like perspective to fool viewers into seeing three dimensions. The fractured result was cubism and was expanded upon by the likes of Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and Juan Gris (1887-1927), while Picasso moved on to other styles. You can see all of his periods at the Musée Picasso in the Marais.