The History of French Art – Part 2

Our first part of the history of French art looked at how important the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was in teaching and exhibiting art in the mid-16th Century. At first this was purely a royal art commission until it moved out of the French Court to the Louvre.

This blog features the period of French Romanticism which was developing around the same time as Neoclassicism.


Romanticism was really born out of French literature, it took a far more emotional and intimate line about the subject matter and was more interested in the time of the day and people than the classical view that Neoclassicism had.

The subject matter were personal scenes, nature and faraway lands depicted in a romantic and personal way. One of the great Romantic artists at the time was Theodore Gericault and his classic painting, The Raft of the Medusa which he painted in 1819, is one of the most famous paintings of the Romantic era. It depicts a tragic shipwreck, but it was the political meaning behind the scene that was shocking at the time, as there was much talk of the monarchy being reinstated.

Another artist that was celebrated at the time was, who took Neoclassic subject matter but put his own emotional stamp over it, mostly by the use of vibrant colors. His work often had reference to Asia and the east, perhaps he was influenced by France’s colonial activities of the time. His work often portrayed busy marketplaces or exotic people and animals.

Delacroix was responsible for painting perhaps the most iconic French image of all time, La Liberte guidant le peuple. It is a scene from the French Revolution where Liberty is emerging through all the fallen bodies triumphant holding the French tri-color.


The Revolution in France changed attitudes of people and artists, a desire for equality began to influence artists work. It changed art at the time from grand classical themes and romantic ideals and focused on the working class and everyday life of the common man in France.

Scenes depicting farm workers, or people at bustling markets and overcrowded streets were the order of the day. A highly important artist at the time was Gustave Courbet, who believed the ideals of the Revolution and his paintings showed the poverty and degradation that was prevalent in France at the time.

He tackled taboo themes and his views on sexuality were radical as seen in The Origin of the World his painting of a nude which graphically and in detail showed the vagina. One of Courbet’s contemporaries was Rodin, and he pushed the boundaries in sculpture that mirrored Courbet’s paintings.

The Origin of the World

He worked in bronze and sculpted in a highly realistic style, his mythical beasts and human forms were in full motion and alive. Centaurs and goddesses were inspired from classical mythology but his work was modern and had his own individual slant on things.

We leave Realism for the time being and in the third edition of the history of French art we move to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the late 19th Century.