Art is a vital part of any culture, often reflecting important symbols, philosophies, and events. French culture is no different, having produced many famous pieces of art and been home to many famous artists. The French cultural diaspora has been home to many modern art movements, including Dadaism (see the blog on Switzerland for a short introduction) and the Impressionist movement. France has had a long history of artistry. History often serves as a source of art inspiration, particularly during wars. Propaganda art during the World Wars and reflectionary art following the French Revolution are two examples of art that demonstrate history serving as the inspiration for art. The propaganda piece, depicted below, depicts a French man strangling an eagle, the sign of the Germans in WWII. This art served a distinct purpose in France, intending to boost troop morale.
Not all French art was military-based throughout history, though. Quite the contrary, in fact. One of the most remembered French paintings is Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. This painting, shown to the right, is one of the most influential in the Impressionist movement. The Impressionist movement was a modern art movement created and perfected by Parisian artists, some of whom often painted the countryside. The movement focused on the use of light to define a moment. Impressionist painting also introduced an array of colors into paintings, seeking to illustrate life as they saw it around the world while using brushstrokes purposefully blurred the image. Impressionist paintings diffused widely into the world, though they remained mostly contained to Western Europe and the US.
Claude Oscar Monet is widely considered the father of the Impressionist movement. Monet was a man of poor background, having been raised in a scene of poverty from a young age. In his younger years, he was known locally (in Paris and Normandy in particular) for his charcoal caricatures, exaggerated pictures of often human subjects. He developed his artistic capabilities under the mentorship of Eugène Boudin, who taught Monet how to use oil paints and the technique of “en plein air” (in plain air). The “en plein air” technique relates to painting open-air environments using realistic qualities. Monet’s tragic life story began shortly after his mother died in 1857, which catapulted his fairly nomadic life into gear. At this point Monet settled into his life in Paris.
In 1861, Monet joined the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry in Algeria, while living in Paris. He was nearly immediately contracted out of the Regiment and agreed to take a position in an Art School. Here Monet met many of his fellow Impressionist artists. He became a student of Charles Gleyre and developed new styles to approach art, including the introduction of rapid brushstrokes and bright, realistic colors. One of Monet’s first paintings of this style was La Femme à la Robe Verte (The Woman in the Green Dress), which was among the first, of many, to feature his wife. Monet painted this piece just before he attempted to commit suicide for financial reasons following the birth of his first son in 1868.
Monet later took refuge in England during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). It was during his stay in England that introduced him to English artists and inspired his more expressive use of color in his works. Following this, Monet went on a brief tour of Europe, creating over 25 paintings over a few years. He returned to France in 1871 to live on the banks of the Seine River. Monet painted his first Impressionist painting around 1872. This painting was called Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise), and featured short, choppy brushstrokes with a plethora of colors. Following this, there were a series of Impressionist paintings that sought to depict the French countryside. These were the paintings that brought Monet to fame. He then went on an adventure to paint a series of paintings, including a series of Weeping Willows in WWI to pay homage to the fallen soldiers.
Monet’s Impressionist Style is widely considered the inspiration for the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, one of the most famous Impressionist painters of the period. Like Monet, Renoir focused on light, colorful, realistic scenes; Renoir focused on depictions of social gatherings and the French countryside. However, it was not those paintings that made him famous. Instead, it was his depictions of children, flowers, and women. These paintings focused on the essential Impressionist features, including choppy brush strokes for emphasis and an array of colors. Renoir was perhaps one of the most productive artists, painting thousands of pieces throughout his lifetime. But Renoir’s lasting importance was his influence on Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh puts the Impressionist style into the perspective of modern art styles in Western Europe. French artists and culture influenced Van Gogh’s painting, despite Van Gogh not being French. Van Gogh used many aspects of Realism of the Impressionist movement. Although Realism was a separate movement, the style seemed to blur with Impressionism at many points. Van Gogh did not start with Impressionist paintings, though. In fact, at a young age, Van Gogh began in black-and-white pencil drawings as he believed mastery lied in focusing on the basics. Van Gogh began his journey into color in 1881, during a study with Anton Mauve, serving as Van Gogh’s introduction to color. For much of these early color paintings, their earthy tones characterized Van Gogh’s paintings.
This experience was the backdrop of Van Gogh’s movement into Impressionist styles after his visit to Paris. Van Gogh did not simply copy the Impressionist paintings. Instead, Van Gogh drew on another style as well, called the pointillist technique. This was the beginning of Van Gogh’s personal style, which mixed color and clean brushstrokes with points of light and realism techniques. This style was both unique to Van Gogh and inspired future art movements in the modern era of art, such as Post-Impressionist art. In his final days, Van Gogh took pride in this style of painting and was perhaps the most productive during this time. It was in this period Van Gogh took on a blue-green color spectrum and a curvature system to suggest movement in the painting. This was a transition from Impressionism into Post-Impressionism. Wheatfield of Crows is believed to be the last work of Vincent Van Gogh, ending his long reign over beautiful artwork.
Overall, France has served as one hub for artistic innovation and creation, serving as the home for many of the world’s most influential artists and creating perhaps the largest movements in modern art, including Impressionism. From the war-based propaganda to the brilliant and beautiful paintings of artists such as Monet and Van Gogh, France has helped shape global art trends, and will likely continue to do so.