The French Art Revolution

By Marcus Smith

In the middle of the 19th century fine paintings of noblemen and dramatic historical events were bought by the wealthy to decorate their homes and demonstrate how rich and important they were. Paintings were all done in a certain, formal way – trying to paint the subject as accurately and in as much detail as possible. But a revolution was coming.

This classical form of art had become boring, and was never seen by 99% of the population. It lacked excitement and interest. Three important developments took place to turn this situation around.

The first break with tradition was due to a painter called Delacroix. He rejected the formal teachings of the Academy of Art, and painted subjects simply because he liked them. This was radical! He liked to capture movement and excitement in his works, rather than spending time on getting every precise shadow in the right place.

Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre) by Delacroix

Looking back now, the paintings of Delacroix don’t seem revolutionary, but at the time they were breaking with 200 years of tradition in painting. His startling ideas were followed by other artists such as Courbet, who was outspoken in saying that he would paint what he wanted, not what others said he should paint.

The next revolution in art came with a pupil of Courbet called Manet. With a group of like minded painters, including Pissaro, Monet and Renoir, this group came to be known as the Impressionists. The term, interestingly, was originally a term of abuse used against the painters.

Using methods that were seen as shocking at the time, they used broad brushstrokes and dabs of paint to capture a scene. They were interested in the way light played on the objects being painted, believing that was how we really saw a scene, and how we remembered it afterwards, so that was what needed to be painted.

The third part of the transformation came with the artists who followed the impressionists. These included Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne, all now household names. They each worked relentlessly, yet usually alone, to devise a new approach to painting that had the impressionist’s ability to capture a scene, but also had more expressiveness than the rather pale, tranquil scenes that the impressionists painted. They succeeded in ways that painters of earlier generations could never have imagined.

Earlier lessons teaching the importance of shadows, detail and perspective were cast aside in an effort to make the painting capture the scene in a more interesting, emotional way. Large flat areas of colour were used when appropriate. Any subject matter could now be painted, including for example peasants, flowers and furniture, none of which had been considered suitable for painting 50 years earlier.

By discarding these lessons and rethinking what art was actually for, these painters transformed the world of art, and by the end of the 19th century the world of art had changed forever. The old-school of classical painters had been largely discredited, and paintings had become important in their own right, rather than simply representing their subject as accurately as possible. The scene had been set for all the developments in modern art of the 20th century, starting with a young Spanish painter called Picasso.

The author lives and works in France, and runs the website for those interested in France and all things French. Read more about the history of French art at

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