France's art treasures range from medieval stained glass and Ingres portraits to Monet's Impressionist Water Lilies; its architecture encompasses Roman ruins and Gothic cathedrals as well as Renaissance châteaux and postmodern buildings like the Centre Pompidou. This brief overview will help you make sense of it all.
Prehistoric, Celtic & Classical (25,000 B.C.-A.D. 500)
After England's Stonehenge, Europe's most famous prehistoric remains are France's Paleolithic cave paintings. Created 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, they depict mostly hunting scenes and abstract shapes.
The caves at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art, have been closed since 1963, but experts have created a replica, Lascaux II. To see the real stuff, visit Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, which boasts four caves (Font de Gaume is the best). In the neighboring Lot Valley, outside Cahors, is the Grotte du Pech-Merle, with France's oldest cave art (about 20,000 years old). Little remains of the art of Celtic (ca. 1000 B.C.-A.D. 125) and Roman (A.D. 125-500) Gaul. Surviving items -- small votive bronzes, statues, jewelry, and engraved weapons and tools -- are spread across France's archaeology museums. Burgundy preserves the most of Celtic Gaul, including sites at Dijon, Châtillon-sur-Seine, Alise-Ste-Reine, and Auxerre. To see artifacts of Roman Gaul, visit the southern towns of Nîmes, Arles, Orange, St-Rémy-de-Provence, and Vienne.
Artistic expression in medieval France was largely church-related. Because Mass was in Latin, images were used to communicate the Bible's lessons to the mostly illiterate people. Bas-reliefs (sculptures that project slightly from a flat surface) were used to illustrate key tales that inspired faith in God and fear of sin (the Last Judgment was a favorite). These reliefs were wrapped around column capitals and fitted into the tympanums, or arched spaces above doorways (the complete door, tympanum, arch, and supporting pillars assemblage is the portal).
The best examples of Romanesque art include a Last Judgment tympanum by Gislebertus at St-Lazare in Autun; 76 Romanesque cloister capitals and one of France's best-carved 11th-century portals at St-Pierre Abbey in Moissac near Montauban; and the tympanum over the inner main portal of huge Ste-Madeleine in Vézelay. The Bayeux Tapestry (1066-1077) is the most notable example of Romanesque artistry, 69m (230 ft.) of embroidered linen telling the story of William the Conqueror's defeat of the English.
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.
Outstanding examples include the Cathédrale de Chartres (1194-1220), a day trip from Paris, boasting magnificent sculpture and some of the best stained glass in Europe; the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (1163-1250), with sculpture on the facade, an interior choir screen lined with deep-relief carvings, and three rose windows filled with stained glass; and Sainte-Chapelle (1240-50), a tiny chapel adorned with the finest stained glass in the world.
The Renaissance & Baroque (1450-1800)
Humanist thinkers rediscovered the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome, while artists strove for naturalism, using newly developed techniques like linear perspective. The French had little to do with this movement, which started in Italy and was picked up only in Germany and the Low Countries. However, many Renaissance treasures are in French museums, thanks to collectors such as François I.
Not until the 17th-century baroque did a few French masters emerge. This period is hard to pin down. In some ways a result of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, it reaffirmed 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 chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark) of the Italian painter Caravaggio.
Paris's Louvre abounds with Renaissance works by Italian, Flemish, and German masters, including Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-05), perhaps the world's most famous painting, hangs there. Great baroque and rococo artists include Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), a rococo painter of colorful, theatrical works; and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), a master of rococo pastel scenes, including the 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. This gave rise to a neoclassical artistic style that emphasized symmetry, austerity, clean lines, and classical themes.
The romantics, on the other hand, felt that 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 the nobility of peasantry.
Some great artists and movements of the era, all with examples in the Louvre, include Jean Ingres (1780-1867), who became a defender of the neoclassicists and the Royal French Academy and opposed the romantics; Theodore Géricault (1791-1824), one of the great early romantics, who painted The Raft of the Medusa (1819), which served as a model for the movement; Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), whose Liberty Leading the People (1830) was painted in the romantic style.
Seeking to capture the impression (light made as it reflected off objects), the Impressionists adopted a free, open style; deceptively loose compositions; swift, visible brushwork; and often light colors. For subject matter, they turned to landscapes and scenes of modern life. You'll find some of the best examples of their works in the Musée d'Orsay.
Impressionist greats include Edouard Manet (1832-83), whose groundbreaking Picnic on the Grass (1863) and Olympia (1863) helped inspire the movement with their harsh realism, visible brushstrokes, and thick outlines; Claude Monet (1840-1926), who launched the movement officially in an 1874 exhibition in which he exhibited his Turner-inspired Impression, Sunrise (1874), now in the Musée Marmottan; Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), known for his figures' ivory skin and chubby pink cheeks; Edgar Degas (1834-1917), an accomplished painter, sculptor, and draftsman -- his pastels of dancers and bathers are particularly memorable; and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the greatest Impressionist-era sculptor, who crafted remarkably expressive bronzes. The Musée Rodin, his former Paris studio, contains, among other works, his Burghers of Calais (1886), The Kiss (1886-98), and The Thinker (1880).
The smaller movements or styles of Impressionism are usually lumped together as "post-Impressionism." Again, you'll find the best examples of these 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), who adopted the short brushstrokes, love of landscape, and light color palette of his Impressionist friends; Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who developed synthetism (black outlines around solid colors); Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), who created paintings and posters of wispy, fluid lines anticipating Art Nouveau and often depicting the bohemian life of Paris's dance halls and cafes; Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), who combined divisionism, synthetism, and a touch of Japanese influence, and painted with thick, short strokes; Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who created fauvism (a critic described those who used the style as fauves, meaning "wild beasts"); and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a Málaga-born artist who painted objects from all points of view at once, rather than using such optical tricks as perspective to fool viewers into seeing three dimensions. The fractured result was cubism. You can see art from all of his periods at the Musée Picasso in the Marais.
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