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.
Outstanding examples include: the Cathédrale de Chartres (1194-1220), which is a day trip from Paris and boasts magnificent sculpture and some of the best stained glass in Europe; the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (1163-1250), whose Gothic high points are the sculpture on the facade, an interior choir screen lined with deep-relief carvings, and three rose windows filled with stained glass; and the tiny chapel of Sainte-Chapelle (1240-48), adorned with the finest stained glass in the world.
The Renaissance (1400-1600)
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.
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 Médici, also collected 16th-century Italian masterpieces.
The Baroque (1600-1800)
At first reaffirming Renaissance spirituality, the true baroque later exploded into 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, who created mythological scenes; Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who indulged in the wild, untamed complexity of the rococo; François Boucher (1703-70), Louis XV's rococo court painter; and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Boucher's student and the master of rococo.
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; and 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 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), 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.