French Painting (c.1400-1900)
Origins in History
EVOLUTION OF VISUAL
French painting, like France itself, took time to develop. It all began with Medieval manuscript illumination, notably Romanesque illuminated manuscripts (c.1000-1150), Gothic illuminated manuscripts (c.1150-1350), and finally International Gothic illuminations. These book paintings, themselves influenced by Carolingian and Ottonian models as well as Byzantine art, went on to influence French Gothic painting (exemplified by the early 14th century workshop of Jean Pucelle) as well as the more courtly International Gothic style. Not long afterwards, the primitive school of Avignon produced one of the world's most moving paintings, the famous anonymous Avignon Pieta (c.1460), as well as the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity (1453-4) by Enguerrand de Charenton (Quarton) (c.1410-61), into which the artist has poured whole chapters of medieval imagery, enlivened and polished by a sophisticated French eye.
Contemporary with these Avignon artists, Jean Fouquet, born in Tours, educated in Paris, strongly influenced by Flemish painters and miniaturists, but familiar with the work of his Italian contemporaries, produced the most accomplished paintings of his generation: including masterpieces like the Portrait of Charles VII of France (c.1443-5) in the Louvre, and the exquisitely modern diptych known as the Melun Diptych (c.1452) now divided between the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp and the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin. Fouquet was no visionary. In his miniature portrait painting he was a passionately observant realist, an interpreter of the active life around him. His larger panel paintings contain some of the most robust and sympathetic examples of European portraiture.
Later, the French kings, especially Charles VIII (1470-98) and Francis I (1494-1547), were caught in the spell of the Italian Renaissance. Francis I induced Leonardo da Vinci to execute commissions for him in France and when he came to focus the whole of his ambition as a patron of the arts on the great Palace at Fontainebleau - for details, see Fontainebleau School (1528-1610) - he again imported a group of Italian artists to decorate it with mural painting and sculpture. Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570), and Nicolo dell'Abbate (1510-71) brought with them to France the restless and rather strained Mannerism that was their Italian heritage, but which was soon tempered by the Gallic spirit. Italian restlessness became French elegance; paganism became sophisticated. The school of Fontainebleau was short-lived but it has an undeniable charm, and it provided France with a pointer towards the stylishness of the following century.
In Italy, Mannerism formed an awkward link with baroque. In France it led naturally into rococo. Francis I, like his contemporary, Henry VIII (1491-1547) in England, believed in importing his artists. There were few enough native French Baroque artists active in France during the sixteenth century, and even in the seventeenth French art was dominated by Italian influence. In France itself the three Le Nain brothers (Antoine 1599-1648, Louis 1593-1648, Mathieu 1607-77), uninfluenced by the Italian magnet, painted powerful little pictures of peasant families, pictures whose sinister intimacy and pathos have no apparent connection with the worldliness of the seventeenth century. Their pictures, especially those by Louis, are painted with deep conviction but little pictorial science. It is difficult to imagine to what class of society their patrons belonged in that age of elegant worldliness. They reflect what current phraseology might call the underground movement behind the facade of Baroque painting. with its emotional drama, its trompe l'oeil effects and its religious fervour.
Of the French painters who felt the pull of the magnet one of the strangest was Georges de La Tour of Lorraine, an artist virtually forgotten until quite recently, but now rediscovered. At first sight de la Tour looks like an ardent disciple of Caravaggism who had exaggerated his master's chiaroscuro and other tenebrist tricks but failed to achieve his vivacity. It is certainly true that most of de la Tour's characteristic effects depend on his deliberate use of candlelight or torchlight: it is equally true that his figures have a wooden look, as though they were made of some hard material turned on a lathe. But these are merely the outward symptoms of a temperament that appeals particularly to the taste of today. What interested de la Tour was a dramatic simplicity of tone which candlelight not only produced but made credible: and when he took the further step of rigorously simplifying form, he was able to evolve a style that combined the advantages of startling realism and nearby astraction. Just as the school of Fontainebleau turned Italian mannerism into something chic and elegant, so did de la Tour add a new Gallic stylishness and refinement to the tenebrism of Caravaggio.
But the two French artists of the seventeenth century who were most susceptible to the magnetism of Italy - so much so, indeed, that they abandoned Paris for Rome - were Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine (Claude Gelee).
Poussin, like Raphael, had little of his own to contribute to painting. If the history of art is to be considered as a story of conquest, Poussin counts for nothing, for he made no new discovery. If on the other hand one regards it as a story of achievement he is important in the sense that Raphael is important, as a constructor, an architect of pictures. He would have been supremely happy in the late fifteenth century when all things Greek and Roman were tinged with a glamour that goaded artists to a frenzy of production. Poussin was born a hundred years too late. His painstaking, unemotional ingenuity of design has not even the spontaneity of Raphael. What Raphael did by his acute pictorial instinct Poussin did by an equally acute pictorial intellect. "I have neglected nothing" was his smug comment on himself. One can find no fault with his reconstructions of Arcady except that they are so deliberately contrived. The glamour of Greece has gone, and with it the fervour of the Renaissance. He is rather like an earnest young philanthropist who has inherited a fortune and is determined to use it only in the noblest of causes. The solidity of Florence, the glow of Venice, the enlarged vision of the Baroque masters were all at his disposal. He used them with infinite tact and discretion and devitalized them in doing so. Yet that devitalization had its compensations. The great artist is necessarily at the mercy of his own genius. In extreme cases a lack of self-discipline or of restraint may lead him into the pitfalls of over-emphasis and a resultant lack of formal coherence. No great artist has ever been unaware of this danger, for the power of art ultimately depends on the discovery of the exact formal equivalent for the artist's own creative urges, but not every great artist has escaped it. What distinguishes the classic artist from his fellows is his sense of the need for formal coherence and clarity, and no painter has ever possessed this sense more acutely than Poussin.
If proof were needed that dignity and clarity alone are not, in themselves, guarantees of greatness, one would only have to glance at Poussin's contemporary, Simon Vouet (1590-1649) who reduced dignity to suaveness and clarity to pedantry. As the founder of the official school of didactic painters under Richelieu's patronage, Vouet and his pupil and disciple Eustache le Sueur (1617-55), turned the theory of eclecticism into a chilly science. They attempted to persuade their patrons that an anthology of quotations from Raphael and Titian can pass as an original work of art. In so far as they succeeded it was because their patrons were themselves pedants: but they did not succeed entirely. They constituted a solid conservative body with strong official backing, but an unofficial opposition party soon became vocal. Endless debates on the relative merits of Poussin and Rubens, of form and colour took place in the French Academy. The debates themselves had, of course, no influence on the art of the time, but they provide evidence that classic theory in its extremest form had not captured the whole of seventeenth-century French taste.
That said, the influence of Vouet's successor, the painter and decorative artist Charles Le Brun (1619-90) was far greater, notably in the running of the French Academy - a body which had a monopoly of art education and public art exhibitions. Le Brun also made a name for himself as a painter through his wonderful murals at the Palace of Versailles - notably those on the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors.
For the golden age of decorative arts and interior design in France during the Baroque and rococo eras, see: French Decorative Art. For furnishings, notably those in the style of Louis Quatorze, Louis Quinze and Louis Seize, please see: French Furniture (1640-1792). For craftsmen, see: French Designers.
Poussin was not the only god. His contemporary,
Claude Lorrain, has some
but not all of the weaknesses that beset the self-consciously classic
painters of his day. He at least had the courage to love nature enough
to paint landscape for its own sake. It would be untrue to say that he
was the first to do so. Rubens had already seen possibilities in landscape
painting, but Rubens had the voracious eye and questing mind that could
see possibilities in almost anything. Claude, in concentrating on landscape,
took a step that was to have far-reaching consequences, though he himself
could not see what those consequences were to be. His own endeavour was
not so much to enter into nature's moods as to show that landscape could,
in itself, furnish material for a satisfying picture in the classical
manner. He took the hint provided by Giorgione's Tempest, emptied
it of figures, or else reduced the figures to mere accents of colour or
tone in the foreground, built up a framework by massing trees or buildings
at the sides and then concentrated all his skill on leading the eye inwards
through the centre of the picture into vast, light-laden distances. Claude
has not the courage to venture right into the heart of untouched nature.
For the purposes of painting, 17-century nature still has to be dominated
by man, with a ruined castle or a Corinthian temple to round off the unruly
corners, but one can guess from his drawings that in treating her so he
was merely following a convention. Those drawings never fail to evoke
the surprised comment, "But how modern!" The notion that a landscape
could be a spontaneous expression of a mood or even a topographical record
was a much later development and one that John Constable was to exploit
nearly two hundred years later.
It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that France began to produce an art that, instead of echoing the faded glamour of Italy, reflected the lively if equally artificial life of Versailles. Known as Rococo art, it was not the outcome of stern adherence to classical creeds and the grand manner. Indeed, that it came into being at all is a proof that at last the adherents of Rubens and colour had triumphed over the supporters of Poussin and form. See the Rococo portraits of the talented Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), court painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette.
Jean-Antoine Watteau is a bridge between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. He combines the worldliness of the one with the playfulness of the other. But one is interested in Watteau not because he was a representative of his period but because he penetrated beneath its surface. To be sure, the shiny veneer of the early eighteenth century at Versailles was not difficult to penetrate; but Watteau penetrated it without either hating it or rebelling against it. He accepted court life and court manners without being seduced by them. He is like Hamlet in his detachment, but he has none of Hamlet's gloom. He is merely heartbreakingly sad. It is a measure of his greatness that he reminds one of Mozart who can produce just the same effect of hinting at depths beneath the neat, formal pattern of his music. In Watteau's painting the formal pattern of court life is all there - the foppery, the infinite leisure, the endless round of love-for-love's sake, the elegance and the careful avoidance of material discomfort, but behind all that is an acute nostalgia. Nothing lasts. His characters, languid and, exquisite, snatch at the fading moment but they cannot arrest it. Death - no, not death; that is too blatant, too emphatic a word - oblivion rather, is just round the corner, lurking behind that shady tree, waiting under the pedestal of the statue of the goddess of Love, ready to steal in and take possession of the scene. With most painters a straightforward account of their style and mannerisms will suffice: with Watteau it is the undertones and overtones that count. Stylistically he was a descendant of Rubens, but one realizes how far removed he was in spirit from Rubens when one finds oneself comparing him to Mozart and Hamlet.
Francois Boucher has no overtones. He took the eighteenth century just as he found it and gave his employer, Madame de Pompadour, the exact brand of playful eroticism thinly disguised as classical mythology that she wanted. As a boudoir decorator Boucher leaves nothing to be desired. He can be frivolous without being trivial, elegant without being shallow, naughty without being salacious.
Jean-Honore Fragonard, the last of the true eighteenth-century French painters, has all the sensitiveness and sentiment of Watteau but none of his depth. With him the age of pseudo-Venuses and pseudo-nymphs and shepherds comes to an end. Already even in Fragonard there are hints of a more serious view of life. Love is usually his theme but it is becoming a little less flirtatious; his lovers are not quite so idly engaged in whiling away the time.
Artistically the eighteenth century was not a creative period. Each painter took what he wanted from the material to hand, and out of it evolved a mood that suited the time. There is no such thing as 18th-century vision: visual curiosity and aesthetic experiment are alike absent. Their places are taken by the artist's personal reaction to life - Watteau's sadness, Boucher's eroticism, Nattier's flattery, Fragonard's sentiment. Only one painter, Jean Chardin stands aloof from the rest. One of the greatest Old Masters of France, Chardin alone interested himself in the more permanent and universal aspects of life, painting a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread with as much interest and affection as he would bestow on a portrait of a mother putting the finishing touches to her little girl's toilette, and finding rich material in both.
In outlook he is one of the little Dutch masters of a century earlier; his sense of domesticity is as subtle as that of Terborch, but, being a Frenchman, his touch is lighter, more elusive, more playful. His eye moves to a quicker tempo and is more alert than that of any Dutch painter to those subtle psychological and dramatic relationships that link a mother with her little daughter or a teacher with her pupil. He is perhaps the only eighteenth-century painter with whom the artist of today can feel a close kinship. In Chardin's still life painting all the pompous dialectics that centred round the French Academy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the exaltation of the grand manner and the noble style have been forgotten. At last a saucepan or a dead rabbit will give the painter all he needs in the way of a problem to solve. It is important to note this difference in spirit between the still-lifes of seventeenth-century Holland and those of Chardin. The former are faithful records of an aspect of Dutch everyday life: the latter are merely excuses for a pictorial exercise. They shed no light on eighteenth-century attitudes of mind. They are Chardin's way of asserting that he is primarily a painter, and a superlatively good one. He is neither a recorder nor a moralist. Watteau, looking back to the past, brought Rubens up-to-date. Chardin, prophetic of our own time, anticipated both Courbet and Cezanne. See also: best still life painters.
Painting in France has always had two characteristics, logic and stylishness. Both are the marks of a civilized people. Logic in French art shows itself in the French artist's habit of formulating a theory before beginning to paint. If Uccello had been a Frenchman he would have foregathered with his friends in the cafes of Montparnasse and announced the birth of a new school of painting - "Perspectivism", Paris has given birth to one "ism" after another in its logical devotion to theory. Stylishness is another matter. It is the result of never allowing the end to be out of tune with the means. Paint is a language: stone is a language. Both speak in visual terms. Paint deals with colour and pattern; stone with shape and mass. Attempt to make those languages express something they were never meant to express and your Frenchman at once loses interest. He has little use for a Blake who tried to make paint behave like literature. Paint, says the Frenchman, is meant to be seen, not read. It deals with qualities like colour, structure, pattern. Hence the stylishness of men like Matisse, Cezanne, or Ingres. They attempt to solve no problem that is not a painterly problem.
After the airy Rococo of the eighteenth century came the first logical reaction, the school of Neoclassical painting headed by Jacques Louis David. Neoclassical art, that curious archaistic movement that resulted from so many divergent causes - the discovery of Herculaneum, the revolt against the frivolity of the court, a dawning sense of democracy inspired by Rousseau - was very much in the air in the late eighteenth century. It was to the political solidity and the republican virtues of Rome, not, as was the case with Poussin, to the cultural splendour of Greece that this subsidiary Renaissance looked. The result was a stiffening of standards, moral, political, and artistic. It is odd that the French Revolution, superficially wild and dishevelled, should have had an ardent supporter in David whose style was so stiff and precise and so conscientiously noble. See also Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). One would have expected the romanticism of Delacroix to have been the kind of painting to accompany a social upheaval. But the romantic wave came later. See: Best History Painters.
Ingres, equally conscientious in his classical style of academic art, and a far more proficient organizer of form within the boundaries of his canvas, became human only when he had a portrait to paint. Then his sitter, together with his own supple sense of line, melted the hard Neoclassical crust. Some of his portraits have a flesh-and-blood vitality that is surprising in view of his self-imposed creed.
Delacroix headed the Romantics, rebelling against his predecessors not only in his subject matter but in his way of painting. Rubens was his ideal as a painter, but he had none of the organizing power of Rubens. Byron was the poet of his choice, but the lonely, wild-eyed Byronic gloom is more effective in literature than in art. Delacroix's method in painting is more interesting than his individual pictures. It is a method that had to be evolved if he was to fulfil his ambitions as a painter. The word 'romanticism' which attaches itself so easily to Delacroix and his contemporary, Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) - creator of The Raft of the Medusa and also one of the best portrait artists - cannot be defined. To us, whose eyes and ears have been trained to detect the romantic overtones, sometimes faint, sometimes overpowering, that are implicit behind all truly creative art, the word is not a very useful one. To the generation that watched the development of Delacroix's art and realized that there was a fundamental cleavage between his outlook and that of Ingres, it was an inescapable word. To feel more at home with Byron and Shakespeare than with Corneille and Racine is not a French characteristic. And when Delacroix began to develop a style in which intensity of emotion counted for more than perfection of form, it became evident that a new situation had arisen in which the opposition between Classicism and Romanticism was to become a major issue.
Yet Delacroix was by no means the kind of man to imagine that good painting could be done in a fine frenzy. It is true that he rediscovered Rubens and leaned on him more heavily than Watteau had done, but those who have read his journals will know that he was a man of immense intelligence, self-analytical to an unusual degree, and that he pondered on questions of craftsmanship and aesthetics as deeply as Ingres. Delacroix set himself to become as sensitive in his handling of colour and surface as Ingres was in line and composition. And knowing that in order to succeed in his own program he must preserve the spontaneity and the energy that Ingres had never tried for, a more vibrant surface, a freer brush stroke was a necessity - never uncontrolled or undisciplined but always charged with the vitality of his original creative impulse. In the midst of his struggle to achieve this vitality, he chanced to see a landscape by Constable that was being exhibited in Paris in 1824. It gave him a fresh insight and a fresh impetus. At once he repainted the big Massacre at Chios on which he was engaged, and in doing so, forged a fresh link in the chain that led finally from the later Titian and Rubens to Impressionism.
One massive figure whose whole tendency was romantic but who hides his romanticism under a cloak of satire was Honore Daumier. Most of Daumier's life was occupied in producing many thousands of lithographs for publication in current periodicals. No man who worked as hard as he did could produce masterpieces consistently, but the best of Daumier has the power of strong acid. His subjects were picked from a wide field, but in all of them he concentrated, with an intensity that is often terrifying, on aspects of contemporary life. Scenes from the intimate daily life of working men and women, biting commentaries on the legal profession, scathing political satires poured from his pen day by day and week by week. It was only at the end of his life that Daumier had leisure to paint and freedom to shake off the emotional and propagandist obligations in which the satirist is always involved. In these paintings he reveals himself as a sort of miniature Rembrandt with a passion for the macabre or the picturesque.
Meanwhile, undisturbed by the rival Classic and Romantic factions, a group of painters - collectively known as the Barbizon School of landscape painting - had withdrawn themselves from Paris and retired to the country round Barbizon to experiment in a new approach to the painting of landscape. With the Barbizon painters the historian feels that he is at last within measurable distance of his own day. They are the subject of the opening paragraphs of his penultimate chapter, and for that very reason they have for us the dowdiness that always belongs to the beginnings of contemporary things. An early motor-car is dowdier than a stage-coach just because the motor-car is part of today's currency: the stage-coach cannot be old-fashioned, it is merely obsolete. What is 'modern' in the Barbizon landscapes is that, unlike those of Claude or even Constable, they were painted on the spot. Barbizon pioneered the technique of plein-air painting that reached its apogee in the hands of French Impressionists like Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Renoir.
The contemplative attitude that creeps in as soon as a painter retires to his studio to 'build up' a picture from the sketches he has made was never allowed to intervene between Barbizon artists and their paintings. Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Camille Corot (1796-1875), Charles Daubigny (1817-78) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) were the best of them. Rousseau clung with single-minded devotion to nature as he saw it. Corot was a poet and the only one of the group who possessed the classic vision that can turn a record, however precise, into a picture. In later life he popularized himself by slipping into an easy formula of willow trees and twilight though he still retained his wonderful feeling for harmonies of silver-grey and muted green. Millet extolled the dignity of peasant labour, and gave us The Angelus and The Sower - two paintings which became known to thousands of front parlours across France. The art of Millet was a far cry from the lighthearted naughtiness of Boucher.
It was at this point that a figure of rather larger stature and more aggressive temperament appeared. Gustave Courbet shared with the Barbizon painters their devotion to nature, their avoidance of the artificial or the idealized. But his robust peasant nature had none of their modesty or humility. The realism that they practised quietly he magnified into a program, with the result that in his larger works there is a certain element of bravado and defiance, and perhaps more than a trace of vulgarity. Courbet's program of Realism rejected both classicism and romanticism. It was, in effect, a plea for the completest possible expression in art of the events of everyday life. Other famous painters before him, notably Louis le Nain, Chardin, and even Millet and Corot, had made the same assumptions but without feeling the need to adopt Courbet's revolutionary tone of voice.
His enormous canvas of the Burial at Ornans - a scene set in his native village, in which the villagers themselves were neither idealized nor romanticized - was exhibited in the Salon of 1850. Its appearance was the signal for one of those outbursts of indignation which we, today, find it difficult to understand. This was neither mythology nor history. It was not even recognizably genre painting. Yet surely it must have a moral or political message. Merely to describe an everyday happening had never been, and never could be, an artist's sole purpose. Courbet must be a 'socialist'; he must be what we now know as a 'social-realist'. He must be attempting to undermine the old regime by introducing ordinary men and women into the places previously occupied by gods and heroes or even odalisques or allegorical symbols of liberty and martyrdom. See also: best genre painters.
Even Courbet's landscapes had an earthiness and a density that was suspect. No Venus could rise out of those rough, untidy seas, no nymph could dance under his extremely prosaic trees. We, who see Courbet only as a remarkably good painter passionately in love with nature, cannot share the indignation of his contemporaries. Yet it is important that their indignation should be recorded here, for it proves that Courbet had made an attempt to break down the pedantic prejudices that had been so carefully built up by the French Academy. Those prejudices now seem to us ridiculous but it is not we but Courbet and his kind who have swept them away.
Impressionism as a technical term dates back to 1874; but as a way of looking at nature its roots can be traced as far back as the beginnings of baroque art. Many of Michelangelo's unfinished statues are impressionistic in essence; so is most of Titian's late work. All Constable's innovations led in the direction of Impressionism. Turner's work from, say, 1840 onwards is purely impressionist in method though not in intention. Impressionism, as a self-conscious creed, is simply an attempt to emphasize a particular aspect of visual truth that had been either overlooked or not consciously emphasized by previous painters - the momentary effects of light. What made their pictures seem queer and unacceptable to their contemporaries was as much the omission of these old qualities as the inclusion of the new ones. If, for example, Monet had built up his compositions on classical lines with a stone pine on one side and a ruined temple on the other, instead of painting a haystack at sunrise or a slice of the west front of Rouen Cathedral at sunset, the storm aroused by the first Impressionist paintings might have been avoided.
But it was by no means the first storm of the kind. When Constable, in his endeavour to render the exact state of the English weather, the tumbled clouds, the vivid green meadows, the foliage of trees sparkling as it moved in the wind, evolved for his purpose a nervous, shimmering brush-stroke, with broken tones flecked with pure white, there was plenty of violent protest, although Constable was experimenting solely in the interest of truth. It was precisely that same broken brush-stroke that the Impressionists used in their attempt to carry Constable's innovations to their logical conclusion.
The Impressionism movement furnishes the clearest instance in the history of art of a new visual discovery, made in a spirit of pure research (and benefiting from the new metal tubes of paint which facilitated outdoor oil painting) which produced in the long run a new kind of beauty. In the short run it produced what most art critics of the 1870s were pleased to regard as a new type of ugliness. To them it seemed ugly, not because its colour schemes were more violent and its outlines more vague than in the art with which they were familiar, but simply because they themselves were too insensitive to recognize the essential truth of these new qualities, and because they were still hankering after their tree in the foreground and open space in the centre. Impressionism then is the final attempt of the nineteenth century to paint just what the eye sees. Its virtues were that it enlarged visual experience, widened the bracket once more. Its chief weakness was that its exponents were entirely at the mercy of nature. The kind of truth it fastened on was the truth of the passing moment, the 'impression' that a man would retain on his retina if he allowed himself to look at a given scene for a few seconds only. (But see Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), the Impressionist patron and dealer.)
Claude Monet (1840-1926) implemented his Impressionist program of naturalism quite conscientiously, depicting Nature exactly as he found her, no matter how jarring her colours. He was one of the best landscape artists seen in France as long as he remained faithful to what he saw: his own personal sense of colour was sometimes awful. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was not as objective and a little more emotional. Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) was an equally accurate observer, though across a narrower range. These three were the shock troops of the movement. (For Renoir, see below.) In comparison, Manet (1832-83) and Degas (1834-1917) were associated with the style but in a less committed way. They were finer artists if only because their interests ranged beyond the mere 'look' of things. Complete objectivity is an impossibility; even the camera cannot achieve it, for the man behind the camera who selects his length of exposure, his subject matter, his time of day, cannot help imposing his choice even on the machine. As far as a human being can achieve it, Manet did so. Before him perhaps Velazquez was the painter who least obtrudes his own temperament, and it was to Velazquez and, to a lesser extent, to Frans Hals, that Manet turned at first; and it was in homage to Velazquez rather than to Titian that he painted his celebrated Olympia. He was more conscious of the impact of light than Velazquez, and of the way in which light interferes with local colour, but except in his later plein-air pictures done under the influence of the Impressionist landscape painters, he did not adopt the 'divisionist' technique by which Monet depicted the vibration of light. Degas was not particularly interested in the impact of light, but he was fascinated by something equally transient - the unpremeditated gestures of everyday life. Other important French painters who contributed to Impressionism included: Eugene Boudin (1824-98), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), Gauguin (1848-1903), and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).
Brilliant though the best exponents of Impressionism were, there is something essential that they lack. Merely to record, to be 'only an eye', is not quite enough. What else could they have done? It's difficult to say, except that the Post-Impressionist painters who came after them, seemed to penetrate deeper. Perhaps one can make the distinction clearer by saying that when Cezanne (1839-1906) or van Gogh painted they created something, whereas Monet and Sisley merely caught something. That, of course, is only half the truth, but it is an important half-truth nevertheless. It constitutes the turning point in the whole direction of art at the end of the nineteenth century. One might say that with Cezanne the pendulum that Giotto started swinging in the direction of realism came to a pause and that it has now begun to swing back, just as it did at the start of the Byzantine era. Monet and Degas snatched at visual experience; Cezanne and Picasso construct and reconstruct on a basis of visual experience. In doing so they are far closer to the main tradition of art than their predecessors.
The one Parisian artist in the Impressionist group who is firmly established in the main tradition is Renoir, who made free use of the Impressionist palette and its heightened range of colour for his own sensuous purposes. Paint to him was a medium - the only possible medium - for expressing his optimistic and half pagan attitude to Nature and his worship of femininity. In his particular feeling for the splendour of the human body he was almost a Greek, but instead of thinking of it as a noble splendour he felt it as an adorable splendour. His women are neither goddesses like Titian's, nor bourgeois amazons like Rubens's, they are not naughty like Boucher's, nor exquisite like Watteau's. They are women seen as a child might see its mother, soft and rounded and radiant. All Renoir's paintings have this quality of radiance - his landscapes and his portraits as well as his 'bathers'. Above all, Renoir's art was the exact opposite of Monet's, in that it was not at all concerned with the transient. His sunshine is eternal sunshine, and even though, for him, femininity happened to have taken up its abode in the ample pink and white body of his cook, or his model of the moment, it was still the eternal feminine.
Closely associated with mainstream decorative art in France was the newly developed area of poster art, developed by Jules Cheret (1836-1932). Interest in poster painting was further stimulated in the 1890s by the emergence of Art Nouveau, a decorative art form characterized by flowing, curvilinear shapes, and in the 1900s by the arrival in Paris of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) and the Ballets Russes.
As well as decorative painting, late-19th century France was also home to the more intellectual Symbolism movement, whose Manifesto appeared in Sept 1886 in Le Figaro newspaper. French Symbolist painters - such as the muralist Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and the innovative Gustave Moreau (1826-98) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916) - promoted a narrative style of art which used metaphorical imagery and suggestive motifs. Another French artist - a regular exhibitor at the Salon des Independants - whose work involved a mixture of symbolism and naive art was the painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) (named Le Douanier) noted for his Sleeping Gypsy and exotic landscapes.
Early twentieth century painters in France (by now Paris was the centre of world art) included members of Les Nabis like Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Vuillard (1868-1940); Fauvists like Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), and Albert Marquet (1875-1947); Expressionists like Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and Raoul Dufy (1877-1953); the Dadaist Francis Picabia (1879-1953); genre-painters like Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955); and Cubists like Georges Braque (1882-1963), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). Paris was also home to several famous art dealers including Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) and Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), and its annual art shows like the official Salon as well as the Salon d'Automne, attracted important patrons from overseas, including: Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), and Dr Albert C Barnes (1872-1951).
Pictures by the top artists of the French school of painting can be seen in the best art museums around the world. The largest collections are held by the Louvre Museum (Paris), the Musee d'Orsay (Paris), Musee de l'Orangerie (Paris), Musee Marmottan Monet (Paris), Pompidou Centre (Paris), the Musee Conde in Chantilly, Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Lille).