France has a rich history of art. Some of the most famous artists also fall in the category of most famous artists ever. The country and its art scene started gaining international attention during the 18th century. At that point, Neoclassicism reached France. Drawing inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman culture, the style then shifted to Romanticism in the 19th century.
During the 19th century, French artists started putting more attention to emotional, individualism, and glorification of nature.
And by the time the 19th century ended, Impressionism came to France. The French artists of that time popularized Impressionism and made it a global movement. This movement focused on accurate depiction of light, candid poses, and vivid colors.
Let’s take a look at the list of most famous French artists.
- Claude Monet
- Pierre Auguste Renoir
- Paul Cezanne
- Edgar Degas
- Henri Matisse
- Edouard Manet
- Camille Pissarro
- George Braque
- Gustave Courbet
- Nicolas Poussin
Many call him the Father of Impressionism. He started the movement and had the most success in it. Arguably the most consistent and prolific Impressionist, Monet started the movement with a single painting.
His painting Impression: Sunrise, gave birth to the movement and the name of it. His ambition of documenting the French countryside made him adopt a new method of painting the same scene many times. He did it so he can capture the changing of light and the passing of the season.
Monet and other of his contemporaries rejected the dominant French movement and started their own. They even held their own Impressionist exhibitions. Monet served as the driving force behind the movement.
For impressionist artist, understanding the effect of light on the local color of objects play the biggest role.
Masterpiece: Impression, Sunrise
Monet showed this painting at the first Exhibition of the Impressionist movement. It depicts his hometown of Le Havre. Fun fact: he gave the painting the title Impression: Sunrise, due to his lazy painting style. He says, “They asked me for a title for the catalog. It couldn’t really be taken for a view of Le Havre. So I said, put Impression”.
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Renoir is another Impressionist painter. He popularized the use of freely-brushed paintings depicting vibrant social scenes. One of his most famous paintings illustrates a Sunday afternoon at the Moulin de la Galette in the district of Montmartre, Paris.
Renoir celebrated beauty and especially feminine sensuality. He got inspired by the style of previous painters like Camille Pissarro and Edouard Manet.
After rejections by the Salon juries, he joined forces with other contemporaries to make their own exhibition. He displayed six paintings on the first one.
During the second exhibition, he displayed mostly portraits. He wanted to secure a livelihood by attracting portrait commissions.
Masterpiece: Luncheon of the Boating Party
This painting appeared at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition. Critics praised it as the best painting in the show. The painting itself combines figures, still life, and landscape in just one work. It depicts his friends relaxing on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise restaurant along the Seine River in Chatou.
Renoir often included his friends in his paintings. And critics managed to identify most of them.
While the previous two artists on this list got famous as Impressionists, Paul Cezanne got famous as a still-life painter. He is arguably the most famous still-life painter in history. His still-life paintings are second to none.
He formed the bridge between the late 19th century Impressionism and the early movement of the Cubism in the 20th century.
He often repeated his work, used repetitive, exploratory brushstrokes. He used planes of color and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields.
Fun fact: Picasso praised Cezanne as the father of us all. His early work focuses on the figure in the landscape and includes paintings of groups and heavy figures in the landscape.
But he then showed interest in the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials. Cezanne wanted to treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.
His work influenced Matisse and other artists prior to Fauvism and Expressionism. Artists learned from him that in order to alter the coloring of an object, you need to alter its structure.
Masterpiece: The Basket of Apples
As one of the most famous still life artists, we give you his painting of basket of apples. Noted for the disjointed perspective, the painting is a balanced composition of unbalanced parts.
In a way, Cezanne gives the viewer two viewpoints. This type of paintings bridged the gap between Impressionism and Cubism.
Degas got famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. He also worked during the Impressionism period. Edgar produced bronze sculptures, prints, and drawings. Critics identify him with the subject of dance. More than half of his paintings depict dancers.
Fun fact: Degas rejected the term Impressionism. Instead, he preferred the term realist. He also didn’t paint outdoors, unlike many Impressionists.
He had amazing talent at depicting movement. Besides dancers, he often depicted female bathing nude. Degas had success with painting portraits as well. In his portraits, he managed to show psychological complexity and human isolation.
Masterpiece: The Ballet Class
He painted this one between 1871 and 1874. It is a collection of a couple of dancing paintings. It depicts dancers at the end of a lesson under ballet master Jules Perrot.
Degas carefully studied the ways in which a person’s social stature or form of employment reflects in their physiognomy. That includes posture, dress, and other attributes.
Another impressionist, Matisse got famous for his use of color, and fluid and original draughtsmanship. Along with Pablo Picasso, he helped define the revolutionary development in the visual arts.
Matisse started the movement Fauvism. Because of his intense colorism, critics called him one of the Fauves (wild beasts). But most of his notable work actually came a decade after 1905 (the year of the Fauvism).
At that point, he developed a rigorous style of emphasizing flattened forms and decorative patterns. He relocated to a suburb of Nice and developed a more relaxed style of work.
His early Fauvism paintings expression emotion with wild, often dissonant colors, without regard for the natural colors of the subject.
Masterpiece: Woman with a Hat
This painting depicts his wife, Amelie. Painted in 1905, he exhibited it with other Fauves artists. Critics praised the Renaissance-type sculpture of the painting.
Before the 1905 exhibition, he suffered from bad reception of his work. But this painting sold for 500 francs, a large amount at the time. That helped him gain critical acclaim and positive feedback.
The French modernist painter used modern life in his painting. He served as a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism.
Born into an upper-class household, he rejected the future his family envisioned. Instead, he focused on painting and wanted to make a career as an artist.
During his career, he made 430 oil paintings, 89 pastels, and more than 400 works on paper. Art scholars criticize his lack of conventional finish. But fans loved and admired his work from the beginning.
The roughly painted style and photographic lighting in his paintings are modern, and a challenge to the Renaissance works he copied.
During his career, he depicted a lot of scenes of the streets of Paris. But he also had paintings devoted to war.
Masterpiece: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe
Originally titled Le Bain (The bath), this large oil canvas painting depicts a female nude and a scantily dressed female bather. They are on a picnic with two fully dressed men in a rural setting. The Salon jury rejected this painting.
This painting and its composition reveal his study of the old masters. He found inspiration in Raphael, and similar Renaissance painters.
Fun fact: he often used real models and people he knew as a reference during the creation process.
The Danish-French Impressionist artist studied from great forerunners. Her importance resides in the contributions to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
In 1873, he established a collective society of aspiring artists. That society had a pivotal role in the group together and encouraging other members. Some historians call him “The Dean of the Impressionist painters”.
He is the only artist that displayed his work at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions. He served as a father figure to all artists, not only the impressionists. He also worked with post-impressionist artists like Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and others.
Masterpiece: The Boulevard Montmartre at Night
This painting is an impression of the street in Paris and all its comprising elements. The painting gave a bright new identity to Paris, as the center of European architecture.
Pissarro painted the iconic urban view as he saw it from his hotel room. At the time, he worked on a series of city views of London, Paris, Le Havre, and many more.
George Braque is another member of the Fauves. He worked as a painter, sculptor, and collagist. He also played an important role in the development of Cubism. He and Pablo Picasso were colleagues, and their works were indistinguishable for many years. But his quiet nature allowed Picasso to shine brighter.
He actually started as an impressionist, and then joined the group of Fauves. By 1907, he exhibited works of the Fauve style.
But by the end of the 1900s, his paintings reflected a new interest in geometry and simultaneous perspective. He conducted an intense study of the effects of light and perspective.
He reduced an architectural structure to a geometric form approximating a cube and rendered its shading. That way, it looked three-dimensional. He started working closely with Pablo Picasso in 1909, and the two developed a similar Cubist style of painting.
Fun fact: the Salon des Independants first pronounced the term Cubism in 1911. Picasso and Braque did not adopt it initially.
Masterpiece: The Portuguese
This painting is the first and only painting in which the stenciled lettering made its appearance. Braque says the lettering represents a transition between synthetic cubism and analytical cubism.
It is one of the earliest cubist paintings. Braque combined two techniques while working on it.
Born in 1819, Courbet led the realism movement in the 19th century. He committed himself to painting only what he sees. He rejected the academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation.
His independence set an example for the later generations of artists, including Impressionists and Cubists. He first gained recognition in the 1840s and 1850s, with his paintings challenging convention. He depicted unidealized peasants and workers. He painted figurative compositions, landscapes, and still life paintings.
But he faced controversy because he addressed social issues in his work. Sometimes, critics even considered his subjects vulgar. For example, he painted the working conditions of the poor and the rural bourgeoisie.
Masterpiece: The Burial at Ornans
This painting served as a major turning point of the 19th century. It records the funeral in September 1848 of the painter’s uncle.
The painting treats an ordinary provincial funeral with unflattering realism. In Paris, fans accepted the painting as one that falls into the tradition of history painting.
While the painting lacks the sentimental rhetoric in genre work, the public loved his new Realist approach.
Fun fact: When his political views changed in 1873, he repudiated the work. Courbet said the painting had zero value and worth.
Born in 1594, Nicolas played a pivotal and leading role in the classical French Baroque style. He spent most of his life working in Rome. His works focus on religious and mythological subjects.
Throughout his life, he stood apart from the popular tendency toward the decorative in French art of his time. He experimented and formulated his own style.
In his early paintings, you can notice a warm and atmospheric style. But by the 1630s, he developed a cooler palette and a drier touch.
And unlike standard studio practice of his time, he did not make detailed figure drawings as preparation for painting. His style had a strong influence on French art. During the French Revolution, leaders looked to replace the frivolity of French court art with Republican severity and civic-mindedness.
Masterpiece: A Dance to the Music of Time
Nicolas painted this piece between 1634 and 1636 as a commission for Pope Clement IX. The identity of the figures remain uncertain.
The painting is part of the Four Seasons by Poussin. It depicts four figures, holding each other by the hand, and dancing in a circle. Set in the early morning, the painting features Aurora, the goddess of Dawn, preceding the chariot of Apollo, the sun-god.