A brief history of French art

Gold framed French art on white wall

When you see the term, “French art”, you know what it means in a simple sense – the artwork was created in France, but as much as it is exactly that, there’s so much more to this style of art.

French artists from the past have really paved the way for the artists of today, and everyone in between. So, what does French art represent and which traditional and modern French artists have influenced the creations we see today? We’ve got all of the answers in this blog post, just read on and take note! 

What influenced French art to start with?

Post-impressionist French art landscape painting

French art didn’t (like anything) happen overnight, it was a blend of outside traditions, new art forms and current affairs that influenced the art created in France in the very early stages.

For example, new art styles that were making waves in Italy started to have a real influence on France and the art that was produced all those years ago. Artists from this cultured country took ideas from Italy’s art scene and mixed these with current, local traditions. What did this bring? French Renaissance art styles bursting with creativity!

Before and after the French Revolution

Pre- and post-French Revolution (1789-1799), Neo-Classicism was the key artistic style in France – it’s based on ancient Greek and Roman art and the attitudes around these styles. The idea was to portray idealism and clarity, as well as restraint and much more. It reached new heights in the 1780s and ‘90s, until 1840-1850. Part of the reason this art movement started? Because of the popular European art form, Rococo – a decorative style which started in the 1720s.

Different French art movements

French art took many forms, and still does today, with Romanesque art, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism being pivotal art movements that influenced earlier artwork. In fact, France was a real leader in the development of Romanesque art. And Conceptual art and contemporary art are now more popular with modern French artists than before!

5 famous French artists

Man holding white and blue Monet book

To make French art what it’s become today, people from over the ages have massively contributed, influencing new movements and styles.

From creating perfect prints of Paris to magical floral artwork paintings, there are plenty of famous French artists who lead the way for creativity within the world of art. But we’ve cherry-picked five superior artists that you just need to know about. If you’ve heard of them before, now’s your time to discover more about their influence on different art movements, and their most famous masterpieces…

1. Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903)

Famous for his impeccable oil on canvas paintings, Camille Pissarro created masterpieces as early as the 19th century. Pissarro was an Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter, who contributed a lot to these marvellous art movements.

Camille’s most famous French art pieces are:

  • Two Women Chatting by the Sea (1856)
  • Jalais Hill, Pontoise’ (1876)
  • Road to Versailles (1869).

2. Claude Monet (1840-1926)

You’ll have probably seen French art from Claude Monet before, or heard of his artwork. Monet was a French painter and the founder of impressionist painting, adding a modern twist to paintings during a very traditional time.

Monet’s incredible artwork includes:

  • Impression, Sunrise (1872)
  • The Water Lily Pond (1899)
  • Woman with a Parasol (1875)
  • Water Lilies series (1896 – 1926)
  • Rouen Cathedral series (1892 – 1893).

3. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

French impressionist artist, Edgar Degas created both pastel drawings and oil paintings. Edgar Degas had a love for and fascination with contemporary life, which included ballet dancers. Degas loved depicting the intricacies of the settings they practised in and their graceful movements, which you can see from a lot of his famous works.

These include the likes of:

  • The Absinthe Drinker (1876)
  • The Dance Class (1874)
  • Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881).

4. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Although he became a famous French artist after his death, Paul Gauguin took the Post-Impressionist art world by storm. Gauguin was praised for his experimentation with colour, depicting landscapes and people beautifully.

These are some of Paul Gauguin’s iconic art pieces:

  • Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)
  • The Yellow Christ (1889)
  • Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892).

5. Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Visual artist, Henri Matisse, was (like Gauguin) famous for his clever use of colour throughout his work as a painter and sculptor. Matisse was actually deemed a leading figure in modern art, which is an incredible achievement now and even more so then!

Henri Matisse’s famed artwork included:

  • The Joy of Life (1906)
  • The Red Studio (1911)
  • Dance (1910).

5 modern French artists

Modern French artwork featuring blue and white cloudy swirls

There were so many French artists from before our time that lay the first stone for art in this country. Ever since, more modern French artists have emerged and expanded on traditional art movements, approaches and techniques to produce brilliant artwork that stands out from the crowd. But who are the most notable artists to learn more about?

1. Christian Liberté Boltanski 

French photographer, painter and sculptor, Christian Liberté Boltanski is famed for his conceptual, contemporary French style, creating artwork that’s inspired by excellent modern art pieces.

Notable artwork of his includes:

  • L' Album de la famille D. (1939-1964)
  • No Man's Land (2010)
  • Chases School, (1986–1987).


Orlan is everything you expect (and want) from a modern-day French artist, experimenting with contemporary art tropes and adding interesting takes on art and the human form, with one example being the nine facial plastic surgeries she’s undergone, which were done in the name of art – to paint a picture, using a unique canvas: her own face! She creates radical art that can’t be forgotten!

Orlan’s most famous pieces are:

  • Le Plan du Film (2001)
  • Robes sans corps, Sculptures de plis, (2010)
  • Self-hybridations Masques de l'Opéra de Pékin, Facing Design et réalité augmentee (2014).

3. Sophie Calle

Conceptual artist, Sophie Calle is a famous Modern artist worth remembering. Calle’s work focuses on people’s vulnerability and portrays different examples of intimacy and identity beautifully.

Calle’s most fascinating pieces include:

  • Purloined (Lucian Freud, Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998-2013)
  • Purloined (Turner) (1998-2013)
  • Venetian Suite (1980,1996).

4. Pierre Soulages 

French painter, Pierre Soulages creates work matching the contemporary art scene and what it’s all about. Soulages’ black and white art pieces are known worldwide, with his captions for each piece differing from other artists, as he captions them as the date he produced them!

These are his most famous pieces to date:

  • 17 December 1966 (1966)
  • Sérigraphie n° 16, 1981 (1981)
  • Eau-Forte no 16 (Rivière XVI), 1961 (1961).

5. Jules de Balincourt

Iconic French-born, American artist Jules de Balincourt has created some impressive sculptures and paintings in his time as an artist. Touching on abstract art techniques, his work cleverly blends reality and fantasy together.

Some of Balincourt’s most known pieces to date, are:

  • California Native (2016)
  • Dried Up (2016)
  • Troubled Eden, (2017).

Learn even more art history

Tall Boy Prints framed floral artwork on wooden mantlepiece

Now the history of French art is crystal clear, you’ll be ready to share this newfound knowledge with your partner, teachers, friends and colleagues – basically, anyone who listens!

And if you like what you’ve seen, we have plenty more articles like this to clue you up on all art-related topics. Just head over to our blog for more insights into different art movements and even the best street art in Europe, as well as so much more.