The Origin of Art in France
A Story of Kings and Bishops
France is one of the best places to see great artwork. For centuries, it has been known as a cultural center of Europe — the place creative people yearn to live and art lovers want to visit.
This reputation is no accident. It has deep roots going back to a Europe still reeling from the fall of the Roman Empire.
It is in the aftermath of those events that a new Empire, this time led by Charlemagne, rose and fell. Among those ashes, the France we know today really begins to emerge. And the painting, sculpture, and crafts created at this time goes on to set up France — and Paris in particular — as a global capitol of artistic achievement.
On my tours of Paris, visitors are often in awe of how much history exists in this city. That’s because it has lasted through enormous shifts, cataclysms, war, and triumph. And the history of art here is no different.
France in the Middle Ages
From 814 to 1450 CE, France was living in what we call the Middle Ages. It begins around the start of the Carolingian Empire, a vast state established by Charlemagne and backed up by the Roman Catholic Church in a bid to reestablish a Roman Empire in Western Europe.
But almost as soon as Charlemagne was crowned the Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, things began to fall apart. That’s because when the Emperor dies, someone must take his place. And Charlemagne had no clear succession.
His first two sons died young, leaving his third son Louis to take the throne. Louis the Pious, as he would come to be called, built up the presence of the church, but he was not a clear enough choice for a ruler to keep his empire together.
Infighting and Viking invasion racked the Carolingians, and eventually a new dynasty came to rule the area — the Capetians. Beginning with Hugh Capet, these leaders gained back territory lost to the English, and they expanded their borders in the south.
They participated in the Crusades and worked closely with the Catholic Church in general, creating a Kingdom of France where the monarchy and religion were deeply intertwined.
During the Middle Ages, the Pope moved to Avignon for a time, new technology was invented for the creation of art, and France reigned as the most powerful kingdom in Europe.
It’s important to note that during this time of cultural flowering, virtually all major works of art were created either on behalf of the church or monarchs and lords.
These major patrons were always in competition with one another. Supporting the best, most impressive art was a way of declaring their own greatness. It was a situation that the best artists or the era could use to their advantage.
It is this time that gives us the first examples of what we might call French art. While cave paintings in the area date back as much as 30,000 years (or more, depending on who you ask), it isn’t from the culture of France. The same could be said for all the art created from the Stone Age up to the rise of the Carolingian Empire.
But once something like modern France began to form, it immediately brought with it an explosion of artwork, one that has shaped the world of art forever.
When we go through a few of the major achievements, we see just how varied and impressive the French artists of these centuries were.
As early as the reign of Charlemagne, a new style emerged that sought to inherit the glory of the past while putting a unique stamp on the future. In early French art, artists patronized by aristocrats and the church worked in the Pre-Romanesque style. This blended Mediterranean art from the classical era with Early Christian and Germanic forms.
Some of the most impressive works of art from this time are illuminated manuscripts. These are books — usually Gospels — that are sumptuously decorated and illustrated. When you see them, they instantly transport you back to those early Medieval years.
In the illustrations, you can see artists of the time gaining confidence in reproducing the human figure. And there were several centers where these were produced, leading to different competing styles.
The term “Gothic architecture” brings with it so many assumptions, so many wondrous images in our minds of works like Notre Dame. But many people are unaware that Gothic architecture began in France, and it is in France that the greatest achievements were built.
The style formed while King Louis VI centralized the French government in the Île-de-France, where Paris is. Kings were now being crowned, living, and being buried in the city of Paris. That meant the churches here needed to project kingly magnificence.
Under the direction of Suger, the Abbot of Saint-Denis, this new Gothic style began to emerge in Paris — like the Basilica of Saint-Denis and Sens Cathedral. Both of which can still be seen today.
As the Capetian kings came to power, an incredible economic boom allowed builders to pursue even wilder Gothic visions. This gave rise to styles like the High Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic.
What these 12th century to 15th century architects tried to accomplish, more than anything else, was height. Height was important because it allowed cathedrals to reach toward the heavens, and for visitors, it drew the eye (and, presumably, the soul) up to God.
They preferred the pointed arch — two curving lines that meet to form a point. On the inside, the high ceilings used these pointed arches to make rib vaulted ceilings. In this kind of ceiling, the crossing arches that hold it up can be seen. These towering structures also needed a new kind of support, and Gothic architects used the flying buttress, which juts out of the building itself to hold up the building.
Those structural ideas were combined with elaborate stonework and stained glass windows. These provide some of the most dazzling examples of decorative arts in all of European architectural history.
French Art After the Middle Ages
The examples above show how French art began to emerge out of the Middle Ages. But it wouldn’t be until the 17th century that a peculiar event happened that changed the course of art in the country. And, of course, it was a king who led the charge.
Louis XIV, being an absolutist, wanted control of as much decision making as possible. And up to that point, the direction and development of art had to be shared among aristocrats, the church, and the king.
But this would soon change. In 1648, Louis established the Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture, or the French Academy. Led by the minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert, this body governed the official style of all French artwork. It also helped train new generations of artists and promote the great work of the day.
The Academy regularly ran annual Salons, which would choose paintings to be displayed. By selecting only the “correct” paintings, the government had enormous control over the tastes and culture of French arts.
Louis XIV also zealously patronized a wide range of decorative artists. His building of Versailles alone required a literal army of them to fill it floor to ceiling with splendor. These top artists were led by Charles Le Brun, who was the court painter for the king.
Le Brun was essentially hand picked to become the leading artist of his day. Luckily, he had the talent and vision to make use of this role. He painted grand history paintings, portraits, and many massive custom works for Versailles. Much of his work can still be seen at the palace and at the Louvre.
While the ornate exuberance of Italian Baroque was all the rage, Louis XIV pressed for more classical sensibilities. Still, the work he promoted maintained the larger-than-life grandiosity we associate with the likes of Versailles.
French Art: A Royal Affair
While much of this history may appear stifling — with control by governments and churches — it actually helped France at the time emerge as a cultural hotspot in Europe. That’s because the materials to create art were made available to talented artists, and educating creators was prioritized.
It certainly clamped down on expression, and it wouldn’t be until the end of the 19th century that artists in France really began to free themselves from the Salons.
But then again, it was in France where the struggle against an outdated system led to Modernism. And once again, painters in Paris were at the forefront of artistic innovation.
This brief history shows how there has always been an interplay between control and freedom — in French society as a whole and art in particular.
If you would like to see illuminated manuscripts, Gothic cathedrals, Versailles, and the work of painters who overthrew the Salon system — you need to visit Paris. Reach out to me today, and let’s plan your perfect Paris tour. Together, we can explore all the many stories waiting to be discovered.