France has always renowned for its cultural scene, attracting artists and art lovers from around the world. Most people know that France as the country of origin of the Impressionism movement and the Belle Epoque, but that movement is just one of many.
From medieval times to today, French art has continually influenced art throughout the world. From home grown talent like Monet and Renoir, France also attracted foreign artists like Picasso and Van Gogh who made France their home. And not to mention the great Leonardo da Vinci who lived in Amboise in the Loire Valley in his final years.
Not all French artists were famous during their lifespan, with many of them having become famous following their deaths. And then there are the most famous pieces of art in the Louvre or another museum that we recognize instantly, without always knowing the name of the artist.
It’s impossible to sum up all of French art in one article, but I’m going give it a go 😉 Here are a few of the most influential and famous artists to come out of France that any art lover will appreciate. Allons-y!
1. Claude Monet (1840-1926)
One of the most famous French artists has to be Claude Monet, as one of the founders of impressionist paintings.
Born in Paris, Monet started off painting everything from landscapes and seascapes to portraits.
He became famous for his waterlilies, which were inspired by his gardens at Giverny, and would paint the same outdoor scenes over and over again in different lighting and seasonal conditions.
2. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
A contemporary of Monet, Edgar Degas was also French impressionist artist and sculptor who has earned much renown. Degas became well known for his works on ballet classes, usually featuring the young female dancers.
He would regularly visit Opera Garnier in Paris, and one of his most famous sculptures is titled “Little Dancer aged 14” and is based on a real person.
It is entirely sculpted in wax and is dressed in a real bodice, tutu and ballet slippers. Unlike most artwork featuring ballerinas show them as graceful and beautiful, this statue was intended to show not a prima ballerina, but one of “ballet rats” working in the corps de ballet without any of the glory and suffering in silence.
At the time, young ballet dancers were expected to give sexual favors to the male patrons who would go backstage and watch the girls practice. Many of his works featured men hanging around in dark corners, watching the ballet rats.
Degas would find much international acclaim, although in his later years he was accused of anti-Semitism and misanthropic behaviour.
3. Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in Northern France, Henri Matisse originally intended to study law. When his mother bought him an art set while he was recovering from appendicitis, he later said “a whole new world opened up to him”.
He went on to study art, and became famous for his use of bright and expressive colors. Many of his works use fauvism techniques emphasizing strong colors rather than the realistic tones that impressionists were using.
4. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
One of the most emblematic paintings in France is Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
5. Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917)
Another distinguished French sculptor with his own museum in Paris is Auguste Rodin, or rather two.
Considered among the “fathers of modern sculpture”, it is his statue of the Thinker that is immediately recognizable.
6. Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)
French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin became famous world wide for his paintings about Tahiti.
Tahiti is an overseas territory of France and French Polynesia, and where Gaugin spent several years of his life.
Gauguin was also well-known for being friends with Vincent van Gogh and his brother and Theo, who was an art dealer. Gauguin was in Arles painting with Van Gogh on the day when Van Gogh decided to cut off his own ear.
He was known to have influenced such artists as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, moving away from classic and impressionist paintings.
7. Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
Another leading French artist has to be Pierre-August Renoir. A famed impressionist, one of his most famous works is the “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette” which was painted in 1876.
It is one of Impressionism’s most celebrated masterpieces and a smaller version of this painting which is in private hands, was sold for $78 million in 1990. One can only imagine what price this larger painting would fetch on the open market.
The painting depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at the original Moulin de la Galette in the district of Montmartre in Paris.
It is basically an outdoor bal or party, where Parisians would dress up with friends, dancing and drinking late into the evening. (You can still find bals populaires in Paris, which locals flock to.)
Renoir would paint many such social events as well as portraits and other paintings of people in his entourage.
8. Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
French artist and Post-Impressionist painter is known for using repetitive, small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields. He is credited with bridging 19th-century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s Cubism.
Alternating between Paris and L’Estaque in Marseille, his work would fluctuate between landscapes in Provence to darker subjects in Paris.
He was also good friends with fellow artist Camille Pissarro who lived in Pontoise and Auvers, where he and Cézanne painted landscapes together.
9. Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883)
A modernist and impressionist painter, Édouard Manet is said to have been at the forefront of modern painting.
Painted in 1893, his “Luncheon on the Grass” broke all the rules when it was exhibited. It is a large scale painting that measures 81.9 inches x 104 inches, that today hangs in Musée d’Orsay.
It depicts a nude female woman, sitting casually at a picnic with an assortment of food next to her, along with two fully dressed men.
There were many negative reviews when it was first displayed. Even famous writer and philosopher Emile Zola commented on the “obscene intent” of the juxtaposition of this woman painted in white, while the men are in dark colors.
Inspired by this painting, many other famous contemporaries of Manet like Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, James Tissot, Paul Gaugin and Pablo Picasso produced paintings of picnics with various levels of nudity.
10. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901)
Among the post-impressionist greats, Toulouse-Lautrec is right up there with names like Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat.
Born in Albi (a small town right next to the city of Toulouse and village of Lautrec), he was born into an aristocratic family. If Henri had outlived his father, he would have inherited the family title of Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec.
However, his parents were first cousins and this inbreeding caused many medical issues. He was known for being quite short due to a medical condition that is sometimes called Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome, when as a child he broke both his legs.
His medical problems were added to by his alcoholism, and he developed an affinity for brothels and prostitutes, dying young at the age of 36. His work remains of much renown however, as one of the most famous artists in France.
11. Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh may not have been born in France, but it is in France that he had his biggest breakthroughs. It was in Arles in Provence, and around Paris where his most famous paintings were painted, and where his brother Theo lived with his family.
He would die at 37, and is buried in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb outside of Paris. His brother would also suffer from dementia and would die at 33, and is buried next to him.
It would be Theo’s wife Johanna Gezina who would promote the artworks and writings of Vincent Van Gogh after his death.
12. Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
Like Van Gogh, Picasso was not born in France, but he was so emblematic of the art scene in Paris, that I had to include him on the list. He first visited Paris at the age of 19 and would eventually move to France, dying at the age of 91 in Mougins, France.
It is very rare for a living artist to have his work exhibited at the Louvre, their work is usually meant to be exhibited in Centre Pompidou. However, for his 90th birthday, a selection of Picasso’s pieces went on display in the Louvre museum’s Grande Galerie, an exceptional honor.
With a varied neo-classical style, he became one of the best-known figures in the 20th-century art world and beyond. His family donated a large portion of his works to France as a way to settle his estate for succession taxes. These works are today held in Musée Picasso in Paris.
13. Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985)
French-Russian artist Marc Chagall Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, until WWII broke out. Influenced by the art scene in all three capitals, he experiment with cubism, symbolism, and fauvism, giving rise to surrealism.
As he was of Jewish heritage, he and his wife fled Paris during WWII to Marseille. They were extricated from arrest in Marseille in 1941, along with other Jewish prisoners, by the United States due to their high standing. Many of his works were also saved in this manner.
He returned the France after the war, settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, about seven miles west of Nice until his death in 1985 at the age of 97. There is a museum in Paris, Musée Picasso as well as one in Nice, dedicated to the artist’s many works and includes several paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and photos.
14. Marie Tussaud (1761 – 1850)
French sculptor Marie Tussaud may not be an artist in the traditional sense, but her wax sculptures were so life-like, her name remains iconic.
When 1789 French Revolution occurred, she was thought to be a royalist. Arrested and with her head shaved for execution, she was given a last minute reprieve. She was ordered to make death masks of the revolution’s famous victims, including Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Princesse de Lamballe, Marat, and Robespierre.
In 1802, she went to England and found herself unable to return due to the conflict between Napoleon and the English, having left her husband back in France. They would never see each other again.
Her son later joined the family business in England, going on to launch the famous Madame Tussauds that has installations in several cities around the world.
Interestingly, there has never been a Madame Tussauds in France, with the closest imitation being Musée Grévin in Paris that opened in 1882.
15. Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903)
Camille Pissarro is a Dutch-French artist was born in what is today the U.S. Virgin Islands (at the time, Danish West Indies).
He would move to Paris as a young man, where he created thousands of works, in a realist and later impressionist style. After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he moved his family the edge of London. When he returned to France, he found that most of his 1500 paintings had been destroyed.
In 1873, he helped establish a society of aspiring artists who all encouraged each other, working together.
French artist Paul Cézanne is believed to have said “he was a father for me”, influencing him greatly along with younger artists like Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He died at 73 years old in Paris and is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th arrondissement.
16. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834 – 1904)
You may not recognize the name Bartholdi, but you will certainly recognize his most famous sculptural work, Liberty Enlightening the World. Also known as the Statue of Liberty.
Born in Colmar in Alsace, he studied architecture and painting in school, before becoming interested in sculptures. At the approach of the 100 year anniversary of the American Revolution in the 1870s, the Union Franco-Américaine (Franco-American Union) was established.
With his home province Alsace having been conquered by Germany, Bartholdi was inspired by the idea of independence and proposed a large statue to commemorate America’s milestone.
And the rest is history. Interestingly, there are also ten Statues of Liberty in France, to commemorate the occasion, four of which are in Paris:
- l’île aux Cygnes (the one noted above)
- Jardin du Luxembourg
- Musée d’Orsay
- Musée des Arts et Métiers
There is also the Flame of Liberty next to the Pont de l’Alma, which was given to the French people in 1987 by the International Herald Tribune newspaper, symbolizing the friendship between the French and the Americans.
17. Paul Signac (1863 – 1935)
Born in Paris, Paul Signac was a French Neo-Impressionist painter who along with Georges Seurat and Henri-Edmond Cross, helped develop the Pointillist style.
Known for his vivid colors and systematically small dots, Paul Signac painted many scenes of the coast of France, especially in the South.
Beyond painting, Signac also wrote several books on the theory of art, including From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, which was published in 1899.
18. Jacques-Louis David ( 1748 – 1825)
One of the largest and most iconic paintings in the Louvre Museum is by Jacques-Louis David, featuring the Consecration of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the Coronation of his wife Joséphine as Empress.
David was passionate supporter of the revolution, aligning himself with Robespierre until his death. He also painted the famous portrait of Marat dying that also hangs in the Louvre. When Napoleon rose to power, David turned his support towards him.
A neo-classical artist, the painting was completed in 1807 in his role as Napoleon Bonaparte’s official artist. A copy of the painting by the same artist hangs in the Palace of Versailles.
There are a few “creative liberties” that have been taken by Napoleon and his painter, most notably the addition of his mother, who is sitting on a throne in the center watching. His mother hated his wife Josephine and so actually refused to attend, but Napoleon asked for her to be painted into the tableau anyway.
Many other famous paintings of Napoleon are also by David, including the one of him on a horse crossing the Alps that he painted several copies of, including one that hangs in Château Malmaison, the private home Napoleon shared with Josephine.
After the fall of Napoleon, David preferred to go into exile in Brussels, Belgium, where he died at 77 rather than stay in France.
19. Henri Edmond Cross (1856 – 1910)
Another famous neo-impressionist is French painter Henri Edmond Cross. Like Signac and Seurat, he also used pointillism for a mosaic effect.
Cross painted several pieces of art in this style, becoming famous for their harmonious palettes of colors that are pleasing to the eye.
After exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants in 1894, this particular painting was offered by the painter to Paul Signac. Today, Cross’s artwork is featured in museums and galleries all across the world.
20. Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744 – 1818)
Known for her still lifes, Anne Vallayer-Coster achieved fame and recognition very early in her career.
She was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1770, at the young age of twenty-six. With the fall of the monarchy during the revolution, she lost many of her patrons, but continued to paint well into later years.
21. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749 – 1803)
French artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was a strong advocate for women to receive the same opportunities as men to become great painters.
The youngest of 8 children, she was one of the first women to become a member of the Royal Academy. Although initially a painter for Marie-Antoinette and the Royal Family, she managed to survive the 1789 Revolution as she came from a middle-class background.
In 1795 after the height of the Revolution, she obtained artist’s lodging at the Louvre and a new pension of 2,000 livres. She was the first woman artist to be permitted to set up a studio for herself and her students at the Louvre.
23. Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899)
French artist Rosa Bonheur was widely considered to be the most famous female painter of the 19th century. Born in Bordeaux, she was known to wear men’s clothing and lived fairly openly with a female partner.
Her paintings were usually in a hyper-realistic style and she was decorated with the French Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugénie in 1865, as well as promoted to Officer of the Order in 1894.
These days, there is a famous series of bars named after her: the original Rosa Bonheur in Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, Rosa Bonheur sur Seine near Pont Alexandre III (7th), Bois de Vincennes in the 20th arrondissment, as well as a one in the Parisian suburb of Asnieres.
24. Jean Goujon (1510 – 1565)
Notable French sculptor Jean Goujon was born in Normandy, and would become “sculptor to the king”, Henry II of France.
Having created several sculptures for the outside of the Louvre, one of his most famous is actually inside.
A caryatid in ancient greek is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a pillar. In the Salle les Caryatids in the Louvre, we see Goujon’s version.
These sculptures of 4 women hold up on end of a large hall and were sculpted by Jean Goujon in 1550 in the old Greek-style.
25. Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877)
Leading the realism movement, Gustave Courbet was not a painter who feared controversy. A socialist with a larger than life personality, he was famous for his nude paintings as well as his rather brusque demeanour.
The painting that he is most remember for is the Origin of the World, a painting that has remained controversial ever since it was created in 1866. It is a close-up view of the nether region of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread.
Unlike other paintings where the nudity is almost sterile and hairless, the graphic nature of this painting is always going to provoke a reaction. Hanging in the Musée d’Orsay, the painting is definitely rated NC-17. I have not included a photo of the painting but you can find one here.
26. Charles Le Brun (1619 – 1690)
The court painter to Sun King Louis XIV, Charles Le Brun knew all about delivering to a high standard.
Born in Paris, Le Brun first came to the attention of King Louis after working on the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte. King Louis was so jealous of that château, he had his owner thrown in prison and started on building the Château de Versailles to top it.
It would be Le Brun who would paint and direct many of the artworks on the walls and ceilings of Versailles, including in the Hall of Mirrors.
Le Brun was also the driving force behind the establishment of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648.
27. Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755 – 1842)
Madame le Brun as she was known, was a prominent artist in the 18th century, particularly serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. (She is not directly related to Charles Le Brun.)
She painted several famous paintings of Marie-Antoinette, including paintings of the Queen and her family.
On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was admitted as a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. She was one of only 15 women to be granted full membership in the Académie between 1648 and 1793, with her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, being admitted on the same day.
She fled France after the revolution, although she was able to return during the Napoleonic era. Today, her paintings are owned by major museums, such as the Louvre, Hermitage Museum, National Gallery in London, and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
28. Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768 – 1826)
Marie-Guillemine Benoist was a French neoclassical and historical painter who began her training under Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, before she entered Jacques-Louis David’s atelier. (As mentioned above, Jacques-Louis David was the official artist of Napoleon Bonaparte.)
While she painted many important works, one of her most famous is this portrait of an emancipated slave which was painted 6 years after the abolition of slavery.
It became a symbol for the emancipation of women and black people, and today hangs in the Louvre.
29. Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)
French post-Impressionist artist is best known for the exploratory painting techniques known as chromoluminarism as well as pointillism.
He was famous for his harmonious use of colors, with one of his most famous works being the Circus which hangs at the Musée d’Orsay.
30. Frédéric Bazille (1841 – 1870)
Frédéric Bazille, whose painting The Artist’s Studio is the featured image, was an impressionist painter who was good friends with the contemporaries of his day like Monet, Manet, and Renoir.
He achieved much success himself, with his works displayed in museums all across the world. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Bazille would join the army and be killed in battle at the age of 28.