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Fine Arts in Nineteenth-Century Paris: An Overview

by Pauline de Tholozany and Sharon Larson


Neoclassicism and the First Empire [Top]

The period of Neoclassicism roughly extends from the Revolution until the beginning of the Restoration, with a peak during Napoleon’s Empire. The Emperor indeed quickly understood the advantage he could take from the institution of the Salon, an annual exhibition in Paris of contemporary paintings. Because the Salon was used as a space for political propaganda to support his regime, many Neo-Classical paintings from these years either directly celebrate the Christ-like figure of the Emperor, or represent scenes from ancient Rome that have political resonance in contemporary events. These two trends actually converged in many occurrences, since Napoleon was notoriously fascinated by ancient Rome, and used the figure of the Roman Emperor to legitimize himself as the head of the state.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Born in the capital, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) dominated French painting of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. He became famous with his Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons for Burial (Les Licteurs rapportent à Brutus les corps de ses fils, Paris, Musée du Louvre), exhibited in 1789, but executed a while before. Because of the political events, this painting, although produced before the Revolution, was afterwards seen as an allegory of a sublime sacrifice to the state: Brutus, who discovered proof that his sons were plotting against the state, had them executed, and the scene shows the return of their bodies, while Brutus sits in the shadow. After the Revolution, David became a Jacobin (the Revolutionaries had split between Girondins and Jacobins, the latter being more radical), and painted his famous Death of Marat in 1793 (Marat assassiné, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), the year Marat was assassinated. This time, the painting clearly has a political theme: the Jacobin journalist is represented lying dead in his bath, victim of chest wound. The image is highly idealized and shows him in all his sublimity. When Napoleon came to power, he commissioned many paintings to David, in particular the famous Coronation of Napoleon in the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Le sacre de Napoléon, Paris, Musée du Louvre). In this monumental painting, Napoleon, who has just crowned himself in an act to challenge the Church, is shown in the process of crowning Josephine.

David’s influence was enhanced by the fact that he was teaching at the Académie from 1781 to 1816, and several of his pupils became famous, among them Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824), François Gérard (1770-1837), and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)
Gros’s most famous paintings are Bonaparte visiting the Plague House at Jaffa (Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa, 1804, Paris, Musée du Louvre) and The Battle of Eylau (Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d’Eylau, 1808, Paris, Musée du Louvre). Just like David’s Coronation, these two canvasses celebrate Napoleon as a hero and, even more, a Christ-like figure. In The Plague House at Jaffa, the emperor touches one of the contagious sick men in a gesture that not only evokes a healing power, but that also appears like a challenge to death itself. In The Battle of Eylau, Gros shows the Emperor in another critical state, since the army had suffered a big loss and thousands of French soldiers were killed in Russia. But again, the Emperor, on horseback, has an appeasing gesture. The scene alludes to the medical help he provided for the wounded Russian soldiers, and the image wants to insist on the mercy and positive aspects of the Emperor. If the themes are not very different from David’s works, the composition of Gros’s paintings is: while David’s canvasses work primarily with horizontal and vertical lines, Gros constructs his space according to diagonal ones, giving a more dynamic pattern to the scenes.

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1835)
In many ways, Ingres subverted David’s classicism, as one can see for instance in his famous Grande Odalisque, painted in 1814 and exhibited in the Salon the same year (La Grande odalisque, Paris, Musée du Louvre). The theme of the painting was in itself scandalous at the time, since the naked woman it represents is not a mythological figure, but rather an anonymous woman. Ingres’s painting is very detailed and precise, which hides the many disproportions of the woman’s body: her spine is indeed unusually long, she has no finger joints, and her right breast is in a highly improbable position. Ingres was very much criticized at the time because of this painting. It took him a lot of time to decide to exhibit other works in the Salon, which he eventually did in 1824, with his Vows of Louis XIII, a work produced for the cathedral of Montauban, his native town. This time the painting is more classical, and shows Louis XIII placing France under the protection of the Virgin Mary. The work was praised, and Ingres became universally recognized; he was offered the Légion d’honneur and a teaching appointment at the Académie. His later portraits were always very precise and detailed, and he kept combining this characteristic with disproportions and distortions, emphasizing contour over shape.

Romanticism: The Color and the Fury [Top]

Originally, the word “romantique” was used as a synonym of “romanesque”, to describe landscapes that evoked literary descriptions in poems or novels. The Romantic movement in itself was not initiated in France, but its impact on French arts was particularly important, as it first touched literature, and then the visual arts, from the Napoleonic period until the end of the July Monarchy. Romanticism was a movement of liberation of the self, in opposition to Classicism and its rigid forms. Many felt that the Revolution, as the outcome of the enlightenment emphasis on reason, did not keep its promises. There was thus a shift from reason to sentiment, from objectivity to subjectivity, and, in the visual arts, from form to color. The French Romantic painters, though, were far from constituting a homogeneous group. First, they had no political agenda per se: among them were conservatives as well as liberals. Secondly, many of them later rejected the label “Romantic”, such as Delacroix for instance. Thirdly, Romantic art was not limited to one genre: it affected historical painting, portrait painting, and landscape painting, which makes it difficult to give a set of characteristics that would be universally valid.

The modern conception of the artist was largely created in the Romantic era: before, the artist worked for a patron, and was clearly socially inferior to him. After the Revolution, the commissions increasingly came from the bourgeois class, and the social barrier between artist and patron began to be less significant, all the more since the institution of the “Salon” became the crucial stage in artists’ career. The Salon, a biennial show organized by the state, was reinstated by Napoleon, who hoped to promote an “official” art that would support his regime. Although there were norms to be followed, in addition to the political agenda, the Salon gave more autonomy to the artists, since their works were not systematically commissioned anymore, but bought after the show, either by the state or by private collectors. This growing economic autonomy went along with a social change of status of the figure of the artist: as his intellectual pretensions grew, he became closer to the figure of the writer.

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
Theodore Géricault was among the famous painters that exhibited their works at the Salon. One of the first paintings he exhibited is the Officer of the Imperial Gard (Portrait équestre d’un officier de chasseurs à cheval, Paris, Musée du Louvre), that was part of the 1812 Salon during the Napoleonic campaign of Russia. The painting, that shows a charging young officer, was acclaimed at the time it was exhibited. Two years later, as Napoleon had been defeated, Géricault produced a pendant to this painting, The Wounded Cuirassier (Cuirassier blessé quittant le feu, Paris, Musée du Louvre) which, with its dark tones, conveys a much more pessimistic mood, and was criticized because of it. Géricault’s most famous work, The Raft of the Medusa (Le radeau de la Méduse, Paris, Musée du Louvre) was exhibited in 1819, and this time conveys an even more controversial topic. The state had indeed tried to hush up the shipwreck of the Méduse, a boat that was carrying French soldiers, 150 of which were forced to board a raft when the ship sank. Only 15 of them survived, and gave an account of the sufferings during the 15 days on the raft. Some critics argue that Géricault’s choice of subject was not oriented by a political agenda: the real novelty of the painting would lie in the subversive remodeling of the genre of historical painting that it performs. Other critics argue that on the contrary, Géricault used the theme of the shipwreck as an allegory of the French Restoration. These very critics also tend to think that his famous later works, the portraits of the insane people, convey a social reflection on exclusion, poverty and marginality. But these portraits, among which Manic Envy (La Monomane de l’envie, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts), or Delusion of Military Command (Le Monomane du commandement militaire, Winterthur, Oskar Reinhart Collection) also express a new conception of madness, namely not as an evil to be punished, but as a sickness to be treated. Painted between 1819 and 1820, they were indeed meant to serve as case studies for his friend, Dr. Georget, who was a doctor dealing with criminals and lunatics at the Salpêtrière in Paris.

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
In 1822, Delacroix made his debut in the Salon of 1822 with Dante and Virgil in Hell (La Barque de Dant, Paris, Musée du Louvre,), a work that pays homage to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Yet, unlike Géricault’s masterpiece, the subject is not contemporary, and the colors used are far more vivid and contrasting with each other. This debut started Delacroix’s career, since not only it was bought by the government, but it was also praised by Gros, who decided to take Delacroix into his studio. Two years later, Delacroix exhibited The Massacre of Chios (Le Massacre de Chios, Paris, Musée du Louvre), a work that is also a homage to Gros’s Plague house at Jaffa. It represents a scene of defeat from the Greek War of Independence. But, unlike Gros’s painting, Delacroix’s Massacre has no heroic action, and it instead conveys a passive resignation and a negative feeling. Gros ironically called the work “the massacre of painting.” In 1827, Delacroix exhibited the famous Death of Sardanapalus (Mort de Sardanapale, Paris, Musée du Louvre), that he in turn nicknamed his “second massacre”. This painting represents the Byronic scene of the heroic suicide of the defeated Assyrian king. The subversion of the text lies in the change of the role given to the king: in Delacroix’s painting, Sardanapalus is not heroic; he is instead shown as a bored despot passively watching the destruction and violence he imposes on his own concubines.

Delacroix’s only contemporary scene is the well-known Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1830), that was exhibited in 1831. It depicts the July Revolution of the previous year, that put Louis Philippe in power. The salon being also a propaganda space for the government, there were in total 23 works dealing with the July Revolution that year, but Delacroix’s stood out, once again because of the discreet subversion it makes of the theme. He was criticized for the types of characters he chose to compose the work, since they provided no heroic model for people to identify with, but instead reminded the viewer that the Revolution that set the bourgeois power in place was actually fought by the lower classes. There is no idealization of the characters in this painting, when idealization is precisely a feature that would be typical to the allegorical genre, and required by a government that had just been put in place; one that sought to justify itself through propagandist paintings. The state nonetheless bought the work, but it was locked up and was not displayed until the next political regime in 1848. Delacroix then traveled throughout North Africa, and from these travels executed a series of paintings with orientalist themes such as the famous Algerian Women in their Apartment (Femmes algériennes dans leur appartement, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1834). When he came back to France, he won commissions for monumental works for the Palais Bourbon, the Louvre, and the Hotel de Ville among others, which are more traditional in their themes and treatment, and that occupied him until the end of his life.

Horace Vernet (1789-1863), Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
These painters can be less equivocally labeled as Romantics than Delacroix and Géricault, who did not particularly claim an affiliation to the movement. Horace Vernet was a friend of Theodore Géricault, particularly famous at the time for his battle scenes. Just like Géricault, he had a pessimistic vision of the society of his time, and his Peace and War (Soldat laboureur, London, Wallace Collection, 1820) shows a war veteran turned ploughman, in prey to a melancholic meditation. Horace Vernet married his only daughter to Paul Delaroche, a painter trained in Gros’s studio, and also influenced by Géricault. Delaroche was the most famous French painter to embrace the style troubadour, in paintings such as The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (L’Assasinat du Duc de Guise, London, Wallace Collection, 1832), or Princes in the Tower (Les enfants d’Edouard, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1831). The style troubadour was characterized by its medieval subjects, a historical dimension, and gothic decors. Although this style was popular at the time, Delaroche’s most famous painting is his Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (Bonaparte franchissant les Alpes, Paris, Musée du Louvre,1848). It shows the tired emperor riding a mule through the cold weather. The image is far from Gros’s idealization of Napoleon in a painting such as Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa, but Delaroche’s intent was not to undermine the figure of the emperor. On the contrary, he wanted to humanize Napoleon rather than represent him as an idol.

Realism, Politics and 1848 [Top]

During the reign of Louis Philippe, some artists began to produce images that were subversive to the Regime, such as Daumier’s print Rue Transnonain, which was published by Philipon in L’Association Mensuelle in the fall of 1834. In April of the same year, Louis Philippe had sent troops to the Rue Transnonain, in order to stop some demonstrations. One of the officers was killed, and, as means of revenge, the other officers massacred all of the civilians in the neighborhood. Daumier’s lithograph shows the corpse of a man lying on the floor of his room, with his dead child under him. The dead body of a woman lies in the left background of the image, while the head of an older man occupies the right bottom corner. This image was of course very much of a threat to the regime, in addition to being politically subversive, by showing reality in an unmannered, blunt and crude way. In a sense this print shares similarities with photojournalism, because of its goal to inform and provoke a reaction. The government bought and destroyed as many copies as possible and passed laws in 1835 to increase censorship and restrict publications of that kind. Throughout the period, some artists were starting to choose the lower classes as the subject of their paintings, but the trend became obvious after the fall of the July Monarchy in 1848. After political upheaval and revolts, Louis Philippe fled to England, the Second Republic started, and every male citizen obtained the right to vote. To inaugurate the new political regime, there was no longer a jury at the yearly Salon. This gave many artists an opportunity to exhibit their works that did not suit the previous monarchy. There was an increasing number of paintings dealing with the conditions of life of the lower classes, showing a social concern that was absent from the grandiose themes of Romanticism.

The Republic only lasted until 1852, when Napoleon III, who had been chosen president, organized a coup and started the Second Empire, which was to last until 1870. Although with the empire there was a recrudescence of propagandist art to support the new political regime, the trend of Realism remained, in particular thanks to the influence of Gustave Courbet, who wrote a manifesto entitled Le Réalisme in 1855, the year of the Exposition Universelle. Since most of his works had been refused by the committee, the painter organized a Pavillon du Réalisme on the fringe of the Exposition, and described his ideas about art, explaining that his task was “to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation.”

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
In the salon of 1850-1, Courbet exhibited a work entitled A Burial at Ornans (Enterrement à Ornans, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1849-50) that challenged many conventions of the time and caused a scandal. The painting’s dimensions are monumental (10 x 22 feet). It represents the burial of an anonymous man in the country, and it was very subversive at the time, since big scale formats were reserved for historical subjects. Instead, Courbet chose a middle class scene, which he organized somewhat like a frieze in terms of space; the painting is very long, and the foreground is entirely occupied by the people attending the ceremony. The painting also challenges the ideology of the time, which made death the “great equalizer,” thus forcing poor people to accept their inferior social condition, in exchange for a better one in the after-life. Country people are represented on a scale usually reserved for mythological or political images. The same amount of attention to detail is given to each face and figure of these characters standing next to each other, suggesting that the notion of equality is applicable to life itself.

The painter did not dramatize death, but rather showed it in its triviality and its quotidian dimension, which by the same token also shows the unspeakable and the ineffable dimension of death. The public was intensely critical of this work, which was a reminder of the new political regime and of the aspirations of the people towards equality. Another famous painting by Courbet is his Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine, Paris, Musée du Petit Palais), which he presented in the Salon of 1856-7, and which also caused a scandal at the time. Several clues tell us indeed that the young ladies are “cocottes”, that is, loose women: one of the two women lying on the ground took off her dress, to use it as a pillow. In the background, there is a small boat used to access the shore, and in it a trace of masculine presence, a hat. The painting was very subversive at the time because of its choice of characters, and its crude, down to earth execution.

Courbet’s most subversive painting, however, is the famous Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1866), that represents the genitals and thighs of a woman lying down. The last owner of the painting was the famous psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, until the Orsay museum acquired it in 1995; it continues to maintain its controversial and subversive dimension.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883)
The 1870s and 1880s marked a turn in the work of avant-garde leader Édouard Manet. He had preceded Impressionism and had inspired Monet’s movement in more than one way. Though never an avowed Impressionist himself, he did not escape its technical innovations. Controversial pieces like Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1863) had earned him the enmity of established critics and hardship of being excluded from the Salons. In that canvass, indeed, Monet goes one step further than Courbet and his Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine: this time the woman of the foreground is completely naked, and the masculine presence not only suggested, like in Courbet’s painting, but clearly presented at the center of the painting, by the two young men chatting together. The scene is clearly erotic, and the two women are explicitly designed as “cocottes” in the crudest possible way. No wonder then that the painting was not accepted in the official Salon, and was instead exhibited in the Salon des refusés.

His famous Olympia (Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1865) was exhibited two years later, and also subverts many conventions of the time. First of all, just like in Luncheon on the Grass, the woman’s body is painted without the classical chiaroscuro, replaced by a much more realistic and crude light. Indeed the shadows on the feminine figure are reduced to almost nothing. The figure of the reclining woman was a very common theme in painting, and Manet’s canvass implicitly refers to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, 1538): same position of the body, same spatial arrangement of the background, same items in the same place (animal, curtain, pillows, etc.). Manet’s painting is indeed a clear reinterpretation of Titian’s. The subversion lies in the details on Olympia’s body, like the ribbon around her neck, that suggest that she is closer to being a courtesan than an ideal mythological figure.

Manet’s subject range was varied, ranging from portraits to marine scenes. During his most impressionistic years, he pursues his interest in contemporary Parisian leisure activities. These paintings include Le Coin d’un café-concert (Corner in a Café-Concert, c. 1870-1871), Au Café (c. 1878-1880), and the notoriously disconcerting A Bar at the Folies Bergères (Un bar aux Folies-Bergères, London, Courtauld Institute Galleries,1881-1882). That painting represents a barmaid behind her counter, while in the mirror behind her we can see her back and the face of a customer speaking to her. The composition is very static, and the face of the woman clearly expresses boredom. At the time, the public was not used to representations of the everyday, of the trivial reality of boredom, and thus Manet’s paintings were considered as actually not having a subject, and he was very much criticized for it.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)
Millet’s subject of predilection was the life in the countryside, and his work mostly dealt with the poor people at work in the fields. His Sower (Le Semeur, Boston, Museum of Art, 1850) was exhibited the same year as Courbet’s Burrial at Ornans. Just like the latter, it casts a light on France’s lower classes, and the painting was criticized because of this. As time passed, Millet’s paintings became more popular, perhaps because they also became more idealistic and optimistic. His famous Gleaners (Les Glaneuses, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1857) still show hard agricultural tasks, but this time the postures and the bodies display an almost classical composition, and convey the dignity and beauty of the scene. His Angelus (L’Angélus, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1859) even goes further in the glorification of a pastoral scene: a man and his wife have stopped their work in the field to pray as the Angelus rings in the fading sunlight. Millet produced a moving picture that appealed to his contemporaries, in part because of the nostalgia for life in the countryside in a moment of intense urbanization.

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879)
In addition to his work as a graphic artist, Daumier produced a number of paintings which were not, at the time, exhibited to the public. For the most part, they became famous after his death. He painted both literary and mythological subjects (like the Don Quixote series), as well as contemporary scenes from everyday life that show an acute social conscience. Among these, The First Class Carriage (Intérieur d’un wagon de première classe, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 1864) and the Third Class Carriage (Intérieur d’un wagon de deuxième classe, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1863-1865) are particularly revealing of the difference of classes in which the painter was interested. In the first class compartment, four people are sitting quietly in a cozy atmosphere, while the second class carriage is dark and crowded. Daumier also painted a series called The Heavy Burden around 1850 (Le Fardeau, variations of the theme can be seen in the National Gallery of Prague, in the National Museum of Whales, and in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, among others). The pictures show a laundry woman accompanied by her little girl, and carrying a heavy basket. All of the versions of the painting convey the harsh reality of the everyday life, and, metaphorically speaking, tell the viewer about the burden of poverty, that seems inescapable.

Symbolism [Top]

Towards the end of the century, there was a growing trend against realism and naturalism. The symbolists reacted against positivism, social Darwinism, and empirical science. Instead, they wanted to promote a more spiritual art. They rarely treated contemporary subjects, but worked a lot on mythological, biblical and literary themes. Many late Romantics joined the movement, which was far from being homogeneous, since very different artists were actually labeled symbolists at the time: Puvis de Chavannes, Moreau, Redon, Van Gogh and Gauguin among others. What they have in common, though, is an approach to painting that transcends reality, and that instead tries to focus on the imaginary (Redon), or the mythological (Moreau). Both of these painters’ works actually appear in the novel A Rebours, by J.K. Huysmans, in which the hero, Des Esseintes, decides to escape from reality and society and live in complete isolation in the suburbs of Paris. Des Esseintes chooses Moreau’s paintings and Redon’s prints to decorate his sanctuary. The choice is hardly surprising, since both of their productions manifest a flight from everyday reality into hallucination and fantasy. Huysmans’s novel had a tremendous influence, and contributed to Moreau’s subsequent success.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1824-1898
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was a source of inspiration and a precursor of the symbolists. He was very popular in the last two decades of the century, and executed commissions for the state in the great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne (The Sacred Grove/Le Bois sacré, 1886-1889) and in the Pantheon (St Geneviève Keeping Watch over Sleeping Paris/ Sainte Geneviève veillant sur Paris, 1893-8). Because of the absence of chiaroscuro and of the flatness of his treatment of color, his murals have a fresco-like appearance, although they all are oil paintings. Puvis de Chavannes was influenced notably by his trips to Italy, and the Pompeiian frescoes he saw there. He is a precursor of the symbolists in the sense that much of his work conveys a mystical atmosphere, and some of his subjects (like The Dream, 1883, Paris Musée d’Orsay) have an oneiric dimension.

Gustave Moreau, 1826-1898.
Moreau’s fame as a painter started with the exhibition of his Oedipus and the Sphinx (Oedipe et le sphinx, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), in the salon of 1864. The painting, which was eventually purchased by Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, illustrates the famous story of the sphinx’s riddle. Oedipus is standing, the sphinx clinging to his body. The two figures have a frozen attitude, and very little expression. At Oedipus’s feet lie decaying body parts of several corpses, which we cannot see entirely because they are cut by the frame. Moreau thus produced a distressing picture, created a morbid effect and an uncanny feeling in the viewer. His two well-known pictures of Salome owe their fame to Huysmans’s novel A Rebours, since they are the subjects of two long descriptions that both define and praise the Symbolist approach to painting. In Salome Dancing before Herod (Salomé dansant devant Hérode, Los Angeles, CA, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 1876), an oil on canvass that he exhibited at the salon of the same year, the heroine occupies the foreground, holding a lotus and about to start her dance. A characteristic of Moreau’s style in these years is the saturation of space with details, whether architectural, ornamental, or in terms of clothing of the characters. Thus Herode is shown sitting in the background, on a complicated and elevated throne, while great precision is given to the vaults framing the scene. By contrast, The Apparition (L’Apparition, Paris, Musée du Louvre), a watercolor from the same year in which Salome has the same posture, shows another moment of the scene: this time she is directly pointing at the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The watercolor focuses on the moment after the dance, and indeed Salome is partially denuded as she stops dancing. The head of the saint is framed by a halo of light in which we can distinguish the blood dripping from the neck, adding to the morbid atmosphere of the picture. Salome in both paintings incarnates the figure of the femme fatale that was dear to the symbolists, a theme that Huysmans develops consistently in his novel.

Odilon Redon, 1840-1916.
When the term symbolism was definitely coined in the middle 1880’s, Odilon Redon was said to be the main representative of its manifestations in art. Redon’s graphic career started after he came back from the Franco-Prussian war. At that time he was producing a large amount of charcoal drawings, and in 1879, in an attempt to be known by the public, he published at his own expense an album of lithographs entitled In the Dream (Dans le rêve). This album is a series of 10 images representing dream-like scenes that still strike critics today as anticipating Surrealism. In the image entitled “Vision,” for instance, a couple is stopping in front of a monumental eye hanging in the air between two pillars, and staring at the sun. The play on the direction of the gazes here is very intricate: we watch the couple watching the eye, but the object of the gaze of the hanging eye itself is outside the picture.

Redon’s work became saturated with tropes like eyes, spiders, heads and balloons. Towards the end of his life, his work with color became more famous, such as the paintings on the walls of the library at Fontfroide Abbey near Narbonne (1910–11).

Gauguin, 1848-1903.
Gauguin’s career as a painter cannot be reduced to the label of symbolism alone, but it is true that his work, and particularly his late work, shows traces of a symbolist approach to painting. His most famous paintings were inspired by his stay in Tahiti, where he lived for a long time. His Manau Tupapau (Tahitian for The Specter Watches over Her, New York Buffalo, 1892, Albright-Knox art Gallery, A. Conger Goodyear Collection) shows a young woman lying on her stomach, in prey to a bad hallucination incarnated by a specter figure behind her. Of course the figure of the reclining female nude recalls Manet’s Olympia, which was already very subversive, but Gauguin goes a step further in replacing the white woman by a dark one. The theme of the painting is in itself close to the Symbolists’ favorite subjects, namely nightmare and hallucination. The painter’s approach here does not consist in depicting a realist scene, but in conveying a mood, and, more importantly, in giving a hint at the existence of a spiritual world, a motive that is very characteristic of many symbolist paintings. In his monumental canvass entitled Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? Where Are We Going? (D'où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1897), this trend towards the representation of the spiritual is confirmed: the painting represents several stages of the life of man. There are many figures depicted in this image, the most striking ones being the baby on the right, the young man cutting a fruit in the middle, and the death-like figure on the left. Gauguin was inspired, as he himself wrote, by Puvis de Chavannes in terms of format and organization. But the treatment of the scene is very different from Puvis’ stiff figures: Gauguin is not trying to depict a scene as precisely as possible, but to convey a sense of energy and a personal perception of the cycle of life.

Impressionism [Top]

In 1874, Monet presented a painting entitled Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant. Paris, Musée Marmottan) at an independent exhibition. Because of the blurring of the colors and of the imprecise shapes in the image, the painting was seen as unfinished by the critics, and was eventually labeled as « impressionist », an ironical reference to its title. Coined half-jokingly, the term “impressionism” refers to the modernist movement led by a group of Paris-based painters who developed techniques to treat the effects of light and changing phenomena. Later on, they were to accept and use the word to characterize themselves as a group.

Their work was different from the academic tradition in two ways: obviously, the execution of their paintings shows a clear break with the rules of academic art of the time. The brushstrokes are very visible, and the general aspect of their paintings was characterized at the time as being closer to a sketch than to a finished work. In addition, the subjects of their paintings also depart from tradition: instead of painting historical scenes, portraits, or realist scenes, they chose to depict landscape and genre scenes, most of the time dealing with middle class leisure. The impressionists were rarely admitted in the official salon, and thus their practice of exhibition and sale was different: they resorted to private art dealers, private exhibitions, and sold their works at auction.

Claude-Oscar Monet (1840-1926)
Monet was born in Paris, but his family moved to Le Havre, Normandy when he was still a child. Before the scandal caused by his Impression, Sunrise,, Monet was already working on a technique involving fragmented and visible brushwork, especially in the series of paintings representing La Grenouillère, a popular place on the banks of the Seine. Monet and Renoir were both trying to keep in their paintings a sketch-like quality, and several years later Monet was to exhibit La Grenouillère (The Frog Pond, La Grenouillère, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1869) as a finished work, when it had been at first intended as a sketch. In 1870, Monet moved to London, fleeing the Franco-Prussian war. Critics agree that he probably saw some Turner paintings there, and some specialists even argue that Impression, Sunrise, that he exhibited in 1872, may have been inspired by Turner’s work. When he was back in France, Monet became the leading figure of the impressionists, now settled in Argenteuil. He organized their exhibitions, and started painting urban scenes, such as the famous series of the Saint Lazare train station (Gare Saint Lazare, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1877).

In the 1880s, Monet painted scenes of Normandy, including some of his most influential Impressionist pieces. His series depicting the cathedral of Rouen and the river Thames at different times in the day is emblematic of Monet’s preoccupation with light, which marked most of his work in the 90’s.

For the next 30 years of his life, Monet worked on a series of canvasses depicting the water lilies and the Japanese bridge of his garden in Giverny. He had a studio built for that purpose at the beginning of the century. The plan consisted in creating a monumental painting that would be disposed around the viewer. Monet gave his Water Lilies to the state in 1920 (Les nymphéas, Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, 1920), but they were not exhibited until 1927, five months after his death.

Pierre Auguste Renoir. 1841-1919
Born in Limoges in a working class family, Renoir moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1962. He was interested in outdoor painting, and he shared this interest with Monet, whom he met in Gleyre’s studio. The two of them often worked together, most notably at La Grenouillère. Just like Monet’s painting, Renoir’s version (La Grenouillère, Stockholm, National Museum, 1869) is executed with heavy brushstrokes, and the characters in the water are barely suggested, while those standing on the dock are only very roughly sketched.

Renoir particularly focused on the urban and suburban social life of the capital. His Impressionist period (1870-1883) left an impressive body of works depicting working class, bourgeois, artists, or even aristocrats’ enjoyments. These ranged from his treatment of La Grenouillère to the boisterous Ball at the Moulin de la Galette (Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1876), which is also recognized as a masterpiece of his impressionist work. It shows a crowd of middle class people dancing in Montmartre, where the painter was living at that time. The brushstrokes are much lighter than in La Grenouillère, and the painter mainly worked on the effects of patches of light on the characters.

The Luncheon of the Boating party (Le Déjeuner des canotiers, Washington D.C., Philips collection, 1880-1881) is Renoir’s last painting in this style. This time the treatment of light consists of a sharp contrast between the characters in the foreground and the dark and imprecise background, while a great attention is given to details: the food, the glasses, and the bottles on the table are all painted with a precision of a still life painting.

Renoir did not remain an Impressionist for his entire career; initially, he experimented with classical, romantic, and realistic styles, and by the mid-1880s he returned to a more traditional, Ingres-influenced approach. As he became famous and recognized, he painted more portraits and family scenes, such as Young girls at the Piano (Les jeunes filles au piano, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1892).

Gustave Caillebotte, 1848-1894
Gustave Caillebotte was born in an upper middle class family and studied at the Beaux-Arts in 1873. He took part in the first impressionist exhibition of 1874. He soon had a particular status among the group, since not only was he participating artistically in the successive exhibitions, but he also provided financial support for many impressionists, by purchasing their works. His project was to leave his collection to the state at his death, and indeed most of the works he acquired as early as in 1876 are exhibited today in the Musée d’Orsay (among them Monet’s Gare Saint Lazare, Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, and other works by Degas or Pissaro). Subsequently, Caillebotte has been known mainly as the impressionists’ patron, until in the second half of the twentieth century when his work as a painter was recognized as such. In 1875, Caillebotte’s Planing the Floor (Les Raboteurs de parquet, Paris, Musée d’Orsay) was refused by the Salon’s jury. The canvass is today one of his most famous paintings, but at the time it was very controversial: Millet and the Naturalists had indeed represented lower social classes’ everyday life, but the subject of workers in cities had remained unexplored. Even Zola, at the time, criticized the painting for what he thought was a “peinture bourgeoise à force d’exactitude”. After having been refused at the Salon, Caillebotte joined the impressionists. His work deals extensively with everyday life in Haussman’s Paris. He painted scenes of middle class “flâneurs” in the Grands Boulevards, such as his Paris Street, Rainy Weather (Rue de Paris un jour de pluie, Art Institute of Chicago, 1877). Many of his paintings represent these same flâneurs in a new architectural decor, made of steel girders, such as On the Europe Bridge (Pont de l’Europe, Genève, Musée du Petit Palais, 1876).

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar Degas has a particular status among impressionists: he did show his work in the impressionists’ exhibitions, he was part of their group, and his paintings do convey a radically untraditional way to represent reality. Yet he in fact saw himself more as a realist painter. Most of his pictures represent interior scenes, and he is especially famous for his depictions of ballet dancers, both on stage and backstage. One of Degas’s peculiarities as a painter lies in the framing of his compositions. In Dancer with Bouquet (Danseuse au bouquet saluant sur la scène, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1876), for instance, the main subject is not represented in the center: the dancer in the foreground is indeed off-centered, and part of her dress is cut off from the picture. Another characteristic of Degas’ painting is the variety and mixture of mediums he uses to compose his work; after 1870, his favorite technique was pastels, but he sometimes worked with combinations of oil painting and pastels.

Photography: Paris by Light [Top]

In the 1830s, both Daguerre in France and Talbot in England were working on ways to produce images by using light on various mediums treated with chemicals. Talbot’s technique, known as collotype, consisted of creating a negative on paper before working on the positive. Daguerre used a similar technique, but he and his colleague Niepce created a negative on a chemically treated copper plate instead of paper, thus providing a sharper image.

In France, it was mainly Daguerre’s and Niepce’s technique that proliferated in the following decades, for the patent of the daguerreotype was bought by the French government in 1839. Initially, only stationary subjects could be photographed because this technique required 30 minutes of exposure. Daguerre mainly worked on cityscapes and architecture images. In 1851, the French government hired photographers to take pictures of streets and monuments of Paris. The government was particularly interested in documenting the streets and buildings that would soon be destroyed by Haussmann’s urbanization project. Ten years later, the photographer Charles Marville was commissioned by the government to take pictures of the Haussmann reconstruction that was taking place in Paris.

In the beginning of the 1850s, the time of exposure necessary to take photographs diminished radically. Thanks to improvements in the chemicals necessary to produce a negative, it was now possible to produce portraits. Photography started to be accessible to the bourgeois classes, eager to acquire family portraits for an affordable price. Usually, photographers would create an artificial décor around the sitter, providing a grandiose setting.

Nadar (a pseudonym for “Tourne à Dard,” referring to his sharp and ironic caricatures) is certainly the most famous French photographer of that time. He started his career as a caricaturist, publishing his works in Le Charivari, among other newspapers. When he started working with photography, he quickly became famous for his portraits. Unlike other photographers, Nadar shot his portraits without any artificial décor, giving his pictures both simplicity and truthfulness. He took pictures of the most famous artists and authors of the time, including Daumier, Courbet, Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, or Théophile Gautier, among many others. In the 1860s, he also innovated other fields of photography, taking photographs of Paris from an air balloon, as well as using electric lights to photograph Paris’s catacombs.


Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth Century European Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.

Grove Art Online. Co-editors Jane Turner and Hugh Brigstocke. 2001. Oxford University. 9 Nov. 2007.

Shapiro, Barbara Stein (ed.). Pleasures of Paris: Daumier to Picasso. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1991.

Wright, Beth S. The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.