(Street in Paris on a Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877))
Since not everybody studied Art History or feels like reading through endless pages in guide books, I have summarised the history of the Fine Arts in Paris here for you; from the Dark Ages to the 20th century.
At the latest since the late Middle Ages Paris has been immensely important for the Art History. With the renovation of the Cathedral of St.Denis in 1114 and the building of Notre Dame from 1162 onwards the Gothic was born and spread from there all over Europe (it was during this time that Paris became the undisputed capital of France). Instead of the very massive and rather vertically oriented churches of the Romanesque, defined by large wall spaces, now ever taller churches were built, with ever bigger windows and a new language of design.
Paris’ role as the birthplace of the Gothic could explain why it lasted so long here, until the early 16th century and it even experienced renaissances in the 19th and 20th century. Of course that doesn’t mean that Paris skipped the Renaissance but the new art form was still very much influenced by the Gothic.
With the Gothic the sculpture changed significantly. Instead of the confinement on relief as in the Romanesque the sculptures became much more plastic und more independent from the architecture. In the Late Middle Ages (mid 14th century) the first portait sculptures were created, which went from idealism to a new realism. In painting the first portrait in form of a panel painting of John II., now hanging in the Louvre, was created at about the same time by an unknown artist.
Renaissance and Baroque
As already mentioned, the Renaissance, which started in Florence, was only partially adopted in Paris, what certainly was also due to the raging of the Hundred Year’s War. Only in the 15th century under Francis I. (who brought artists like Leonardo Da Vinci or Rosso Fiorentino to his court in the Loire Valley) the Renaissance was adopted more widely in France. Especially the architecture remained very gothic influenced though, the sacral buildings more so than the villas of the upper class (which are called Hôtels). An outstanding and well-preserved example of the Parisian Renaissance is the Hôtel Carnavalet from the middle of the 16th century, where you can find the city history museum nowadays.
In the 17th century then the Baroque found its way to France, but without the pathos and the extravagant form language as was established in its birthplace Rome. That’s why in France the Baroque is called Style Classique, because of its more sober orientation.
In the beginning of the century the Place des Vosges (called Place Royale until the revolution) was built unter the rule of Henry IV. in the quarter Marais. It served as an archetype for later squares like the Place Victoire or the Place Vendôme. The square itself, surrounded on all 4 sides by houses, is in surpringly good shape and therefore the place to go to get a feel for the Paris of the 16th/17th century. Another building project under Henry IV. was the systematic alteration of the Louvre, which lasted many centuries.
In the 17th century the Hôtels of the upper class gained more and more relevance. They often followed the style of the Renaissance palazzi in Florence. One of the most significant examples is the Hôtel de Sully (from 1628). Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626), who built the Palais Luxembourg for example, is seen as the founder of the Style Classique.
The French Baroque reached its peak during the absolutistic rule of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Even if Paris lost significance in favor of Versailles, the Grand Siècle, as this time is called, left its mark. The two king squares Place Vendôme and Place des Victoires as well as the Hôtel des Invalides (which was conceived as an elderly home for veterans) were built as outstanding examples of the Style Classique. Furthermore the Sun King brought many artists to his court, which of course also worked in Paris. Two of the most prominent architectes were Franҫois Mansart (most famous for his castles; in Paris his church Val-de-Grâce is still conserved) and Louis le Vau, who built the garden facade of the Louvre for example. In the Louvre you can see paintings by Charles Le Brun, the court painter of Louis XIV.
Rococo and Classicism
In the 18th century Rococo became fashion in Paris, which you can still clearly see in the playful inner decorations of the city palaces like the Elysée Palace (where nowadays the Prime Minister lives). The relative soberness of the French baroque was replaced with an extravagance of forms and decorations. But even before the Revolution started the artists turned again to more classical forms of expression: Classicism was born, which reached its peak with painter Jacques Louis David, who was court painter of Napoleon from 1805 onwards. His renewed interest in Greek and Roman times is reflected not only in the numerous ancient scenes he painted but also in the way he painted, his composition and his brushwork. Until the middle of the 19th century painters measured themselves on David’s work. The Louvre exhibits a great collection of the artist’s paintings.
The building projects under Napoleon also resorted to ancient forms, clearly seen at the Bourse or the Church Ste-Madeleine with their antique temple facades.
Art in the 19th century
Seen as a whole the 19th century was a very fruitful period for art in Paris and starting from there for the whole world. At the beginning of the century the artists of Romanticism explore the unconscious in humans; Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault in painting; Charles Baudelaire in literature and Victor Hugo (who lived at the Place des Vosges for a long time) in both art forms. At the middle of the century the Impressionists create, in their renunciation of Classicism, a radical new way of painting. Musicians like Georges Bizet, Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy created works which still fill opera and concert halls. Jules Verne, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola and other extraordinary writers wrote their way into world literature.
The era of the Industrial Revolution made new ways of constructing possible; iron and ferroconcrete were now used for market halls (Les Halles), exhibition rooms (Grand and Petit Palais), towers (you know which one I’m talking about) and even churches (Saint Augustin). At the same time photography was invented and shortly before the end of the century film was born.
If you talk about art in Paris in the 19th century you have to mention the Salon: mostly private events where paintings were exhibited, literature read or music pieces introduced. What was accepted and recognised during the Salons was also approved of socially. The most important Salon in Paris was the Salon de Paris, already created by Louis XIV. in 1667 and situated inside the Louvre. It was very conservative (neo-classical) and so the Impressionists were not allowed to exhibit there with their new way of painting, their art not recognised. So they organised their own exhibition on the 15th of April in 1874 in the workshop of photographer Félix Nadar.
Nonetheless the Salon, as a cultural phenenomen spread all over Europe, contributed much to the exchange of the different arts and artists. It fits into a time where all the different artistic, political and economical tendencies are in constant exchange.
Connection of the Arts
Eugène Delacroix for example created his famous painting Liberty Leading the People in 1830 on the occasion of the (anew and only short) victory of democracy over the monarchy. The armed boy on the right side of the picture inspired Victor Hugo, another devoted advocate of democracy, to the character of Gavroche in his novel Les Misérables (recently adapted on the big screen as a musical). He wrote the book in exile on Guernsey, where he had to move from 1851-71 because of his criticism of Napoleon III., who named himself emperor.
The market halls Les Halles, built during the time of Hugo’s exile by Victor Baltard out of glass and iron, were praised as a masterpiece of the new architecture and inspired artists of all kinds. Most famous are Émile Zola’s novel The Belly of Paris (1873) and the photographs of Eugène Atget.
And the artists get inspired even more by each other. The great sculptor Auguste Rodin created from 1891 on a statue of the workaholic writer Honoré de Balzac (who worked up to 16 hours per day, pushed by around 50 cups of coffee per day), which now stands on the Place Vavin the 6th arrondissement. Félix Nadar photographed Rodin, like almost all other important persons in Paris of the time: Debussy, Verne, Daumier, Baudelaire, Delaxroix, Monet, Zola, Gustave Eiffel, and many more. It’s worth to check out the portraits on Wikipedia.
Jules Verne then gets inspired by Nadars hot air balloon expeditions to his novel Around the World in 80 Days. In 1867 Éduoard Manet paints the funeral of Charles Baudelaire, who’s Les Fleurs du Mal were the main inspiration for Rodin’s Hell Gate, on which the sculptor worked for 37 years without every finishing it. But single works from the gigantic project belong to his most famous works nowadays (for example The Kiss).
Art in the 20th century
Before I get lost in all the anecdotes we jump to the time between the World Wars, which was a very productive time not only for the photography. Nowadays we call the time the Golden Twenties. While Montmartre was the artist’s quarter in the 19th century, when it still was cheap and sparsely populated, in the 20th century the artists moved to the left bank of the Seine, called Rive Gauche. “Rive Gauche stood symbolically for all “left banks” of the world. It was considered as a capital of all the misfits of society.” (Walks through the Paris of Gertrude Stein)
Paris became famous as a city of intellect and art during the Belle Epoque, how the time from 1884 until WW1 is called. Which is why many artists especially from the USA moved to Paris, who had often already been here during the war. The most famous of these returners is Ernest Hemmingway, who moved to Paris in 1921. The term ‘lost generation’, coined by him and Gertrude Stein, is directed at the generation of young men who were robbed of their early manhood by the war, the time where normally lives and families are built.
Between the World Wars
The 20s and the early 30s were also the time of the Stein family in Paris: Gertrude Stein (who you may know from Midnight in Paris) and her less famous brother Leo. The American siblings came to Paris the first time in 1903 and started collecting paintings by contemporary, less known French artists like Matisse, Cézanne or Picasso, with whom they also became friends. These painters continued what the the impressionists had begun in the 19th century, moving away from classical styles of painting and naturalistic reproductions and a turning towards subjective and abstract ways of expression: Painting had become modern.
With her soirees every saturday evening Gertrude, who was a writer herself, became a cultural authority in Paris, so to say. By 1920 they were already famous and attracted artists like Hemmingway, Picasso, James Joyze, Ezra Pound or Man Ray.
Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously, gives its readers a vivid and authentic insight to the Paris of the 20s. In it he describes his problems, financially and artistically as well as the artistic scene with which he associated (including Gertrude Stein, who became very important for him) and of course the Paris of the time; the people, the atmosphere, the streets.
The 20s were also the time of the beginning of Surrealism. In 1924 the writer André Breton created the famous Paris Surrealist Group, which was later joined by artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró or Luis Buñuel. No matter if literature, painting, film or photography the artists wanted to start an intellectual revolution, which was supposed to free man from false rationality and restrictive barriers and rules, socially and intellectually.
Ironically, cynically, the Second World War started soon after.
The 50s and the 60s were the time of Existentialism, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, of the nihilism of Samuel Beckett (who moved to Paris in 1937) and of the Nouvelle Vague, the sociocritical movies by directors like François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.
The two biggest changes in the cityscape in the 70s were the demolition of Les Halles (1972), which was met with indignation worldwide, and the building of the
Centre Pompidou (1972-77). Under the new president
François Mitterand (1981-1995 in office) the new quarter La Défense was built with the dedication of the Grande Arche in 1989. Under Mitterand then the Opéra de la Bastille was opened in 1990 and the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France was built. Furthermore the Louvre was redesigned with the Glass Pyramid and the Cour Napoleon. The extentions also done made the Louvre the biggest museum of the world.