Art: from prehistory to the Middle Ages
page looks at the early history of French art - notably painting - from
prehistoric times up to
the Middle Ages.
have been painting in France since prehistory. The
magnificent cave paintings at le Chauvet in the Ardèche -
dating from around 30,000
BC, are among the world's oldest, far older than other fine examples of
Paleolithic art in caves at Pech Merle, near Cahors, or Lascaux. These
are all art produced in what is now France, but to call them French art
would be quite inappropriate. French art did not begin to
before France came into existence, and even in the time of Charlemagne,
in the ninth century,
art was not national; where it existed, it was either part of a
European culture, spread through the networks of pre-mediaeval
monasteries, or else it was local - largely out of touch with even what
was going on even in the next town.
painting at Lascaux
Little remains of French
painting from before the year 1000 AD; the great centres of painting in
Europe before this time were in Italy, Byzantium and to a lesser degree
Spain; but not in France. It was only with the emergence of mediaeval
Europe from the tenth century onwards that France (that is the area of
Europe that is now France) became a key player on the international
It was the development - in France - of the Romanesque
style of architecture - known as the Norman style in England - that
gave a new impulse to the art of painting. Many, if not most, of
France's fine new
Romanesque churches were lavishly decorated with frescoes and murals;
classic early examples are to be found at Saint Savin sur
in the 11th century frescoes decorating the 9th century Baptistry at
Poitiers, France's oldest church. One of the finest examples of
Romanesque sculpture is at the Sainte Foy curch, in Conques (See Conques photo gallery).
French Romanesque art owed much to
Byzantine tradition well established in Italy and the near East,
styles that would have been seen first hand by Crusaders, travelling
clerics and merchants of the day.
of the 11th century fresco in the baptistry at Poitiers - depicting
While the Romanesque style in
architecture was gradually superceded by the Gothic
style from the 12th
century onwards, paintings in the Romanesque style continued to be used
to decorate churches in France, particularly in rural France, until
well into the 14th century. There are many fine examples of late
Romanesque mural art tucked away in small churches in rural France,
specially in the southern half of the country.
France has relatively
little in the way of painting from the early Gothic period;
finest examples of early French Gothic art - as opposed to architecture
- are in the form of stained glass, as in the cathedral at
Chartres, or sculpture, notably the many fine examples of gothic
sculpture adorning French cathedrals. Like the Romanesque style, the
Gothic style of architecture was one that developed in France, from
where it quickly spread to much of Europe, and in particular to England
which, at the time, being ruled by Normans then Angevins, was an
integral part of the French cultural area.
Gothic architecture reached its finest expression in the
12th and 13th century cathedrals of northern France and England: in
France, the finest mediaeval Gothic cathedrals are in Paris, Amiens,
Reims, Rouen, Strasbourg and Beauvais.
Gothic sculpture on the facade of
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
By the 14th
century however, a different art of painting was developing rapidly in
France, the art of the
illustrated manuscript. Of particular importance were French "Books of
hours", prayer books comprising prayers, psalms and biblical texts,
many of which were lavishly illustrated. The most famous of these is
the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which contains over
page illustrations depicting, among other things, contemporary life.
At the same time, what can be considered as the
"modern" school of European art was taking hold in parts of France. The
Gothic school of painting spread to large parts of Europe
- in particular Flanders and Bohemia - thanks to the international
development of trade, increasing cultural links, and marriages among
Europe's royalty and aristocracy. In France, the most important centre
of the International Gothic movement was the Burgundian court. Dijon,
the capital of Burgundy, has some of the finest surviving examples of
International Gothic art in France, in the form of statues and
sculptures by the great Flemish artists Claus Sluter and Jacques de
art and architecture in France
Later period : 1760 - 1840. French Art from Neoclassicism to Romanticism
Related: France's greatest mediaeval cathedrals
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