Six French artists
From Baroque masters to 20th-century revolutionaries, we explore the greatest and most significant artists artists to emerge from France.
1. Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)
Extreme Unction, c. 1638-1640, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
One of the greatest painters of the French Baroque, Nicolas Poussin was a man of extraordinary learning and sophistication, introducing themes and subjects to Western art that no previous artists had depicted. He was a keen student of classical myth, and many of his works were inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, ancient history, the Old Testament and – late in his career – the seven sacraments. Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, said that Poussin 'painted nothing greater' than Extreme Unction, which was bought by the gallery following a public appeal by the Art Fund in 2012.
2. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867)
Angelica saved by Ruggiero, 1819–1839, National Gallery, London
A conservative painter who respected the art of the past, Ingres saw himself as a guardian of orthodox values against the emerging Romantic style, as practised by his rival Eugène Delacroix. While Ingres initially considered himself a history painter following in the footsteps of Poussin, by the end of his career he was known predominantly for his portraiture. Ironically, many 21st-century critics regard Ingres and his allies in the Neoclassical movement as embodying the Romantic inclinations of his time, and today his art is seen as a significant precursor to modern art.
3. Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)
Baskets of Flowers, 1863, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
One of the most notorious and innovative painters of the 19th century, Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet led the Realist movement in French painting. His oeuvre ranged across still lifes, landscapes and hunting scenes, but he is best remembered for his depictions of subjects that his predecessors had considered vulgar or scandalous, from depictions of the working conditions of the poor to erotic subjects from prostitution to lesbianism. Despite his social radicalism, Courbet was offered the Legion of Honour by Napoleon III in 1870, but refused the decoration.
4. Claude Monet (1840–1926)
The Church at Vétheuil, 1880, Southampton City Art Gallery
Oscar-Claude Monet was the founder of Impressionism, a movement which took its name from the title of one of his paintings (Impression, Sunrise). Monet was compelled to create an independent French art association in 1873, after he and like-minded artists had been rejected from exhibiting at the Salon de Paris by the conservative Académie des Beaux-Arts. The first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, featuring works by Monet himself alongside pieces by Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. Described as the 'driving force behind Impressionism', Monet would often paint the same scene across a range of viewpoints and times to explore the effects of light and colour.
5. Henri Matisse (1869–1954)
La Blouse Bulgare (The Bulgarian Blouse), 1920, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
While he worked as a draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse is best known for his paintings, which revolutionised the use of colour in Western art. Early in his career he was associated with les Fauves ('the wild beasts'), a group of Modern artists who emphasised painterly technique and the use of strong colours over representational accuracy. Following the demise of the movement in 1908, Mattise continued to travel and absorb new influences, and his later work showed the influence of his travels through Algeria, Munich, Spain and Morocco.
6. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23, Tate Modern, London
One of the three artists (along with Matisse and Picasso) responsible for turning the visual arts on their head in the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp is perhaps the most disruptive figure in the history of European art. While he began his career as an accomplished painter, experimenting with Post-Impressionist styles and techniques, his most significant contribution was to move away from what he described as 'retinal' art – works created to please the eye, rather than the mind – as well as questioning the very notion of 'art' through his 'readymade' works and association with the Dada anti-art movement.