The 19th century was to be a turning point for French art, and for art around the world, especially during the latter part of the century. From the emergence of Delacroix in the early 19th century to the surrealists 100 years later, France was to dominate the art scene.
The established art school in France at the beginning of the 19th century was represented by Jacques-Louis David and Jean Ingres and had two main characteristics:
- great attention to fine detail and exact shading in the art produced
- focus on painting 'proper' subjects, such as portraits of the great and good, ruined buildings in idyllic settings etc
The focus of the middle of the 19th century was in questioning whether this was the correct approach to painting. As it turned out neither of these characteristics would bear close scrutiny, or stand the test of time
Ferdinand Delacroix and Theodore Gericault, leaders of the romantic art movement in France, were among the first to question the priorities of the art being painted at that time, and adopted a style that was more interested in catching the spirit of the subject rather than every fine detail, and more interested in painting 'real' subjects than classical ruins and subjects.
The second characteristic - what should or should not be painted - was challenged by Jean Francois Millet, who painted peasants working in the fields rather than nobles sat by a window. These trends continued with Gustave Courbet, who was adamant that he would paint what he wanted, in the way he wanted.
This period of art was a very important step forward. Painting could now represent the spirit of an occasion or event, rather than simply being a 'photographic record', although it was to take a long time for traditional admirers of art to appreciate the leap in progress that had been made.
The next stage in the development of art was to fall to one of Courbet's 'disciples', Edouard Manet, and his colleagues. See Impressionism in France