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French Art 1860-1940

by Robert Cumming

In this competition I have concentrated on French art from 1860 to 1940. This was a period when Paris was truly the centre of the international art world, and most of the most influential new movements and developments originated there.

Socially and politically it was a turbulent time for France. The 1860s witnessed the oppressive dictatorial regime of Napoleon III which collapsed in 1870 with the Franco Prussian War, and civil uprising of the Commune. Paris hosted the world’s major international World Fair in 1900, which proclaimed a stirring vision of a future powered by electricity, but soon afterwards the march towards the 1914-18 War became inevitable. Post war France licked her wounds and sought revenge on Germany through reparations. The 1930s witnessed economic difficulties, the failure of France’s policy towards Germany, and the onslaught of a new war and Occupation.

None of these events deterred young artists from coming to Paris from provincial France and from overseas – perhaps the simmering turbulence and instability of events in the capital added to the attractions of its cafés and intellectual life.

I have divided the time frames into four periods of 20 years each, and I am asking you to decide to which period each picture belongs.


Progressive artists in France were principally concerned “plein air” painting at this period. A “plein air” painting is one that is begun and finished in the open air, or has the aim of giving the sensation of being outside in the open air. Initially the idea and practice was most actively pursued by members of the Barbizon School who worked in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris. They were much influenced by English landscape artists, especially Constable, and in turn they were a major influence on the next generation, the Impressionists, who held their first group exhibition in Paris in 1874.


This is the period when Impressionism develops into Post Impressionism. By the 1880s most of the original members of the Impressionist group, such as Cézanne and Degas, had gone off in their own independent direction, and became labelled as Post Impressionists. Of the original group it was Monet who remained most faithful to the idea of plein air painting, and he pushed it to its furthest extremes. A younger generation introduced new ideas. Some began to explore with scientific thoroughness the optical relationship between what the eye sees and remembers, and the visual effect of areas of colour and colour dots on a canvas. Others with more volatile temperaments began to explore the emotions that can be aroused by colour, especially bright and intense colour.

1901 – 1920

This was the period of greatest experimentation. Matisse led the way with Fauvism and its dynamic and groundbreaking exploration of bright colour. Picasso and Braque started their Cubist experiments which fragmented all the traditional spatial relationships and perspective rules on which Western art had been based for so long. In so doing Matisse and Picasso began to rewrite the grammar and vocabulary of art and picture making.

1921 – 1940

The First World War put a stop to the most active avant garde art experiments and by the end of the War the mood in the art world had changed. Initially there was a reaction – a “recall to order” - in which modern art became more disciplined, sober and less fragmented, and some artists, even Picasso, adopted a classic figurative style. By the end of the 1920s there was a reaction against this sobriety, and a new generation of artists sought to introduce poetry and unpredictability into their work. Now it was the turn of the Surrealists to take centre stage. Some of them exploited a loose or curvilinear abstract style. Others went down a figurative route creating strange dreamlike spaces in which familiar objects came together in unexpected relationships or were transformed into the unfamiliar objects that formed the shadowy world that exists between sleep and awake.