Must-See 7 Iconic French Paintings

Some of the greatest art movements in history…from romanticism, realism, impressionism to modern art have been documented by French artists. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the French paintings that you will appreciate more in person upon your next visit to Paris.

The Bolt by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

This painting preserved in the Louvre Museum captures the libertine spirit of French society just before the major upheaval caused by the French revolution. The focus is on the young man whose right hand is reaching out for the latch while his left hand is firmly gripped around the woman’s waist. From the woman’s expression, her dishevelled dress and her outstretched leg, it is unclear if she has consented or is forced to be with this man. Now, the viewer’s attention moves to the other side of this French painting where the unkempt bed, upturned chair and the forbidden fruit placed on the table keeps them engaged about the events that are to unfold.

Liberty leading the People by Eugene Delacroix

This monumental composition in the Louvre Museum (External link) , often confused with the French revolution, highlights France’s violent struggle to overthrow the tyrannical rule of Charles X. Liberty personified by the woman, single-mindedly calls on revolutionaries to fight against injustice and oppression. People from all walks of life…a bourgeoisie sporting a top hat, a student carrying a sling bag, factory workers to a dead royalist identifiable by his epaulettes have been represented in this French painting. A year later after this event, the French government bought this work and wanted to display it in the throne room as a reminder to its future king of the fate that awaits him if he opposes his people.

Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet

This oil painting summarises realism, an artistic movement led by the painter due to his fall out with romanticism, a popular movement in those days, where emotions and individualism were celebrated. The nude, currently displayed at the Musée d’Orsay, primarily focuses on the female genitalia, without drawing any reference to mythological stories or religious texts. This canvas was commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat with the intention to add another print to his collection of erotic works. However, considering the subversive title of this French painting, the artist’s intent could have been to highlight the reproductive nature of the organ whose discourse is dictated by the male gaze.

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet

Another realistic painting, devoid of any idealism or glorification of France, illustrates the plight of the poor people during and after the French revolution. The three female peasants are involved in the back-breaking task of collecting ears of leftover corn from the field, while the landlord’s steward (in the background) is taking stock of the rich harvest. By highlighting the contract between scarcity and abundance, poverty and prosperity, light and darkness, the artist successfully records the social inequality that existed in France. The red and blue hats along with the white clothing (symbols of the French revolution) seem out of place in this French painting, but they depict the imminent changes in the French society.

Bedroom in Arles by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh painted this masterpiece in Arles, South of France, where for the first time in his life he moved into a studio apartment of his own. He hoped that his friend Gaughin and his brother Theo would live together and create art that captured the spirit of the region. The canvases adorned on the wall, bright colours, and the peculiar composition of the room not only underscored his happiness but also served as a floor plan for its future occupants. The third drawing of this French painting which is currently displayed at the Musée D’orsay was brought back by the French government as part of the French-Japanese peace settlement from a Japanese prince.

The Snake Charmer by Henri Rousseau

The primitive landscape with dense vibrant colours located at Musée d’Orsay was ground-breaking yet it is hard to believe it was painted by someone who spent most of his life as a customs officer. The featureless woman, flat composition and broad strokes of the vegetation give away the fact that the artist lacked formal education. The black Eve has charmed wild animals just like she had done the avant-garde artists back then and now her gaze is transfixed upon the viewers. Interestingly, the artist visited the zoo and botanical gardens in Paris to draw inspiration for this French painting and to bring his imagination to life.

Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Water Lilies is a series of paintings that Claude Monet bequeathed to the French state as a symbol of peace after the First World War. The series of eight landscapes housed in Musée de l’Orangerie (External link) is located in two oval-shaped rooms designed by the artist himself. This uninterrupted landscape dotted with water lilies, willow branches and passing clouds transcends viewers to Monet’s garden in Giverny, where he created these French paintings. The canvas with the hues of the sunrise is placed in the east and those with the hues of the sunset are placed in the west, encapsulating a day in the painter’s life in one brief moment.