France Feature


History You Can See

France has long been the standard-bearer of Western civilization—without her, neither English liberalism nor the American Constitution would exist today. It has given us Notre-Dame, Loire châteaux, Versailles, Stendhal, Chardin, Monet, Renoir, and the most beautiful city in the world, Paris. So it is no surprise that France unfolds like a gigantic historical pop-up book. To help you understand the country's masterful mélange of old and new, here's a quick overview of La Belle France's stirring historical pageant.

Ancient France

France's own "Stonehenge"—the megalithic stone complexes at Carnac in Brittany (circa 3500 BC)—were created by the Celts, who inhabited most of northwest Europe during the last millennia BC. In the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, and the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean soon made artistic inroads. The Greek trading colonies at Marseille eventually gave way to the Roman Empire, with the result that ancient Roman aesthetics left a lasting impression: it is no accident that the most famous modern example of a Roman triumphal arch—the Arc de Triomphe —should have been built in Paris.

What to See: France possesses examples of ancient Roman architecture that even Italy cannot match: Provence, whose name comes from the Latin, had been one of the most popular places to holiday for the ancient Romans. The result is that you can find the best-preserved Roman arena in N îmes (along with the Maison Carrée), the best preserved Roman theater at Orange, and the best preserved Roman bridge aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

The Middle Ages: From Romanesque to Gothic

By the 7th century AD, Christianity was well established throughout France. Its interaction with an inherited classical tradition produced the first great indigenous French culture, the Frankish or Merovingian, created by the Franks (who gave their name to the new nation), Germanic tribes who expelled the Romans from French soil. Various French provinces began to unite as part of Charlemagne's new Holy Roman Empire and, as a central core of European Catholicism, France now gave rise to great monastic centers—Tours, Auxerre, Reims, and Chartres —that were also cultural powerhouses. After the Crusades, more settled conditions led to the flowering of the Romanesque style developed by reformist monastic orders like the Benedictines at Cluny. This then gave way to the Gothic, which led to the construction of many cathedrals—perhaps the greatest architectural achievement created in France—during the biggest building spree of the Middle Ages. Under the Capetian kings, French government became more centralized. The most notable king was Louis IX (1226–70), known as Saint Louis, who left important monuments in the Gothic style, which lasted some 400 years and gained currency throughout Europe.

What to See: The Romanesque style sprang out of the forms of classical art left by the Romans; its top artistic landmarks adorn Burgundy: the giant transept of Cluny, the sculptures of Gislebertus at Autun's Cathèdrale St-Lazare, and the amazing tympanum of the Basilique Ste-Madeleine at Vézelay. Another top Romanesque artwork is in Normandy: the Bayeux Tapestry on view in Bayeux. The desire to span greater area with stone and to admit more light led to the development of the new Gothic style. This became famed for its use of the pointed arch and the rib vault, resulting in an essentially skeletal structure containing large areas of glass. First fully developed at Notre-Dame, Paris (from 1163), Chartres (from 1200), Reims (from 1211), and Amiens (from 1220), the Gothic cathedral contains distinctive Gothic forms: delicate filigree-like rose windows of stained glass, tall lancet windows, elaborately sculpted portails, and flying buttresses. King Louis IV commissioned Paris's Sainte-Chapelle chapel in the 1240s and it remains the most beautiful artistic creation of the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance

France nationalism came to the fore once the tensions and wars fomented by the Houses of Anjou and Capet climaxed in the Hundred Years' War (1328–1453). During this time, Joan of Arc helped drive English rulers from France with the Valois line of kings taking the throne. From the late 15th century into the 16th, the golden light of the Italian Renaissance then dawned over France. This was due, in large measure, to King François I (accession 1515), who returned from wars in Italy with many Italian artists and craftsmen, among them Leonardo da Vinci (who lived in Amboise from 1507). With decades of peace, fortresses soon became châteaux and the picture palaces of the Loire Valley came into being. The grandest of these, Fontainebleau and Chambord, reflected the growing centralization of the French court and were greatly influenced by the new Italian styles.

What to See: An earnest desire to rival and outdo Italy in cultural pursuits dominated French culture during the 15th and 16th centuries. For the decoration of the new Palace of Fontainebleau (from 1528) artists like Cellini, Primaticcio, and Rosso used rich colors, elongated forms, and a concentration on allegory and eroticism to help cement the Mannerist style. Gothic and vernacular forms of architecture were now rejected in favor of classical models, as could be seen in the châteaux in the Loire Valley such as Blois (from 1498), Chambord (from 1519, where design elements were created by Leonardo), and Chenonceau, which was commissioned by the king's mother, Catherine de' Medici. The rebuilding of Paris's Louvre, begun in 1546, marked the final assimilation of Italian classical architecture into France.

Royal Absolutism and the Baroque Style

Rising out of the conflicts between Catholic and Protestant (thousands of Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572), King Henry IV became the first Bourbon king and fomented religious tolerance with the Edict of Nantes (1598). By the 17th century architecture still had an Italianate flavor, as seen in the Roman Baroque forms adorning Parisian churches. The new Baroque architectural taste for large-scale town planning gave rise to the many squares that formed focal points within cities. King Louis XIV, the Sun King, came to the throne in 1643, but he chose to rule from a new power base he built outside Paris: Versailles soon became a symbol of the absolutist court of the Sun King and the new insatiable national taste for glory. But with Louis XIV, XV, and XVI going for broke, a reaction against extravagance and for logic and empirical reason took over. Before long, writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for social and political reform—the need for revolution.

What to See: To create a more carefully ordered aristocratic bureaucracy, courtiers were commanded to leave their family châteaux and take up residence in the massive new Versailles palace. A golden age for art began. The palaces of the Louvre (1545–1878) and Versailles (1661–1756) bear witness to this in their sheer scale. "After me, the deluge," Louis XIV said, and early-18th-century France was on the verge of bankruptcy. In turn, the court turned away from the over-the-top splendor of Versailles and Paris's Luxembourg Palace to retreat to smaller, more domestic houses in Paris, seen in such hôtel particuliers as the Musée Nissim de Camondo and the charming Hameau farm created for Marie-Antoinette in Versailles's park. Bombastic Baroque gave way to the Rococo style, as the charming, feminine paintings of Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard provided cultural diversions for an aristocracy withdrawn from the stage of power politics. Find their masterpieces at the Louvre, Carnavalet, and other museums.

Revolution and Romanticism

The end of Bourbon rule came with the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The French Revolution ushered in the First Republic (1792–1804). After a backlash to the Terror (1793–94), in which hundreds were guillotined, Napoléon rose to power from the ashes of the Revolutionary Directoire. With him a new intellectual force and aesthetic mode came to the fore—Romanticism. This new style focused on inner emotions and the self, leading to the withdrawal of the artists from politics, growing industrialization, and urbanization into a more subjective world. Napoléon's First Empire (1804–14) conquered most of Europe, but after the disastrous Russian invasion the Bourbon dynasty was restored with the rule of Charles X and Louis-Philippe. The latter, known as the Citizen King, abdicated in 1848 and made way for the Second Republic and the return of Napoleonic forces with Napoléon III's Second Empire (1852–70).

What to See: As often happens, art is one step ahead of history. The design of Paris's Panthéon by Soufflot, Gabriel's refined Petit Trianon at Versailles (1762), and the paintings of Greuze (1725–1805) and David (1745–1825), on view at the Louvre, display a conceit for moral order in great contrast to the flippancies of Fragonard. A renewed taste for classicism was seen in the Empire style promulgated by Napoléon; see the emperor's Paris come alive at the Left Bank's charming Cour du Commerce St-André and his shrine, Les Invalides. But the rigidly formal Neoclassical style soon gave way to Romanticism, whose touchstones are immediacy of technique, emotionalism, and the ability to convey the uncertainties of the human condition. Go to Paris's Musée Delacroix to get an up-close look at this expressive, emotive master of Romanticism.

The Modern Age Begins

Napoléon III's Second Empire lead to the vast aggrandizement of France on the world stage, with colonies set up across the globe, a booming economy, and the capital city of Paris remade into Europe's showplace thanks to Baron Haussman. After the Prussians invaded, France was defeated and culture was shattered and reformed. Romanticism became Realism, often carrying strong social overtones, as seen in the works of Courbet. The closer reexamination of reality by the Barbizon School of landscape painters led to Impressionism, whose masters approached their subjects with a fresh eye, using clear, bright colors to create atmospheric effects and naturalistic observation. By 1870 French rule was reinstated with the Third Republic, which lasted until 1940.

What to See: Thanks to Haussman, Paris became the City of Light, with new large boulevards opening up the dark urban city, an outlook culminating in the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris Exposition of 1889. Taking modern life as their subject matter, great Impressionist masters like Monet (1840–1926), Renoir (1841–1919), and Degas (1834–1917) proceeded to break down visual perceptions in terms of light and color, culminating in the late series of Water Lilies paintings (from 1916) done at Monet's Giverny estate. Along with masterpieces by Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, the most famous Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings can be seen at Paris's famed Musée d'Orsay. These artists began the myth of the Parisian bohemian artist, the disaffected idealist kicking at the shins of tradition, and they forged the path then boldly trod by the greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso, whose works can be seen at Paris's Musée Picasso and Centre Beaubourg.

Updated: 2014-08-19

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