Baroque & rococo art (1600-1800)
Explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures
The French may have lagged during the Renaissance, but with the advent of the Baroque a few French masters began to emerge.
The 17th century baroque is hard to pin down. In some ways it was a result of the Catholic Counterreformation, reaffirming spirituality in a simplified, monumental, and religious version of Renaissance ideals.
The Academie established the prevailing styles by choosing which artists to exhibit in its biennial Salons. Each year it awarded its best young exponents the Prix de Rome, a grant to study at their Rome artistic finishing school. It took young Turks like David to first question the intellectual stranglehold of the Academie in the 1780s, but though it was abolished during the Revolution, it quickly got back on its feet by 1816.
Napoleon III actually kick-started the modern movement when he allowed a fringe festival–style Salon des Refusés in 1863 to exhibit works rejected by the official Salon. It was ridiculed widely, and its star, Manet's harsh Déjeuner sur L'Herbe nearly gave the establishment critics a conniption, but it was a wedge in the door. Whistler, Pissaro, and Cézanne were also on display. Other emerging artists saw they could turn their backs on the Academie and start exploring art on their own terms.
The exclusive power of the Academie was dealt a mortal blow by the "off-Broadway" Impressionist Salons of the late 19th century. The private art schools, collectors, and dealers of the 20th century relegated the Academie from the sole arbiter of taste to a mere background institution, and its Prix de Rome (still the "Oscar" of the art world) from an absolutely required coup to merely a great honor.
Some view those two movements as mere extensions of Renaissance experiments, and find the true baroque in later complex compositions—all explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures, still well-balanced, but in such cluttered abundance as to appear untamed.
Rococo is this later baroque art gone awry, frothy and chaotic.
Artists & Examples of baroque & rococo art in France
Great French artists who emerged in the baroque include the Caravaggiesque Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), who illuminated entire scenes with a single candle in several works at the Louvre and in his native Nancy.
The most Classical French painter was Poussin (1594-1665), whose works grace the Louvre and Nancy. While his mythological scenes presaged the Romantic movement, on a deeper level his balance and predilection to paint from nature had closer connection to (and greater influence on) Impressionists such as Cézanne.
If you're looking for that wild, untamed complexity of the rococo baroque, cruise the Louvre for the colorful, theatrical works of Watteau (1684-1721), who began the short-lived fÍte galante style of china-doll figures against stylized landscapes of woodlands or ballrooms.
Boucher's student Fragonard (1732-1806) was the master of cotton-candy pastel scenes, an overindulgence of pink-cheeked, wispy genteel lovers frolicking against billowing treescapes. The Louvre hangs his famous The Bathers, though he also left a few works at Amiens's Musée de Picardie.