Baroque & rococo art (1600-1800)

The Judgment of Solomon (1649) by French baroque master Nicolas Poussin, in the Louvre (Photo Public Domain)
The Judgment of Solomon (1649) by French baroque master Nicolas Poussin, in the Louvre

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 Royale, Arbiter of Artistic Taste Since 1648
The influence of the French Academie Royale, whose scholars dictated the tastes and trends of French art, reached its zenith during the late baroque.

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.

In other ways, it delved even deeper into Classical modes and a kind of super-realism based on the peasant models and exaggerated chiaroscuro ("light and dark") of Italy's Caravaggio.

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.

Watteau was studied by Louis XV's court painter Boucher (1703-70), who produced lots of decorative landscapes and genre works.

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.

Photo gallery
  • The Judgment of Solomon (1649) by French baroque master Nicolas Poussin, in the Louvre, Baroque & rococo art (1600-1800), General (Photo Public Domain)
  • Le Miracle de saint François-Xavier ou Saint François-Xavier rappelant à la vie la fille d'un habitant de Cangoxima au Japon (1641–2 )by French baroque master Nicolas Poussin, in the Louvre, Baroque & rococo art (1600-1800), General (Photo Public Domain)
  • Le Retour de chasse de Diane (Diana after the Hunt) (1745) by rococo master François Boucher, Baroque & rococo art (1600-1800), General (Photo Public Domain)

Where to find Baroque & rococo art in France

The Mona Lisa (1503–16)—called La Joconde in French—by Leonardo da Vinci (Photo Public Domain)
The Louvre
Paris: Louvre

So much more than just the Mona Lisa, Paris's Musée du Louvre is one of the greatest museums in the world

The Château de Maisons-Laffitte in the department of Yvelines, France (Photo by Moonik)

From the symmetrical lines and mansard roofs of Classicism to the opulence of rococo

A view of the palace's garden facade from the park (Photo by Marc Vassal)
Paris: Île-de-France

The palace to end all palaces: The château and gardens of Versailles outside Paris

The facade of St-Suplice (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
Paris: St-Germain-des-Prés

Delacroix frescoes and organ concerts in a Paris church

A bedroom in the Musée Cognacq-Jay (Photo by Sailko)
Musée Cognacq-Jay
Paris: Marais

The Cognacq-Jay Museum is Paris' best (and admission-free) private gallery of 18th century painting


Baroque & rococo artists with works in France

Self Portrait by Anthony Van Dyck (after 1633) in a private collection (Photo courtesy of Sotheby

The Belgian artist who set the tone for British portraiture

Self Portrait playing a lute (c. 1663/65) by Jan Steen, in the Museo Thyssen in Madrid, Spain (Photo courtesy of the Museo Thyssen)

A 17C Dutch genre painter who mastered the genre of peasants having fun

Portrait of Frans Hals (1648–50), a copy (by one of his followers) of a self-portrait, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art)

A baroque master devoted to depicting typical life during the Dutch Golden Age

A Self-Portrait detail in The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome (Photo courtesy of San Luigi dei Francesi)

The baroque master of chiaroscuro, turning the dance of darkness and light into story and character

The Artist in his Studio (c. 1730/35), by François Boucher in the Louvre, Paris (Photo courtesy of the Louvre)

18C French court painter or baroque portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes

Self Portrait (1760/70) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the Musée Fragonard, Grasse, France (Photo courtesy of The Yorck Project)

An 18C French rococo master of pastel scenes and frolicking lovers

Self-Portrait (1650) by Nicolas Poussin in the Louvre, Paris (Photo courtesy of the Louvre)

A classicist French baroque painter

Portrait of the Artist (1623) by Peter Paul Rubens, in the Royal Collection, London (Photo courtesy of the Royal Collection)

One of the greatest baroque Flemish painters, astoundingly prolific and fond of fleshy women

Self Portrait of Giambattista Tiepolo (1752–53), detail from the Residenz Würzburg ceiling frescoes in Würzburg, Germany (Photo courtesy of the Residenz Würzburg)

By a long shot the best Italian rococo painter

Portrait of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1721) by Rosalba Carriera, in the Museo Civico Luigi Bailo, Treviso (Photo courtesy of the Museo Civico Luigi Bailo)

A French rococo baroque painter of grandly theatrical works