French Art in the 17th Century

Painting Sculpture
Historical background
Historical personages


French-speaking painters continued the Mannerist conventions even later than did those at Haarlem, and at Nancy (capital of the independent duchy of Lorraine before 1633 and again from 1697 to 1766) a group of artists around Jacques Bellange and Jacques Callot was responsible for the last great flowering of the Mannerist style in Europe. By comparison, painting in Paris during the first decades of the 17th century was relatively insignificant, with the exception of that of Claude Vignon, who exchanged his Mannerist training for a style based on Elsheimer and to a lesser extent Lastman, and who in the 1620s revealed a remarkable knowledge of the earliest paintings of Rembrandt. The return of Simon Vouet to Paris, however, marked the arrival of the Baroque in France. The earliest paintings from his stay in Rome are strikingly vigorous essays in the Caravaggesque style, but by 1620 he was painting in an eclectic, classicizing style based on the early Baroque painters active there, including Giovanni Lanfranco and Guido Reni. This style he brought back to France, enjoying until his death an immense success in Paris as a decorator and painter of large-scale altarpieces; even the return of Nicolas Poussin failed to shake his position. Poussin's activity in Paris is of relatively little importance compared with the remainder of his career in Rome, but the large number of works commissioned by French patrons then and subsequently was an important factor in the formation of the French predilection for classicism. Another Frenchman, Claude Lorrain in Rome, had his sources in the romantic landscapes of the late Mannerists. By 1640 he established an international reputation. Both Poussin and Claude had been formed in Rome, but they remained typically French with a spiritual seriousness subjugated entirely to the laws of reason.

The influence of the highly Baroque paintings depicting the life of Marie de Médicis that Rubens had executed for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris was small. But Philippe de Champaigne evolved a grave and sober Baroque style that had its roots in the paintings of Rubens and Van Dyck rather than in Italy. Clear lighting and cool colours with an austere naturalism provided an alternative to the intellectual and archaeological classicism of Poussin. Georges de La Tour, a painter who had affinities with the Dutch Caravaggists of Utrecht, was active in Lorraine; but although he exploited the Caravaggist system of lighting, his figures became increasingly detached and simplified, leading to an uncomfortable hardness. The paintings of the Le Nain brothers - Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu - again look to Dutch painting for their inspiration. Eustache Le Sueur began painting under the influence of Vouet, but after Poussin's brief return to Paris (1640-42) he turned to a much more rigorous classical style influenced by Raphael's tapestry designs, whereas Sébastien Bourdon was capable of painting in almost any current style on request.

In the reorganization of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, Charles Le Brun was appointed director and given the position of virtual dictator of the arts in France. An imaginative painter and designer, Le Brun was also a brilliant organizer, and the creation of the Louis XIV style, as exemplified by the Palace of Versailles, was above all due to him. The particular Baroque style that emerged was based on the Roman High Baroque but was purged of all theatricality and illusionism and modified to conform to the classical canons of French taste; this compromise solution struck the keynote for the frescoes of Le Brun and Pierre Mignard. The more full-blooded Baroque style of Pierre Puget received little official recognition, and his attempts to obtain major commissions at Versailles were thwarted, probably because of his difficult nature. During the last decades of the century, the full Baroque style took on a new lease on life, and the decorative paintings of Charles de La Fosse and Antoine Coypel clearly reveal the influence of Rubens. Even more Baroque are formal portraits by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Nicolas de Largillière, in which the strong contrapposto, rich settings, and floating masses of drapery reflect the pomp and swagger of this era - which, significantly, came to be known as the Grande Époque.

See the list of French painters of the 17th century and browse their paintings.


Duquesnoy was much admired in France, where the sculptors of Louis XIV (the "Sun King"), such as François Girardon, continued his tradition of setting correct and charming allusions to the antique in a pictorial and spatial context that is wholly Baroque. Girardon's tomb of the Cardinal de Richelieu, in the church of the Sorbonne, Paris, is illustrative of the Baroque monuments of France, calmer and more conservative than those of Italy. The academic discipline imposed by the Sun King's ministers, especially Colbert, discouraged less tractable spirits, such as the passionate genius Pierre Puget. His unique expressions of anguish are couched in the physical terms of highly original works like the Milo of Croton; here the composition of a figure rigid with pain is given an almost unbearable tension.

Antoine Coysevox, another of the sculptors of Louis XIV, had begun in the official "academic Baroque" style, but his later works, undertaken after the death of Colbert, are witnesses of the gradual acceptance of the Baroque in France, which now acquired the artistic leadership that Italy had long held over the rest of Europe.

See the list of French sculptors of the 17th century and browse their sculptures.

Historical background and
biographies of historical personages.