17th-century French painters made art that differs from the generalized category of Baroque art. This is why there is debate on whether “baroque” is an appropriate term to encompass 17th-century art. Unlike the majority of Baroque art, which is identifiable through its dynamic compositions, use of tenebrism, and overly theatrical imagery, French art tends to demonstrate a more classicist point of view. French baroque art exhibits rich colors, classical imagery, and less dynamic compositions overall.
In general, French painters were more heavily influenced by Mannerism due to the establishment of the School of Fontainebleau in 1530. Derived from the Renaissance, Mannerism is a strange mish-mash of late Renaissance and early Baroque, emphasizing classicism. Thus, French Baroque is “uncharacteristically Baroque.” However, this unusual deviation from what is usually perceived as baroque provided a smooth and evident transition to the Rococo period to follow.
17. Simon Vouet: One Of The First French Painters Of The Baroque
Born in 1590, Simon Vouet received credit as the first artist to introduce Italian Baroque art to France. At fourteen, he traveled to England to create a portrait of a “Lady of quality,” and other portrait commissions. In 1614, he received a pension from King Louis XIII to study in Rome, remaining there for fourteen years. In Italy, he studied the work and lessons of various Italian artists, including Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio. He received commission requests from many influential families within Rome. In 1624, he became the director of the Accademia di San Luca, the artist’s association in Rome. In 1627, he returned to Paris at the request of Louis XIII. Elected First Painter to the King, Vouet received many commissions. Much of his work near the time of his return to France was destroyed. He taught important French painters, including Eustache Le Sueur and Charles Le Brun.
16. Nicolas Mignard
Nicolas Mignard was an artist known for his paintings and etchings. Mignard was born in Troyes, France in 1606. He studied painting locally and traveled to Avignon in 1632, then to Italy in 1634. He traveled with Cardinal Archbishop of Lyon to Rome, where he likely stayed at the Palazzo Farnese. This conclusion was due to the creation of his series of etchings that he derived from Annibale Carracci’s frescoes within the palace. In 1636, he returned to Avignon, where he created many religious scenes and portraits. His primary artistic influences were from Mannerism and Annibale Carracci. The French court visited Avignon in 1660, where Mignard received commissions to paint various court members. He was later invited to Paris by King Louis XIV. Mignard was accepted by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and later became a professor. He remained a portrait painter until his death in 1668.
15. Nicolas Poussin
Nicolas Poussin, one of the most significant 17th century French painters, was born in Normandy in 1594. He was active in Paris from 1612 to 1623. In the 1620s, he traveled to Rome, where he remained for the greater part of his life. Rather than adjust to the popular Baroque style, he turned towards classicism, influencing French Baroque art’s focus on classical subject matter. Initially, Poussin struggled to gain popularity and recognition for his work. This eventually changed, providing him the platform to become one of France’s most recognized painters. Poussin’s works were mainly religious and mythological scenes. He briefly returned to Paris in 1640, assuming the position of First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. This did not last long, and he soon returned to Rome. He had few assistants, including Charles Le Brun. His health began to decline after 1650, and he died in 1665.
14. Eustache Le Sueur
Eustache Le Sueur, born in 1616, was the son of a woodworker and sculptor. At age sixteen, he entered Simon Vouet’s studio. As a result, his work was heavily influenced by Vouet’s classicist Baroque style, as well as the works of Raphael and Poussin. He gained admission into the guild of master painters at an early age but left to establish the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648. He was one of twelve of the academy’s founders and one of the first professors. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained in Paris for the entirety of his life. His work was deeply based in classical and religious subject matter, taking the psychological aspects of his subjects into account. Le Sueur died in 1655, leaving behind work that would further influence French academic art for centuries.
13. Georges De La Tour
Georges de La Tour was born in 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille. He spent the majority of his life in the Duchy of Lorraine. Georges de La Tour is a Caravaggisti: a follower of Caravaggio, because of his uses of chiaroscuro and tenebrism. He is best known for his utilization of chiaroscuro through the use of candles as a light source within religious scenes. He was born into a family belonging to an artisanal class; his father and grandfather were bakers. La Tour’s early life or career is relatively unknown, making it difficult to determine where or from whom he received training. During 1623, he worked for the Dukes of Lorraine. 1638, he received the title “Painter to the King.” His involvement with a Franciscan-led religious revival influenced his work to be religiously based, infused with genre painting styles. La Tour and his family died in an epidemic in Lunéville in 1652.
12. Étienne Allegrain
Étienne Allegrain was born in Paris in 1644 to a French family of artists. Allegrain was a landscape painter whose work was inspired by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. His work emphasized classical landscapes that had become popularized during the Baroque. He received admission to the Royal Academy of France in 1676, where he was among many great French painters and sculptors. The aristocracy coveted his work, making art for the Trianon palace and the menagerie at Versailles. Many view his work as decorative as it did not involve the same dynamic and moralistic imagery emphasized during the 17th century.
11, 10, 9: French Painters Three, The Le Nain Brothers
The Le Nain brothers were three brothers born in the early 1600s near Laon of Northern France. By 1630, they were living and working in Paris, France, where they established a workshop. The three brothers are most known for their genre paintings, which depict the everyday life of the common people. They received a large number of commissions and were fortunate enough to take on apprentices. In 1648, they were all accepted into the French Academy as founder members. Unfortunately, due to the similarities in each of their work, there is little scholarship on each individual brother, and their works are currently attributed to them as a whole. Antoine and Louis, the oldest of the Le Nain brothers, died within days of each other in 1648, buried in the church of Saint Sulpice. Mathieu lived until 1677. Oddly, all works of the Le Nain brothers stopped being signed in 1648.
11. Antoine Le Nain
Antoine Le Nain was born in roughly 1600, being the oldest of the three. Compared to his brothers, many view Antoine as the “most important” artist. Antoine established their workshop in Paris so that they could continue to train and work together. In 1629, he gained admission as a master to the Corporation of Painters of Saint-Germain-des- Près. Antoine received the official portrait commission for the alderman of Paris in 1632. He likely specialized in portraits and genre scenes. Antoine’s works tend to be small in size and mostly painted on copper.
10. Louis Le Nain
Louis was born around 1603, being the middle child of the three siblings. His primary focus within his art was genre paintings, rather than his brothers who seemed to have more varying interests. Like most middle children, there is much less information and focus on him. He died within days of Antoine, likely sharing the same disease.
9. Mathieu Le Nain
Mathieu Le Nain was born around 1607, making him the youngest brother. Mathieu excelled best in large compositions and portraiture, depicting historical scenes and religious works. After receiving a commission in 1633 to decorate the Chapel of the Virgin in the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, he received requests to decorate other churches including Notre Dame. In 1633, Mathieu was made painter to the city of Paris. He was made a chevalier, otherwise known as a French knight. He was in high demand as a religious painter. After the death of his brothers, he continued to paint. In 1662, he entered the Order of Saint Michael, then expelled in 1663. In 1666, he became imprisoned for wearing the collar of the order without permission. He lived until 1677.
8. Laurent De La Hyre
Laurent de La Hyre was born in Paris, France in 1606. He was the son of painter Etienne de La Hyre. He was influenced by Italian Mannerist and Baroque art, finding inspiration in Primaticcio’s work at Fontainebleau and Caravaggism. La Hyre’s work is best known for the gravity, simplicity, and dignity it emits. He created the decorative schemes of Paris townhouses, as well as tapestry designs and altarpieces for Parisian churches. He was one of the twelve founders of the French Academy, like many others on this list. He depicted many classical and religious scenes, many of which were less popular. La Hyre is commonly associated with the transitional period within French art that came before Simon Vouet’s introduction of French Baroque art. After the death of his father, La Hyre began painting landscapes infused with elements of classical Roman architecture and atmospheric light. La Hyre died in 1656.
7. Charles Le Brun
Charles Le Brun was a jack of many trades: he was a painter, physiognomist, art theorist, and art school director. Born in 1619, he lived in Paris for most of his life. Le Brun was another one of Simon Vouet’s successful pupils, as well as a pupil of Francois Perrier. In 1664, Louis XIV promoted Le Brun to First Painter to the King after employing him for seventeen years. He was the primary designer of most of the statues within Versailles’ park and a major decorator of the palace of Versailles. Le Brun was one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Art in 1648, later being the academy’s chancellor, rector, and director. King Louis XIV coined him as one of the “greatest French artist[s] of all time.” Many credit Le Brun with creating the style of French art commonly viewed as the epitome of academic and propagandist art.
6. Charles Mellin
Charles Mellin was born in Nancy, Lorrain in 1597 but spent the majority of his artistic career in Italy. Mellin found influence from and collaborated with Simon Vouet during Vouet’s training in Italy. After Vouet returned to France, Mellin’s style redefined itself. He was a painter and muralist, painting multiple religious frescoes and paintings in Rome and Naples. He became the official painter of Marquis Muti Papazurri and trained his sons. Unlike other French painters and Baroque artists, he did not have a workshop despite training aspiring painters.
5. Philippe De Champaigne
Philippe du Champaigne was born in Brussels in 1602. He trained with Jean Bouillon and Michel de Bordeau, entering Jacques Fouquieres’ studio in 1620. In 1621, he followed Fouquierres to Paris and worked in Georges Lallemant’s studio. In 1625, Champaigne collaborated with Nicolas Poussin on decorating the Luxembourg Palace for Marie de’ Medici. He later began to paint for Cardinal Richelieu, a man who became one of his most significant patrons. Champaigne was one of the leading portrait painters under King Louis XIII. During the reign of Anne of Austria, he received many commission requests for projects at the Palais Royal, and the monastery and church of Val-de-Grâce. In 1648, he helped found the French Academy but became increasingly withdrawn from the French court due to the influence of Jansenism. Champaigne was consistently employed as a history painter but is most remembered for his portraits.
4. Louise Moillon
Louise Moillon was one of few successful female French painters of the 17th century. She was born in Paris, France in 1610. Like most female artists, she was born into a family of artists. This provided her exposure and access to painting at a young age. She came from a family of Protestants, which was unusual in Catholic France. This would later prove troublesome, as she and her three children would face religious persecution based on their faith. Her father was an artist and art dealer who sold paintings at a fair held at the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Moillon was considered one of the most esteemed French still-life painters of her time. When she married her husband in 1640, she ceased to paint again until the mid-1670s. During her life, she made roughly 40 paintings. She died in Paris in 1696, at the age of 86 years old.
3. Claude Lorrain
Claude Gellée, more commonly known as Claude Lorrain, was a painter, draftsman, and printmaker. He was born in 1604 or 1605; he was one of five children and was orphaned at age twelve. Lorrain briefly lived in Freiburg with his brother Jean, a woodcarver. He then traveled to Rome. Before becoming a painter, he was a pastry cook. He later became a student of Goffredo Wals. Like Mellin, Lorrain spent a large amount of his career working in Italy. Claude Lorrain is best known for his landscapes, which display Renaissance and Roman Baroque architecture, featuring dreamlike imagery and soft, atmospheric colors. In 1633, Lorrain joined the official society of Roman painters, the Accademia di San Luca. Near the end of his career, he increased the scale of his paintings but painted more infrequently. He died of gout in November of 1682.
2. Charles De La Foss
Charles de La Fosse was born in Paris in 1636. He was one of the most significant decorative French painters. La Foss decorated ceilings and created paintings for churches, palaces, and royal residences, such as the Palace of Versailles. He was a student of Charles Le Brun and later became one of his collaborators. La Foss studied in Italy for five years, studying the works of Pietro da Cortona and Raphael and developing a Venetian color palette. In 1673, he gained admission to the French Royal Academy and was named an assistant professor in 1674. He became a chancellor of the academy in 1715. Despite being a 17th-century French painter, his work was highly influential to the 18th-century French art movement coined as the Rococo.
1. Hyacinthe Rigaud
Hyacinthe Rigaud is best known for his painting of King Louis XIV of France. Born in 1659, his works laid precedent for the Rococo that followed the Baroque. Rigaud was a leading French portraitist who was the principal official painter of Louis XIV and worked with Louis XV, Louis XIV’s successor. Hyacinthe Rigaud was born in Perpignan. He received training by Antoine Ranc and Paul Petzet at Montpellier. He continued his training in Lyon before moving to Paris in 1681. In 1682, he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious award for artists. In 1688, he caught the attention of the aristocracy for his portrait of Louis XIV’s brother, Monsieur Philippe de France. Rigaud became one of the most prolific French Baroque portraitists, painting various members of the French court, the king, visiting royalty, and more. Rigaud taught at the Académie Royale after being elected a history painter in 1700.
The Impacts of 17th Century French Painters On Art
While French Baroque art was not as impactful as some of the baroque art to emerge from Spain, Italy, or the Netherlands, it still plays a pivotal role within the history of art. French baroque art was a stepping stone towards the Rococo, a movement that would exemplify the opulence of French aristocracy. Most importantly, French Baroque art generated the conception and establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in France. This institution played a key role in the world of art in the 19th century, spurring a variety of artistic movements that are still influential and relevant today.