8 Famous French Artists Who Achieved Greatness

During the nineteenth century, French artists created the most daring and influential art ever, breaking conventions and sparking debates.

Mar 19, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

famous french artists achieved greatness


For centuries, Europeans considered France the center of cultural activity, progressive fashion, and exquisite art. However, the feeling of unstoppable progress was never as intense as it was during the revolutionary nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rapid industrialization, expanding cities, and changing traditions were all reflected in modern painting and sculpture of the time. Read on to discover eight great French artists who achieved greatness and changed the way we look at art.


8. Theodore Gericault (1791 – 1824)

The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault, 1818-19. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Theodore Gericault’s life lasted just 32 years. However, he left a mark on the history of art that few could compete with. A curious and rebellious art student, Gericault protested against his teachers who insisted on painting in a Neo-Classical manner. Influenced by Flemish and Spanish masters like Rubens and Velazquez, Gericault developed his own expressive and dramatic style. The influence of Spanish Baroque, with its emotional intensity and love for gruesome details, became apparent in his best works.


Undoubtedly the most famous work by Theodore Gericault was his monumental The Raft of the Medusa. The work was based on a real-life tragedy. In 1816, a French frigate Medusa ran into shallow water on its way to Senegal and collapsed. Medusa did not have enough lifeboats to rescue all the passengers, and almost 150 of them were forced to fit on a makeshift raft. Soon, the passengers were divided into rival groups competing for limited space and resources.


During the first night on the raft, twenty people were killed. Eight days later, only fifteen passengers were left. Five of them died during the rescue mission that followed. The survivors later reported cases of cannibalism and mass murder. All the gruesome details were published by the press despite the government’s attempts to censor the story.

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7. Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)

The Gare Saint-Lazare, by Claude Monet, 1877. Source: National Gallery, London.


One of the greatest names of French art and one of the main heroes of Impressionism was Claude Monet. During the first years of Impressionist painting, the public ridiculed weird color combinations and blurred lines. A while later, they started appreciating the fleeting moments captured on canvas. Some art experts attribute Monet’s unique painting style to his deteriorating eyesight. Monet suffered from cataracts, which affected his ability to distinguish color.


One of the brightest episodes of Monet’s career was his series of paintings of the newly built Saint-Lazare train station. In dire need of money, Monet borrowed a formal suit from one of his friends and paid a visit to the station’s administration. Introducing himself as a great contemporary artist, he offered to paint the station as a grandiose. Both confused and honored, the station officials agreed, covering all costs, and offering generous compensation for the artist’s efforts.


6. Camille Claudel (1864 – 1943)

Sakountala, by Camille Claudel, 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The legendary Camille Claudel was a rare example of an astonishingly successful woman sculptor. Life was never easy for women artists, and making sculptures was off-limits for a long time because of the inevitable physical labor that was involved. Nonetheless, small but powerful Camille Claudel worked with clay, marble, and bronze with the same dedication as her male colleagues.


Camille Claudel’s story is a tragic one, however. Her artistic glory and personal freedom were taken from her by her own family. Despite her father’s support, her mother and brother Paul were ashamed to have an artist in their family. Her strictly religious mother condemned her for working in art studios with men and not marrying. After her father’s death, Claudel’s relatives forcefully committed her to a mental asylum. Her mother thought she was protecting the honor of her family by doing this, while her brother eliminated competition for their father’s inheritance. Some art historians name artistic jealousy as another reason since Paul was an aspiring but untalented artist and poet who never received any critical acclaim.


5. Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, by Edgar Degas, c.1874. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The great Impressionist artist Edgar Degas made modern works that represented scenes from everyday life in France. The characters he painted were dancers, performers, bargoers, and flaneurs, the young men who were aimlessly walking through a recently renovated city.


Edgar Degas’ work is almost universally acclaimed, yet, paradoxically, it lost part of its crucial context over time. Today, the public recognizes ballet as a high-brown elitist form of art with slender and elegant ballerinas as ethereal beauty ideas. In Degas’ time, the connotations were much darker. Ballet companies presented a rare chance for poor working-class girls to change their status and enter high society, although not through their art but through sex work. Thus, the painted ballerinas also illustrated depravity, vice, and the deeply flawed class structure of French modernity.


4. Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877)

A Burial at Ornans, by Gustave Courbet, 1849-50. Source: Google Art Project.


Dubbed by many the father of modern art, Gustave Courbet was a groundbreaking artist who revolutionized painting. At the time when artists were concerned with idealized scenes and artificially created beauty, Courbet turned to radical realism. His paintings of peasants and workers did not romanticize their life and labor. Courbet was instead focusing on their hard work, realistic body proportions, and uncompromising scenes from their daily lives. Courbet insisted he would paint only the things he could really see.


Gustave Courbet’s works highlighted the class inequality and political turmoil of the France of his time. Courbet was a staunch Republican who was accused of toppling the statue of Napoleon in the days of the Paris Commune. In his art, he preferred to focus on lower-class people like villagers and peasants. This was very confusing to wealthy art critics. Upon seeing his painting Burial at Ornans, the critics first thought the work represented a circus performance and not a somber procession.


3. Suzanne Valadon (1865 – 1938)

Girl on a Small Wall, by Suzanne Valadon, 1930. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts


Suzanne Valadon was one of the icons of French portrait painting. Her story serves as a unique case of a woman artist achieving tremendous success despite institutional barriers. An illegitimate child of a single mother, she barely obtained any formal education yet had to work hard from her early teens. Active and excited by everything new, she switched careers many times. She went from a funeral wreath weaver to a circus acrobat. The turning point of her life was becoming an artist’s model. While modeling for the greatest names of French art, including Renoir and Puvis de Chavannes, she observed their ways of working and creating paintings.


At first, she painted those closest to her. She portrayed her mother and her son Maurice Utrillo, who would become an iconic painter as well. Valadon mostly worked with nude female models, yet her depiction of them was atypical compared to the works made by male artists. Her images are full of empathy, loving attention, and admiration devoid of sexual context. Valadon was a brilliant observer of daily life, pinpointing small elements of her sitter’s routines and emotions.


2. Paul Signac (1863 – 1935)

Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Felix Feneon, by Paul Signac, 1890. Source: Wikipedia


Paul Signac was the legendary artist behind the Pointillist movement. Pointillists, also known as Divisionists, did not mix their paints. Instead, they created images out of primary-colored dots or strokes that would construct a coherent image when looked at from a distance. This idea relied on a scientific theory that the human eye constructed colors and forms from smaller and simpler elements, transforming them through the eye lens. Although this was soon refuted, the hypothesis gave birth to remarkable and bold artistic experiments.


Art critic and a close friend of Signac’s Felix Feneon believed divisionist artworks were the pinnacle of decorative art that sacrificed subject matter in favor of pure joy and beauty of line and color. Feneon was the first to call the new generation of progressive artists Neo-Impressionists, separating them from the more conservative generation of Manet and his followers.


1. Berthe Morisot (1841 – 1895)

The Psyche Mirror, by Berthe Morisot, 18766. Source: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


Berthe Morisot was one of the rare female members of the Impressionist movement. She was both exceptionally talented and had the right connections, marrying Eugene Manet, a painter and the younger brother of Edouard Manet. Morisot’s paintings show a unique perspective of women’s lives of her time. Belonging to the upper class, Morisot was limited in her opportunities by the social and gendered conventions of her time. As an art movement, Impressionism centered around urban spaces like streets, bars, and cafes, which were unavailable to respectable women. For that reason, Morisot focused on domestic scenes, often featuring widely open windows as portals to another world, which excluded the artist and her models. The spaces around them seem intimate and enclosed, isolating the characters and creating quiet domestic magic hidden from the outside world.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.