While France is certainly not the only country that has produced great artists, there do seem to be a remarkable number of French painters who are household names all over the world. And one of the great things about learning French is that you get to connect with the culture more deeply too. The impressionist movement is inextricably linked to France and its 19th-century artists remain some of the most famous, but the Post-Impressionists and Surrealists have left a colourful mark too.
From Monet and Manet to lesser-known masters like Berthe Morisot, here are nine French painters you need to know.
- Claude Monet
- Édouard Manet
- Berthe Morisot
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir
- Paul Gauguin
- Henri Matisse
- Yves Tanguy
- Françoise Gilot
1. Claude Monet
Monet is unarguably one of the best French painters of all time. You will know him as a founder of the impressionist movement in the 19th century. He especially loved painting landscapes and he often painted outdoors, which was a huge break from tradition. His series of “Water Lilies” paintings are some of the most recognisable pieces of art ever produced and some of the best-loved too. These paintings were created at his home in Giverny, which is now a popular tourist attraction.
2. Édouard Manet
Manet, not to be confused with Monet, is another acclaimed 19th-century French painter, who was born in Paris. He was thought of as a rebel in the painting world in his day, both because of the shallow depth of his paintings and the subjects: “Olympia”, one of his most famous paintings, shows a prostitute. His work inspired the impressionist movement that Monet and many other artists were part of. Manet, unlike Monet, usually worked in a studio and often painted people in various social situations.
3. Berthe Morisot
Morisot was one of the best French female painters of her time and was part of the impressionist group, though she is far less well known than other members like Monet and Renoir. She was known for her brilliant use of colour and, like Monet, she often painted outside. When she painted people, it was almost always women in a variety of domestic scenes – the only exception was her husband Eugène, who was Édouard Manet’s brother.
4. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Renoir is one of the most famous French impressionist painters who often painted beautiful women and female nudes. One of his most famous paintings, “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette” is in the Musée d’Orsay. Another of his paintings is simply titled “Nude”. No prizes for guessing the subject of that one.
5. Paul Gauguin
A Post-Impressionist, Gauguin is known for his intensely colourful paintings, his relationship with Van Gogh and the big impression he had on Pablo Picasso. He eventually abandoned France and rejected the materialism of modern life to move to French Polynesia. There his art took on a more primitive style, in keeping with his desire for a simpler life. He died of syphilis at the young age of 54. His painting “When will you marry?” sold for the highest price ever paid for a work of art.
6. Henri Matisse
Matisse is widely recognised as one of the most important 20th-century French painters. His wildly colourful works made him one of the leaders of the Fauvist movement and some of his paintings are instantly recognisable, like “La Danse” (you probably know the version with the red figures) and the vivid “The Joy of Life”, which really is a joy to look at.
7. Yves Tanguy
Going forward in time a little to the French surrealist painters, we come to Yves Tanguy. His paintings, like the famous “Mama, Papa is Wounded!” often have a limited colour palette and show abstract landscapes. He was successful from the late 1920s onwards and he exhibited his works in the US and all over Europe. He became a US citizen before he died but his ashes were scattered in his cherished Brittany.
8. Françoise Gilot
The final entry on our list is Françoise Gilot, one of France’s greatest female painters, whose works have been overshadowed by her relationship with an even more famous artist: Pablo Picasso. When she met Picasso, she was already recognised as a talented artist and she often painted richly coloured figures, like in “Paloma à la Guitare”. In her later life, she designed costumes for the Guggenheim in New York.
Eight need-to-know French painters
Have you been inspired to dive deeper into French culture and learn more about these artists? There’s no better way to get under the skin of a country than by learning the language. So, keep going with the beautiful langue française and you’ll be able to get a deeper understanding of France’s artists and writers, cuisine and fashion.
Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.