Want to learn more about France’s art? This article will show you the most famous French paintings that have inspired art connoisseurs for generations!
Known as the “land of art,” France is home to many noteworthy artists from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period.
These well-known French artists are also masters of various painting techniques — from Impressionism, and Romanticism to Modern art.
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Over the years and centuries for that matter, they have produced some of the most famous French paintings that have inspired, and continue to inspire, a new generation of art lovers.
These French paintings are on display at some of the world’s best and most visited museums, not just in France and it would be a shame to miss them if you’re an art connoisseur.
Take a trip through France’s rich art history by checking out some of the most famous French paintings that are worth traveling for.
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17 Famous French Paintings
While the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in France, in this article, I will be strictly focusing on the famous paintings by French artists regardless of whether they’re currently in France or not! The purpose is to shed more light on the famous works of French painters.
1. The Raft of Medusa by Thèodore Gèricault
The Raft of Medusa is one of the best examples of oil on canvas paintings painted by Thèodore Gèricault in 1819.
This painting is one of the notable French paintings that made Gèricault an instant French art icon.
It was notable not just for its technique but also because of the message behind the imagery.
The Raft of Medusa depicts a raft filled with people in a shipwreck. It details the suffering and horror that the survivors went through as the French Naval frigate hit the coast of Senegal as their cry for help was ignored.
This painting was created at the height of the French Romanticism movement which favored dramatized scenes and powerful stories and this specific event had captured the interest of many.
With its perfectly detailed characters and a huge and unfortunate event as the focus, the Raft of Medusa is one of the famous paintings of France that can be viewed in the Louvre Museum.
2. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix is one of the most revered French painters. He was a master of French Romanticism, and his paintings are considered an example of the Romanticism movement, and Liberty Leading the People is no different.
Painted at a time when France was going through heated unrests, it is an allegory of the 1830 July Revolution which was a crucial part of French history in overturning the rule of King Charles X.
Liberty, a topless woman is the centerpiece of this famous French artwork as she leads a group of people with some dead on the ground while holding the revolution flag which was later adopted as the official national French flag after the Revolution.
This French painting that showcases lifelike characters of people who participated in the July Revolution now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris for public viewing.
You should note that this painting is about the July Revolution and not the French Revolution of 1789 as usually confused by most people.
Liberty Leading the People is not only symbolic in history but also the most famous French painting by Eugène Delacroix.
Psst… You can view this painting in the Louvre by purchasing this skip-the-line ticket. Alternatively, you can opt for this Louvre museum-guided tour to learn about the museum’s famous pieces (or you can book it on Viator).
Related post: Best museums to visit in Paris
3. Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Claude Monet is ranked as one of the most notable French painters. His works are considered some of the best examples of the Impressionist movement but his collection of Water Lilies is what put his name on the French art map.
His garden in Giverny (currently a popular attraction as a day trip from Paris) inspired this series that consists of 250 oil paintings.
Water Lilies is one of many of his works that took inspiration from landscapes, seascapes, and outdoor scenes.
He painted the Water Lillies series under different seasons and lighting conditions to truly showcase the beauty of his garden and this series was the focus of his work for over 30 years before his death.
Most of the Water Lillies paintings are displayed at Musee de l’Orangerie and Musee d’Orsay in the French capital.
Psst… You can view the water lilies painting at Musee de l’Orangerie by purchasing this skip-the-line entry ticket.
You can also check out other famous paintings by Claude Monet here.
4. Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet
The Luncheon on the Grass is one of the most recognizable works in this list of famous French paintings.
Painted by Manet between 1862 and 1863, this large-scale painting features a nude woman at a picnic with a bountiful spread of food next to her.
Alongside her at the picnic are two fully dressed men. The woman in the painting looks straight into the viewer while the two men are fully engaged in a conversation.
When this painting was first publicly displayed, it was received with negative reviews and was even rejected from the Paris Salon (an art exhibit at the time) up until it started to inspire other contemporary artists.
Today, it receives a number of art enthusiasts in the Orsay Museum in Paris and it is considered the best work of Édouard Manet and certainly one of the French famous paintings that played a huge role in the modern art movement.
5. La rue Montorgueil a Paris by Claude Monet
Rue Montorgueil in central Paris is one of the city’s prettiest streets. It is a pedestrian road that is vibrant with people, cafes, and small shops at every corner.
The beauty of this scene inspired French artist Claude Monet to capture it as a subject for his famous painting, La Rue Montorgueil.
Monet painted this great impressionist piece of work in 1878 and aside from the usual scene on the lively street, it was filled with waving flags of France to celebrate the holiday for “peace and work.”
The painting is now on display in the Orsay Museum in Paris if you want to get an up-close look at it.
Psst… Before you head to the Orsay Museum to admire this painting, you’ll need to buy this skip-the-line ticket. However, if you prefer a guided tour, then this is the Orsay Museum guided tour is what I recommend.
6. The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David
This oil on canvas painting by Jacques-Louis David is another one of the must-see France paintings when you visit Paris. It is on display at the Louvre Museum and is one of the most famous art in France.
Jacques-Louis David is known as the first official painter of Emperor Napoleon, and he was commissioned to create the painting of the coronation of Napoleon that took place at Notre Dame Cathedral (which is one of the famous churches in Paris).
Just like the historical magnitude and importance of the event, this painting is also large in terms of size. It is actually one of the biggest paintings in the Louvre museum measuring 6.21 m × 9.79 m (20 ft 4 in × 32 ft 1 in).
The size of this painting makes it easy to spot and relish the immense level of detail that the artist put into painting the individual expressions of the characters depicted in the painting.
Needless to say, this is my favorite French painting in the Louvre.
7. Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David
Before being designated as the official painter of Napoleon I, Jacques-Louis David was a revolutionist.
His passion was evident in his choice of subjects for paintings with a focus on events during the French Revolution and that included the Death of Marat.
The subject of this painting is his friend Jean-Paul Marat who was a journalist and radical politician in the Revolution era.
He was a strong defender of the poor and wrote extensively about the worst massacres during the Revolution.
Marat was also afflicted with a rare skin condition that required him to soak in a medicinal bathtub where he was stabbed as he worked on his newspaper piece.
Jacques-Louis David hauntingly captures this tragic scene (though slightly different from the actual scenes) with Marat lying lifeless with blood coming out of his stabbed body, and the knife on the floor with a blood-stained newspaper.
While the painting portrayed Marat as a hero, it made Jacques-Louis David to be looked at as one of the best French painters.
Today, the painting hangs in Musée Oldmasters Museum in Brussels, Belgium but a smaller replica was made and it is currently housed in the Louvre in Paris.
8. Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise is another masterpiece by French artist Claude Monet. This painting was first on display in 1874 at the “Exhibition of the Impressionists” in Paris, France.
The painting features the port of Le Havre, which is the artist’s hometown.
By creating this artwork, Monet frequented his hometown of Le Havre and during this time, he painted many canvases depicting the same port at various times of the day and from different viewpoints, but Impression, Sunrise is the most famous painting of this series.
This one, in particular, is captivating with its orange and yellow hues that contrast well with dark blue colors. It shows small boats in the forefront and the sun reflecting on the water, creating a lifelike visual.
This painting which is currently on display at the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris is believed to have started the impressionism movement due to its name.
Psst… You can admire this painting by purchasing this skip-the-line ticket to the Musée Marmottan Monet to access both the permanent and temporary exhibits.
9. Portrait of Madeleine by Marie-Guillemine Benoist
The Portrait of Madeleine (or Portrait of a Black Woman as initially known) is one of the most famous paintings in Paris and also the most renowned work of Marie-Guillemine Benoist.
She is a notable female neoclassical painter who started by training under Jacques-Louis David.
Benoist has produced a vast collection of important works throughout her career as a painter, however, this painting of a black woman is her most prominent.
The social relevance of her artwork was critical at the time of this painting because it came 6 years following the abolition of slavery. This painting, therefore, became the symbol of the emancipation of black women.
It can be viewed in the Louvre Museum in Paris hanging in a gallery dedicated to the works of Jacques-Louis David and his trainees.
Related post: Free museums to visit in Paris
10. Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The famed artist Pierre-Augustine Renoir painted this artwork in 1876. The Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette is an Impressionist painting and is one of the most coveted artworks of this movement.
The painting depicts the famous district of Montmartre in Paris on a Sunday afternoon with Parisians socializing with friends, drinking, dancing, and doing all sorts of merriment.
While this one hangs in Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Renoir painted a smaller version of the same which is believed to be in a private collection in Switzerland.
You can check out other famous paintings by Auguste Renoir here.
11. Olympia by Édouard Manet
This painting by famous French artist Édouard Manet is another example of his work featuring nudity.
Olympia is a portrait of a nude woman reclining on a bed that was painted in 1863. Like Manet’s other famous painting, “Luncheon on the Grass,” the nude woman is also flocked by a fully-dressed servant who is bringing her flowers.
The nude subject was shocking to many at the painting’s original release and public display.
The signature straight-forward gaze of the female subject was confrontational and made many believe that she was a prostitute. In the 1860s, the name Olympia was even associated with female escorts.
However, after receiving a lot of support from Claude Monet, the French government bought it and added it to the collection of the Orsay Museum in Paris.
12. The Absinthe Drinker by Edgar Degas
The Absinthe Drinker is undoubtedly Edgar Degas’ most famous painting. It is also one of the most popular French paintings at Paris’ Musee d’Orsay.
The famous painting depicts a man and a woman sitting next to each other in a café with a glass of absinthe. Both are silent and indifferent to each other.
The male and female subjects also have this lonely and empty look. The woman looks like she is on the verge of tears with the man unbothered by her existence.
Like some of the other paintings from France, this one also faced a lot of criticism when presented to the public in London on various occasions with some calling it “ugly” and a “blow to morality”.
13. Dance by Henri Matisse
Dance by Henri Matisse is an oil on canvas painting with a dimension of 260 x 391 cm (8.5 x 12.8 ft). Part of a series called “The Dance”, Henri Matisse painted it in 1910 after a Russian businessman and art collector commissioned him.
Henri Matisse was known for his use of colors in his paintings and that’s exactly what he did with Dance.
Art experts referred to the dancing figures and the composition of this artwork as the work that paved the way for modern painting and one that advanced his career as an artist.
Matisse sketched a preliminary version of this artwork, which is currently displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
14. Luncheon of the boating party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The inspiration behind the famous French paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir becomes evident in his artwork, Luncheon of the Boating Party.
He created this painting in 1881 and depicted a gathering of friends on a balcony of a restaurant along Paris’ Seine River. The subjects of the painting are real-life friends of Renoir.
This painting was first publicly displayed at the 7th Impressionist Exhibition in 1882 and 3 critics at the event cited it as the best work on display.
Critics were impressed by the fluidity of the brushstrokes in the painting, its use of light, and the dichotomy of the composition.
In 1923, the painting was purchased at a value of $125,000 and it is currently in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
15. Dante and Virgil in hell by Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix has had plenty of notable paintings throughout his career, and this is one of them.
Dante and Virgil in Hell (also known as Barque Of Dante) is an oil on canvas painting, and it was also the first major painting for Eugène Delacroix.
The fans of the Romantic art movement received this painting well, primarily as it provided a visual interpretation of hell as described by Dante Alighieri in his literature.
Michaelangelo largely influenced Delacroix’s painting style, and you can see the resemblance if you visit the Sistine Chapel.
This painting depicting Dante and Virgil going through hell as they watch tormented souls can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
This painting should not be confused with the painting of a similar title by William-Adolphe Bouguereau that is housed in the Orsay Museum.
16. Card Players by Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne is a Post-Impressionist French painter known for using small and repetitive brushstrokes.
This unique technique was lauded for its ability to form complex imagery, and many consider this painting to be the best example of that mastery in his art.
Cézanne created a series of paintings on card players with varying players and different game settings but this is the most popular of them. The subjects in this particular Card Players painting are two peasants smoking and playing cards.
There were a total of five paintings in this series and in 2011, one of them sold for $250 million. This painting is currently on display at Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France.
17. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
George Seurat’s only entry on this list of famous French artwork is a Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
This artwork is an oil painting on canvas that Seurat painted from 1884 to 1886. The subjects of the painting are Parisians relaxing on La Grande Jatte.
The painting is considered the best example of the pointillist technique which is characterized by the use of small, distinct dots in color to form an image. It is also referred to as the frontrunner of the Neo-impressionist movement.
Another work of Seurat titled “Bathers of Asneres” also featured the bank of La Grande Jatte, although this one is on the opposing side of the riverbank.
To see this artwork, you’ll have to visit the Art Institute of Chicago where it currently hangs.
18. The Intervention of the Sabine Women By Jacques-Louis David
The Intervention of the Sabine Women is a powerful artwork created by the renowned French artist Jacques-Louis David.
Painted in 1799, this masterpiece falls under the Neoclassical art movement, a period known for its return to classical styles and themes.
The painting narrates a dramatic moment from the ancient Roman story where the Sabine women courageously intervened to stop a battle between their Sabine fathers and Roman husbands.
The women with their children in their arms position themselves as shields between the two groups, urging for peace and unity rather than conflict.
Jacques-Louis David brilliantly captured the intensity of the moment with a vivid play of light and shadow showcasing the raw emotions of each character involved.
It is also believed that David painted this painting as a dedication to his wife who had just visited him in prison at the Luxembourg palace.
Today, this compelling piece calls the Louvre Museum in Paris home.
19. Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Another French famous artwork that graces the wall of the Louvre Museum is the Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.
When you think of King Louis XIV, this portrait is what probably comes to mind as it has become his most recognizable painting!
While his coronation robe stands out, if you look closely, another thing you’ll notice is how the legs don’t match the entire body!
By the time this portrait was painted in 1701, the King was 61 years old and partly paralyzed so he could not stand for so long!
However, since he wanted to appease his grandson who wanted a portrait of him, Rigaud painted his face on a canvas in 2 seatings and later found a 20-year-old man to model for him, and that’s whose legs they used in this portrait.
And even though it was partly the King with a stranger’s legs, it became the official portrait of Louis XIV, and today, it’s one of the famous French artists’ paintings.
20. The Ballet Class By Edgar Degas
It’s impossible to talk about famous French artists’ paintings and not mention The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas.
Painted between 1871 and 1874, this work is a brilliant representation of the realist and impressionist styles that Degas was known for.
He painted a number of paintings on the topic of Ballet, from Ballet Rehearsal, The Star, to Ballet Rehearsal On Stage, and more.
In this particular painting, Degars offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a ballet class with a keen focus on the dancers who are seen either practicing or at rest with their teacher watching.
To have a glimpse of this painting, you’ll need to visit the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
21. Poppies by Claude Monet
Clause Monet painted almost 2000 paintings in his lifetime, and Poppies is one of his several that stand out even to date!
Painted in 1873, this painting shows a mother and child pair (who came to be known as Monet’s wife and son) in the foreground and another in the background walking in a field of blooming poppies on a sunny day near Monet’s home in Argenteuil, France.
The painting vividly brings out the bright red and orange poppies against the green of the grass and trees creating a stunning visual effect.
This painting currently hangs in the Orsay Museum in Paris.
Final Thoughts on the Famous French Paintings
It is hard not to be in awe of France’s famous artists’ exceptional skill and talent.
Whether you are an art lover or want to learn more about the country’s art history, start your exploration with these famous French paintings.
Hopefully, these famous French artworks have inspired you to travel to the country and discover more of its art and culture, if it means getting a peek into the creative geniuses behind these paintings.
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Check out these posts to help you plan your trip to Paris
- Famous Churches to Visit in Paris
- Fun Free things to do in Paris
- Best Neighborhoods in Paris
- Beautiful Covered Passages of Paris
- Fun non-touristy things to do in Paris
- Fun facts about Paris
- Interesting facts about the Arc de Triomphe
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