Skip to Content

France in the Nineteenth Century



The story of the National Gallery’s rich holdings of 19th-century French paintings began in 1942 when a small but choice selection of impressionist works entered the collection among Joseph E. Widener’s bequest of more than 2,000 objects. Many people since have helped the Gallery acquire outstanding paintings in this area, notably Chester and Maud Dale, who assembled a sensational collection from the 1920s through the 1950s, and both children of the Gallery’s founder, Andrew W. Mellon – Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce. The latter bequeathed her impressive cache of French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to the Gallery in 1969.


On January 29, 2012, the National Gallery of Art reopened 14 galleries devoted to 19th-century French paintings. During the nearly two years that these galleries were closed for renovation, many of the works were on loan to museums in Houston, Tokyo, and Kyoto. The reinstallation provides fresh interpretive insights in a newly conceived exhibition design. Thirteen of the paintings have been recently restored, allowing audiences to have a more accurate understanding of artists’ original intent. Gustave Courbet’s The Black Rocks at Trouville, a recent acquisition, also makes its debut.


The reinstallation uses thematic, monographic, and art historical groupings to organize the paintings. By avoiding strict chronology in laying out the design, the installation explores the idea that artistic production and creativity in the 19th century was influenced as much by contemporary artistic and social trends as by earlier painting traditions.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.29

1 of 41

Paul Cézanne, The Artist's Father, Reading "L'Événement", 1866, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1970.5.1

2 of 41

Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.162

3 of 41

Edgar Degas, Four Dancers, c. 1899, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.122

4 of 41

Early Decades


The 19th century opened with new leadership and vision in France. Napoleon Bonaparte dramatically changed the political and social landscape, using art to promote his military and civic achievements (see The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries). Artists like Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres embraced the neoclassical style promoted by the official French art academy, which groomed artists for the prestigious annual Salon exhibition. Rigorous academic practices were a source of contention throughout the century, striking many as restrictive and stifling. As the years went on, more and more artists defied convention in an effort to be original and inventive.


Academic standards rewarded elevated historical, mythological, and biblical themes as subject matter. Now, however, many painters became motivated to depict the world around them. An artist’s own life was far more accessible than a historical battle or story from the Bible. Barbizon artists, such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet, began actively exploring landscapes they knew in the 1830s, like the forest of Fontainebleau. Their quest to capture the underlying beauty of a rustic woodland clearing or the humbling splendor of a natural vista prefigured the realist movement, which was driven by artists' observation of actual things, real places, and current events rather than imaginary or abstract scenes. Other painters, roused by the bold work of realist Gustave Courbet, enlivened their canvases with expressive and vigorous brushwork, imparting a tactile and physical quality to their pictures.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, A View near Volterra, 1838, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.111

5 of 41

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.109

6 of 41

Constant Troyon, The Approaching Storm, 1849, oil on canvas on board, Chester Dale Fund, 1995.42.1

7 of 41

Horace Vernet, Hunting in the Pontine Marshes, 1833, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, 1989.3.1

8 of 41

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Agostina, 1866, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.108

9 of 41

Painting Outdoors


By the middle of the century it had become common practice to work out-of-doors, or en plein air. New types of paint containers allowed greater mobility, so artists could set up easels outside and paint from direct observation of nature. Painters traveled to scenic towns and beaches, such as those on the Normandy coast or along the Seine, where they were captivated by skies and water. They painted sites in varying weather conditions and bathed in different types of light.


Eugène Boudin was particularly masterful in his maritime depictions at Deauville and Trouville, Normandy beach resorts. His vignettes, set beneath atmospheric and pulsating skies, influenced many artists, including Claude Monet, who worked with him on the Normandy coast in the summer of 1865. Courbet, too, saw these coastal scenes and undertook his own marine series, infusing his works with spontaneity and often painting with a brusqueness synchronized with irregular oceanic conditions. He had been a pioneering figure for his unapologetic portrayals of common people and places on a grandiose scale, as well as his daring painterly style, and his focus on the mercurial atmosphere of the coast was another testament of his commitment to realism.

Eugène Boudin, The Beach at Villerville, 1864, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.4

10 of 41

Eugène Boudin, Coast of Brittany, 1870, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.11

11 of 41

Claude Monet, Sainte-Adresse, 1867, oil on canvas, Gift of Catherine Gamble Curran and Family, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1990.59.1

12 of 41

Gustave Courbet, The Black Rocks at Trouville, 1865/1866, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, 2011.51.1

13 of 41

Modern Paris


Many innovative styles emerged throughout the 1850s and 1860s, with the rougher techniques of realist painters blazing the way toward the informal compositions and loose brushwork that characterized much output from this period forward. Artists explored new methods of applying paint and color to generate vivid, compelling effects. Edouard Manet began capturing the public’s attention with his Spanish-themed works, influenced in part by frequent trips to the Louvre where he copied old masters like Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya. But critics soon began attacking his treatment of paint – calling it inartistic and unfinished – and his subject matter – deeming it inappropriate or inconsequential. Fazed, but determined, Manet developed his technique and painterly brio, distinguished by bold and spontaneous brushwork and paint that was not blended, but rather laid down in touches side by side. He became a leader of the avant-garde and a critical figure in the development of modern art in Paris.


Artists had new subject material close at hand: a fresh and revitalized Paris. In 1853, Napoleon III appointed a new city official, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who initiated a renewal project that turned Paris into a modern urban center. From an essentially medieval city, Paris became, in a matter of years, a well-organized capital with wide boulevards, regulated architecture, new parks and standardized public areas, and extended railway lines. The transformation intrigued many artists, including Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir, who were inspired and dazzled by the crowded streets and metropolitan scene. Some, like Manet, were more ambivalent about the modernized city, noting a sense of anonymity and dislocation that came along with the transformation.

Edouard Manet, The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet), 1866, oil on canvas, Gift of Edith Stuyvesant Gerry, 1959.3.1

14 of 41

Edouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, probably 1864, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.40

15 of 41

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.6

16 of 41

Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, Paris, 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.58

17 of 41

Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, oil on canvas, Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer, 1956.10.1

18 of 41

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard des Italiens, Morning, Sunlight, 1897, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.198

19 of 41



The Salon continued to exert influence over artistic production by determining whose works were exhibited, thereby confering prestige and publicity. Frustration over refused submissions led a group including Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley to organize the Société anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., a cooperative for artists of all kinds to exhibit independently. Between 1874 and 1886 the group organized eight independent Salons, establishing a place for avant-garde art never before known in France.


These artists, dubbed impressionists, defied the Salon in various ways. For one, they disregarded the jury’s attachment to historical or religious subject matter. Instead, they studied objects and figures from modern life, using domestic interiors as well as landscape vistas as stimulation. Family members and friends were painted with heightened energy and dynamism. Sparkling scenes of enjoyment and leisure became backdrops for studies of sunlight and its resplendent effects on different surfaces. Painters sought to convey direct visual experiences and translate passing optical impressions into lasting aesthetic statements. The evenly painted surfaces historically praised by the Salon gave way to textured canvases, marked by dabs, wipes and smears. Monet’s sustained interest in conveying the magic of light led him later in his career to paint in series, catching objects and structures, such as the Rouen Cathedral and the Waterloo Bridge in London, at different times of day.

Auguste Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou, 1879, oil on canvas, Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951.5.2

20 of 41

Edgar Degas, Mademoiselle Malo, c. 1877, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.18

21 of 41

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.18

22 of 41

Claude Monet, The Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.24

23 of 41

Auguste Renoir, A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.206

24 of 41

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, 1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.179

25 of 41



In the 1880s, many artists, including Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, wanted to move beyond painting what the eye perceived. No defined mission unified this group, but they were galvanized by the efforts of the radical impressionists before them and sought to extend their quest for meaningful self expression and innovation. Seurat used dots of color; Cézanne played with the underlying geometry of forms; and Gauguin painted large patches of unmediated color. All pursued artistic purity. They often abandoned narrative and naturalist impressions, emphasizing instead brilliant optical effects or emotional passion. Although they were figural artists, their work can also have an abstract quality.


These artists self-consciously pushed boundaries and questioned convention. Gauguin and Van Gogh in particular aimed to transform public awareness through their art, identifying societal ills and believing strongly in their ability to effect change. Many sources provided inspiration, including indigenous cultures and spirituality, non-western art, and intellectual contemplation.


Edgar Degas, older and more classically trained than either Gauguin or Van Gogh, was active with the impressionists early in his career, but later adopted more enigmatic qualities. His scenes of ballet dancers, laundresses, and bathers frequently exhibit techniques and compositions that are jarring or seemingly unfinished in their execution - and seem as modern as the work of any of his younger colleaugues.

Paul Gauguin, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, 1888, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.19

26 of 41

Georges Seurat, Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy, 1888, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.21

27 of 41

Paul Cézanne, Harlequin, 1888-1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.7

28 of 41

Paul Gauguin, Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), 1892, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.149

29 of 41

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, c. 1879, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1995.47.6

30 of 41

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1998.74.5

31 of 41

Exoticism and Symbolism


Many painters of the latter half of the 19th century exulted in pleasures of the senses and the mind. For the impressionists this meant saluting visual delight. They drew encouragement from the mid- and late-century fascination with exotic cultures and foreign places, which stimulated both artistic and literary originality. Eugène Delacroix was France’s foremost romantic painter in the first half of the century and spent time in North African French colonies, which inspired him to paint scenes of animal hunts, foreign soldiers, and brightly-adorned alluring women, often set in orientalist locales. Not only did his work reflect the era's attraction to the unfamiliar, but it also sparked the interest of later artists such as Auguste Renoir (see Odalisque) and Henri Matisse (see Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair) who were drawn to the brilliant color and bodily sensitivity of that artistic manner. These pictures show off color, flesh, and painterly bravado.


Instead of visual or sensual delight, some artists elected to focus less on contemporary subjects and surface appearance, instead meditating on interiority and emotion. Their contemplative pictures often privilege subjectivity over rational order, and their themes frequently address myth, the Bible, or another literary text. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon were two artists who sought to find and express symbolic meaning. Their work can be cryptic, but no less evocative, and its otherworldly quality often draws on viewers’ subjectivity and imagination.

Eugène Delacroix, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains, 1863, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, 1966.12.1

32 of 41

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant, The Favorite of the Emir, c. 1879, oil on canvas, Courtesy of the United States Naval Academy Museum, 2010.95.1

33 of 41

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, oil on linen, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.46

34 of 41

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Rest, c. 1863 oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.54

35 of 41

Odilon Redon, Pandora, 1910/1912, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.56

36 of 41

Late Century


By the end of the 19th century, Paris had become the heart of avant-garde activity and experimentation. Created for the Exposition Universelle held in Paris and completed in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was a resounding symbol of ingenuity and technical advancement. Modernity reigned; fashion and entertainment illuminated Paris, and districts like Montmartre became particularly well-known for the dance halls and café-concerts that animated them. Depicting both the more disreputable side of social amusement and the showy side of celebrity, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayals of cabarets and performers are pulsating illustrations of bohemian life in the 1890s.


Non-French artists, such as Amedeo Modigliani (Italian), Chaim Soutine (Russian), and Pablo Picasso (Spanish), came to Paris, joining French counterparts like Henri Rousseau, and invented new and modern forms of expression. Electrified by the creative energy and the public love of art, these painters prompted one another to achieve. A look at their work reveals both an engagement with earlier art forms and an indication of 20th-century modernism.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Quadrille at the Moulin Rouge, 1892, oil on cardboard, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.221

37 of 41

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in "Chilpéric", 1895-1896, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1990.127.1

38 of 41

Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 1963.10.190

39 of 41

Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, 1917, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.47

40 of 41

Henri Rousseau, Tropical Forest with Monkeys, 1910, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982.76.7

41 of 41