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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

School of Paris

From 1900 until about 1940, Paris was a thriving center of artistic activity that provided unparalleled conditions for the exchange of creative ideas. A wave of artists of all nationalities gravitated to the French capital and fostered an inspiring climate of imaginative cross-fertilization. Because of the enormous influx of non-French artists living and working in Paris, a loosely defined affiliation developed referred to as the School of Paris. The international activity associated with this group in Paris was initially concentrated in Montmartre, but subsequently moved to Montparnasse in the early 1910s. Focusing on conventional subjects such as portraiture, figure studies, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes, artists of the School of Paris employed a diversity of styles and techniques including the bold, dynamic colors of Fauvism, the revolutionary methods of Cubism, the animated qualities of Expressionism, and the private worlds of Symbolism.

A leading figure of the School of Paris, the Spaniard Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved to France in 1904. Picasso’s variety of creative styles are representative of the kind of cross-fertilization that transcends the works of the School of Paris artists. His groundbreaking collaboration with the Frenchman Georges Braque (1882–1963), which began in 1907, fostered the development of Cubism. Subsequently associated with the Surrealist artists working in Paris in the early 1920s (although never an official member of the movement), Picasso’s use of Surrealist imagery is evident in Nude Standing by the Sea (1996.403.4). His morphed and organic forms are comparable to Joan Miró (1893–1983), another Spaniard living in Paris and a pioneer of the Surrealist movement. The influential Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) also resided in Paris (1911–15 and again in the 1920s) and is considered a precursor to the magical realism among the Surrealists, as exemplified in his ominous, dreamlike composition Ariadne (1996.403.10) of 1913.

Other artists within the School of Paris exchanged styles and ideas about painting and sculpture. The Italian Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) arrived in Paris in 1906 and initially worked alongside the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), who had been in the city since 1904. Between 1909 and 1915, Modigliani made a series of sculptures, such as Woman’s Head (1997.149.10), with elongated features, oval heads, and thinly incised eyes that show the definitive influence of Brancusi as well as of African sculpture. In Reclining Nude (1997.149.9) from 1917, Modigliani used these stylistic elements, for example the almond-shaped eyes, in his distorted depiction of a nude figure. Another artist whose work exemplifies the exchange of ideas and styles among artists living and working in Paris is the expatriate and friend of Modigliani, the Lithuanian artist Chaim Soutine (1893–1943). Soutine arrived in Paris in 1913 and created pictures imbued with torment and personal expression. In his portrait Portrait of Madeleine Castaing (67.187.107) from 1929, he alters the figure’s facial features just enough to create a psychological intensity and agitation comparable to works by Austrian Expressionists Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) and Egon Schiele (1890–1918).

A prominent figure in the School of Paris, the Russian artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985) initially lived in Paris from 1910 to 1914. Moving into a studio in Montparnasse adjacent to Modigliani and near the Frenchman Fernand Léger (1881–1955) and Soutine, Chagall quickly absorbed the stylistic influences of the avant-garde working in Paris. Chagall’s Bride with Fan (2002.456.8) of 1911 displays the charm and luminescence characteristic of his work at this time. In The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1984.433.6), painted in 1917 after his return to Russia, Chagall’s use of unrealistic perspective, sharply defined contours, and figures in various scale show the influence of the French artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). Chagall became a leading artist of the School of Paris during the 1920s and ’30s after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1923.

The unprecedented migration to Paris of foreign artists who worked in tandem with French luminaries such as Henri Matisse (1869–1954), André Derain (1880–1954), Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), and Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) came to an end with the outbreak of World War II (1939–45). Many artists fled to New York or returned to their homeland, and the frenzied activity experienced by members of the School of Paris concluded.