France, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Portrait of Napoleon I
  • The Abduction of Rebecca
  • Hunting sword
  • Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie
  • [The Great Wave, Sète]
  • Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada
  • Garden at Sainte-Adresse
  • Adam
  • Wheat Field with Cypresses
  • Tahitian Faces (Frontal View and Profiles)


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

Consulate, 1799–1804
Bourbon rule, 1814–30

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

Bourbon rule, 1814–30
Orléans rule, 1830–48
Second Republic under Louis-Napoleon, later Napoleon III, 1848–52

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

Second Republic under Louis-Napoleon, later Napoleon III, 1848–52
Second Empire under Napoleon III, 1852–70
Third Republic, 1870–1940

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.

Third Republic, 1870–1940


At the turn of the nineteenth century, France is governed by Napoleon as First Consul. As emperor, Napoleon sanctions the Neoclassical style, embodied in the art of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). Meanwhile, the seeds of Romanticism—sown here and elsewhere in Europe by contemporary writers, poets, and philosophers—give rise to an aesthetic that exalts emotion, nature, and the sublime over rationalism and classicism. Around mid-century, in the midst of class struggles and the wake of civil uprisings against an oppressive government, Romanticism is supplanted by Realism in the visual arts and literature, which focuses on modern subjects and the lives of the lower classes.

Two major artistic movements dominate the second half of the century. A group of painters known as the Impressionists also take up themes from modern life, executing primarily landscape and genre subjects with broken color and loose brushwork that reflect the transitory nature of the images they depict. In response, a group of artists known as the Post-Impressionists develop independent styles of painting that reject the objective naturalism of the Impressionists. At the century’s close, or fin-de-siècle, many artists, designers, and collectors promote an artistic reform leading to a style known as Art Nouveau. Based on asymmetrical, organic forms and influenced by Japanese art, the Art Nouveau style emerges in painting and the graphic arts as well as in architecture and the design of everyday objects.

Key Events

  • ca. 1800

    A faction emerges from the studio of Jacques Louis David (1748–1825). Known as the Primitifs, these artists push the Neoclassical style championed by their master toward a greater simplicity, emulating the linear purity of Greek vase painting and fifteenth-century Italian art.

  • 1801

    Architects Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853) publish the Recueil de décorations intérieures, a compilation of drawings of contemporary design that will set the standard for the Empire style of interior decoration, which spreads throughout Europe. The two collaborate on the interior of Joséphine Bonaparte’s château outside of Paris, Malmaison (1800–1802), whose decoration reflects the Imperial Roman models and Egyptian-inspired motifs characteristic of the Empire style.

  • 1804

    Antoine Jean Gros (1771–1835), a student of David, paints the monumental canvasNapoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa. This propagandizing work depicts the general’s visit to plague-afflicted prisoners during the siege of Jaffa. Recalling both Christian imagery and the divine touch of kings, Gros depicts Napoleon touching an inmate, who gestures in incredulity. The architectural setting and figures in exotic dress mark an early appearance of Orientalism, a fascination with the Eastern world that is stimulated in part by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and that will persist in art throughout the nineteenth century.

  • 1804

    Napoleon I Bonaparte (1769–1821) has himself proclaimed emperor of the French. At his coronation on December 2, at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Napoleon takes the imperial crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and places it on his own head. As First Painter to the emperor, Jacques-Louis David portrays the royal splendor of this event in The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine (1805–7; Musée du Louvre, Paris), and produces other iconic images of Napoleon, including a depiction of the general as he signals to lead his troops across the Alps in a campaign that will vanquish his Austrian foes (Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800; Musée National de Malmaison). This mounted equestrian portrait recalls, in its format and pose, sculpted memorials to the heroes of antiquity (in fact, Napoleon crossed the Alps riding a mule).

  • 1806

    Antonio Canova (1757–1822), praised as the greatest sculptor of the age, executes a large-scale classical nude figure of Napoleon as a benevolent Mars. Canova produces portraits of other members of the emperor’s family, including the idealized reclining nude figure of Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, in the guise of Venus (1808; Galleria Borghese, Rome).

  • 1814

    The Allied armies (67.187.127) of Britain, Russia, and Austria enter Paris. Napoleon abdicates and is exiled to Elba, and Louis XVIII (r. 1814–24) ascends the throne, establishing a constitutional monarchy. The Congress of Vienna meets between September 1814 and June 1815 with the aim of restructuring the European continent, nearly all of which has been taken as the spoils of Napoleon’s military campaigns. In the following year, Napoleon escapes from exile and returns to power for a brief period known as the “Hundred Days.” He is finally defeated by Allied forces under the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), and exiled to Saint Helena, where he dies in 1821.

  • 1816

    The French government frigate Medusa founders off the coast of Africa; the ship’s captain abandons 150 passengers on a makeshift raft, of whom only fifteen survive after thirteen days at sea. Théodore Gericault (1791–1824) depicts this controversial subject with chilling explicitness inThe Raft of the Medusa (1818–19; Louvre), a triumph of early Romantic painting in its description of human anguish and the futile struggle of man against nature.

  • 1824

    In a pivotal year for the development of French painting, works by contemporary British painters such as landscapist John Constable (1776–1837) are exhibited at the Salon, along with Eugène Delacroix’s (1798–1863) Massacre at Chios (Louvre). Though met with mixed reviews, the canvas becomes an icon of the emerging Romantic aesthetic in French painting. In the same year, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) returns to France after an eighteen-year sojourn in Italy. The two artists—one the great proponent of French Romantic painting, the other a staunch exponent of Davidian classicism—are posited in a stylistic rivalry, lasting until mid-century, that recalls that of the poussinistes and rubénistes of a century earlier: Ingres’ art asserts the supremacy of academic tradition, linear contour, and design, while that of Delacroix counters with freer brushwork, often-turbulent compositions, and sensuous colorism.

  • 1830

    The July Revolution, an uprising stirred by and among the middle classes, rages for three days in reaction against attempts by King Charles X (r. 1824–30) to return to the absolutist monarchy of the ancien régime. Charles abdicates and flees; despite the citizens’ clamor for a republic, the duc d’Orléans is proclaimed limited constitutional monarch as Louis-Philippe. In this year, Delacroix paints Liberty Leading the People (Louvre), combining realism and allegory in a depiction of the personification of Liberty bearing a tricolor and leading combatants through a corpse-littered barricade. Louis-Philippe himself acquires the work when it is shown at the Salon of 1831.

  • ca. 1830–70

    The Barbizon School of landscape painting flourishes in the region of the French village from which it takes its name. Influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch masters, the Barbizon painters turn away from idealized classical landscapes in favor of direct observation of nature and sketching out-of-doors, en plein air (a practice facilitated by the introduction, in 1841, of collapsible metal squeeze tubes of paint). Central figures of this school are Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867), Jules Dupré (1811–1889), and Charles Daubigny (1817–1878). In 1849, Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) settles in Barbizon, where he paints The Gleaners (1857), The Angelus (1859; both Louvre), and other works that endow peasant life with a monumental dignity.

  • 1831

    Sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (1796–1875) submits a plaster model to the Salon—Tiger Devouring a Gavial of the Ganges—winning public acclaim. Best known for animal groups such as this, Barye appeals to a contemporary taste for unflinching images of nature at its most ferocious.

  • 1834

    Auguste Préault (1809–1879) exhibits the plaster relief panel Tuerie (Slaughter) at the Salon. Its fragmented figures contort into gestures of anguish, their mouths opened to cry out. The emphasis on physical and emotional extremes, a radical departure from the conventions of classical relief, marks Préault’s vanguard approach.

  • 1836

    The Arc de Triomphe is unveiled at the Place d’Étoile in Paris. Begun in 1806 by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin (1739–1811), the triumphal arch is conceived as an emblem of Napoleonic rule inspired by ancient Roman models. Louis-Philippe fosters its completion by architects L. Goust, Jean-Nicolas Huyot, and Guillaume-Abel Blouet, with a revised decorative program celebrating French patriotism. Among the various participants in its decoration is François Rude (1784–1855), who executes one of four sculptural groups flanking the arch’s opening, The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792, better known as La Marseillaise. The work elevates the volunteer soldiers to the status of mythic heroes as they advance—nude, or wearing classical armor—under the sweeping winged allegorical figure of Liberty.

  • 1839

    Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) exhibits a photographic image, produced on a silver-coated copper plate with iodine vapors, which he calls the daguerreotype. His collaborator for six years (from 1827) is Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833), the French chemist who in 1816 produces the first negative and, in 1826, the earliest surviving photographic image.

  • 1842 onward

    Major excavations in northern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Turkish empire, are undertaken by French and British diplomats and adventurers. Many of the monumental stone sculptures and reliefs discovered within ancient Assyrian royal palaces (dating from the ninth to seventh century B.C.) are shipped to London and Paris, prompting a vogue for all things Assyrian. Many architects and artists are influenced by the discoveries and an Assyrian Revival style flourishes in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

  • 1848

    The February Revolution overthrows Orléans rule and establishes the Second Republic. In late June of this year, class riots break out in the working districts of Paris and are brutally suppressed by the army. The “Year of Revolutions” has a profound effect on contemporary artists such as Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891), who depicts the tragic casualties of the uprising in Memory of Civil War (Louvre), shown at the Salon of 1850–51.

  • 1849

    On an official mission for the Ministère de l’Instruction Publique, Maxime Du Camp (1822–1894) sets out for the Middle East, where he will make a photographic inventory of the sights and monuments of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Du Camp’s archaeological reportage inspires many others to make the journey in the 1850s.

  • 1851

    After the failure of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the president to serve for more than one term, Louis-Napoleon mobilizes a military coup d’état that results in the fall of the Second Republic. He is named emperor of the Second Empire in the following year.

  • 1851

    The French government initiates a project of documenting the nation’s architectural heritage, assigning five photographers, including Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) and Édouard Baldus (1813–1889), to record different regions of the country.

  • 1853

    Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910), known as Nadar, opens a photographic studio soon to become a hub of the most illustrious personalities of the day. Known to posterity for his elegant portraits of such luminaries as the actress Sarah Bernhardt and writer Charles Baudelaire, Nadar is better known to his contemporaries as a novelist and essayist.

  • 1854

    American Commodore Matthew Perry and the Tokugawa shogunate conclude the Kanagawa treaty that opens Japan, hitherto an isolationist country, to trade with the West (limited trade, particularly with Dutch merchants, had been permitted up to this point). Shortly thereafter, Japanese wares—furniture, decorative objects, textiles, and prints—are widely available in Europe and avidly collected by an affluent bourgeoisie, including artists such as Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, and writers such as Baudelaire, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, and Émile Zola. Japanese pictorial arts, especially prints, and other aspects of the Japanese aesthetic exert a profound influence on contemporary French artists, authors, and composers. In 1872, the critic and collector Philippe Burty uses the term japonisme to refer to this widespread cultural phenomenon and to promote its study.

  • 1855

    The Exposition Universelle, including a major art exhibition, is held in Paris with the aim of displaying the social, industrial, and cultural progress in France under Napoleon III. Realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) submits a monumental canvas, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic Life, to the exposition jury, who reject it. Outraged by the stylistic strictures imposed by the Academy of Fine Arts, Courbet organizes a private exhibition in a tent near the fairground entrance, calling it his Pavilion of Realism. Courbet’s radical departure from academic tradition had rocked the art world six years earlier, when he exhibited three pictures—Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, After Dinner at Ornans, and A Burial at Ornans—at the Salon of 1849. These works, depicting the landscape and inhabitants of his rural birthplace, elevate scenes from everyday life to the grand scale formerly reserved for history painting. Courbet’s pictures espouse the cry of contemporary critic Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) in his review of the Salon of 1846 for an art that reflects the “heroism of modern life,” and he leads a generation of Realist painters that has as its literary counterpart the circle of Baudelaire, author of Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), and Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), author of Madame Bovary (both 1857).

  • 1858

    English dress designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895), often regarded as “the father of haute couture,” opens a firm in Paris. The House of Worth dominates Parisian fashion through the second half of the nineteenth century.

  • late 1850s

    The increasing popularity of photography encourages the development of faster printing processes and the circulation of inexpensive types of photographic prints, including the stereograph and the carte-de-visite.

  • 1861

    Construction begins on the Paris Opéra, designed by Charles Garnier (1825–1898). It is conceived by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891), city planner under Napoleon III, as the converging point of several major boulevards. Incorporating Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements and decorative motifs, the ornate structure symbolizes Second Empire decadence, the appeal of which endures well after the empire’s fall. Its profuse exterior adornment includes The Dance by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875), a Beaux-Arts sculptor who rises to prominence with Ugolino and His Sons (1860–62; Louvre; see MMA 67.250) at the Salon of 1863. The Opéra is completed in 1875.

  • ca. 1862

    Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) paints The Third-Class Carriage (29.100.129), an unidealized portrayal of the living conditions of the working class and the psychological isolation symptomatic of modern urban life. The artist is already well known for the satirical drawings and political cartoons he produces for Paris weeklies, such as Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834(57.650.192), depicting the wake of a massacre of working-class opponents of the oppressive government under Louis-Philippe.

  • 1863

    The Salon des Refusés is established for the exhibition of works rejected by the Salon jury (more than half the submissions for this year are rejected), and includes pictures by Cézanne, Pissarro, Whistler, and Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Many of the works displayed generate controversy, particularly Manet’s canvas Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). While its composition of male figures reclining in a clearing with a nude female figure derives from classical and Renaissance sources (see Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael, 19.74.1), its contemporaneity and directness of approach shock modern audiences. Manet stirs a second scandal with Olympia (Musée d’Orsay), painted in 1863 and exhibited at the Salon of 1865. In a composition that recalls old master paintings, notably theVenus of Urbino by Titian, a nude female figure reclines on a couch. Manet’s modern courtesan, who unabashedly engages the viewer’s glance, arouses critical disgust and claims of indecency and vulgarity.

  • 1866

    Jules Chéret (1836–1932) popularizes a technique of color lithography that marks the rise of the modern advertising poster. His designs influence the painter and graphic artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), who captures in his brief but prolific career the gaiety—and, often, the garishness—of the theaters, circuses, and cabarets of fin-de-siècle Paris.

  • 1870

    The Franco-Prussian War breaks out, ending in French defeat. At the fall of Napoleon III, the Third Republic is established. In the following year, a socialist Commune is set up in Paris (March 18–May 29); Gustave Courbet is an active participant in Commune politics, and leads a commission for the protection of artistic monuments. After the Commune’s overthrow, Courbet is accused of ordering the demolition of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic rule; he is imprisoned and, declared responsible for the column’s restoration, flees to Switzerland shortly after his release in 1873, living there in exile until his death in 1877.

  • 1874

    The first of eight exhibitions of Impressionist painting is held in Nadar’s studio in Paris, featuring works by Claude Monet (1840–1926), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). Maligned by critics, one of whom coins the term impressionisme pejoratively after Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, 1872 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), this group of artists is dedicated to the depiction of modern life, especially landscape and genre subjects, based on direct observation. They develop a style of painting with loose, broken brushstrokes that mirrors the often fleeting nature of their subjects.

  • 1874

    American painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) settles in Paris. Her cosmopolitan upbringing and early travels allow her access to studies with such masters as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) and Thomas Couture (1815–1879), and she exhibits at the Salon for the first time in 1868. By the mid-1870s, her style becomes less Academic, and she exhibits with the Impressionists in 1880, 1881, and 1886. Cassatt later displays her refined draftsmanship and graphic technique in paintings and prints—particularly of maternal scenes—markedly inspired by the Japanese aesthetic. In her later years, she acts as advisor to several American friends in purchasing old master and nineteenth-century French avant-garde art; among them is Louisine Havemeyer (1855–1929), who bequeaths nearly 2,000 paintings and art objects from her collection to the Metropolitan Museum in 1929.

  • 1874

    The young American expatriate John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) enters the studio of portraitist Carolus-Duran (1838–1917) in Paris. He will soon achieve his own success as a portraitist, depicting with liveliness and elegance the American and European elite of his age, as in his portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, known as Madame X (1883–84; 16.53). Sargent is also a gifted plein-air landscapist.

  • 1875

    Georges Bizet’s (1838–1875) opera Carmen is performed for the first time in Paris; it is a critical failure. Despite its musical vivacity and complex psychological characterizations, contemporary audiences are unsympathetic to the opera’s realism and the inspiration Bizet takes from the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), who himself faced great unpopularity during his three-year stay in Paris (1839–42).

  • late 1870s

    Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) turns away from Impressionism, seeking to imbue objects and landscapes with a sense of solidity and permanence by reducing them to their basic geometric forms: the cube, cone, and cylinder. Though not commercially successful in his lifetime, Cézanne’s approach to painting, broadly categorized as Post-Impressionist, influences major movements in twentieth-century art, especially Cubism.

  • 1880

    Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is commissioned to execute a sculptural portal for a planned museum of decorative arts (never realized); he chooses Dante’s Inferno as the subject, and calls his doors The Gates of Hell, an allusion to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (ca. 1426–52) for the Baptistery of the cathedral in Florence. The lintel, pilasters, and door panels are adorned with reliefs of the turbulently swirling, tortured forms that inhabit Dante’s hell, most of which are identifiable. Several of Rodin’s major sculptures, including The Thinker (originally conceived as a portrayal of Dante) and The Kiss (a representation of the ill-fated lovers Paolo and Francesca), are enlarged versions of figures that appear on The Gates of Hell.

  • 1881

    Edgar Degas (1834–1917) exhibits The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (29.100.370) at the sixth Impressionist exhibition. The wax sculpture, wearing a real tulle skirt and horsehair wig tied with a silk ribbon, causes a scandal because of its naturalistic depiction of the young model. Performers—ballet dancers, opera singers, and musicians—recur in Degas’ oeuvre, which spans several media, including paint, pastel, wax, and photography. Degas is a gifted draftsman, capturing through sophisticated compositional technique the self-conscious poise of ballerinas and the casual postures of solitary bathers.

  • 1886

    Painter Georges Seurat (1859–1891) completes A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884–5; Art Institute of Chicago; see MMA 51.112.6). The artist employs a technique known variously as Divisionism or Pointillism, in which small patches or dots of pure colors are juxtaposed to produce a visual harmony when viewed from a distance. This systematic method, rooted in contemporary color theories, places Seurat at the forefront of the Neo-Impressionist movement, along with Paul Signac (1863–1935) and Lucien Pissarro (1863–1944), son of Camille Pissarro. Works by these artists appear in the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

  • 1886

    Émile Zola (1840–1902) publishes L’Oeuvre, a novel that addresses the aesthetic issues of the later nineteenth century. The author-critic rejects contemporary Academic painting, asserts the imprint of an artist’s personality or temperament on his work, and champions the painter Édouard Manet (1832–1883) as the leader of a “modern school of Naturalism.” At the publication ofL’Oeuvre, Paul Cézanne, a close childhood friend of Zola, claims to recognize himself in the primary character Claude Lantier, a failed artist who commits suicide; the two fall out and never speak again.

  • 1886

    Jean Moréas (1856–1910) publishes a Symbolist manifesto in the widely read periodical Le Figaro, arguing for an aesthetic that rejects naturalism in favor of the subjective world of dreams, nuances, and the imagination. Admired by and closely associated with the work of the Symbolists are painters Gustave Moreau (1826–1898)—who engages the opposing tensions of physicality, spirituality, desire, and morality in canvases such as Oedipus and the Sphinx (21.134.1) and several works on the theme of Salome—and Odilon Redon (1840–1916), an admirer of Francisco Goya and Edgar Allan Poe who evokes a fantastic, visionary dream-world in works such as the lithograph Marsh Flower: A Sad Human Face (1885).

  • 1888

    In Brittany, painter and graphic artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Émile Bernard (1868–1941) produce paintings of simplified, flattened forms rendered in bold, unmodulated colors. This style, which they call “Synthetism,” is Symbolist in its intent to convey emotions and ideas beyond representing the visual world. A characteristic Synthetist work is Gauguin’s 1888 canvas The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).

  • 1888

    In February, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) departs Paris for Arles in the south of France, hoping to establish an artists’ community. Under the bright sulphur-yellow light of Provence, his work comes into its own as he realizes the expressive potential of color and line. On October 23, he is joined by Paul Gauguin; they spend 9 weeks painting side by side and living together in the Yellow House. Gauguin’s abrupt departure on December 23 is precipitated by Van Gogh’s breakdown, during which he cuts off part of his left ear with a razor.

  • 1888

    A group of young artists form the Nabis, from the Hebrew word for “prophet,” with the aim of promoting decorative painting as inspired by Gauguin’s Synthetist model. Maurice Denis (1870–1943) is a founding member of the Nabis and writes in an article of 1890 for La Revue Blanche, “Remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a female nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Other core members include Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940). The Nabis are associated with the Symbolist movement.

  • 1889

    The Exposition Universelle is held in Paris as a centennial celebration of the French Revolution. The Eiffel Tower, a 984-foot-high iron structure designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) and erected between 1887 and 1889, stands near the fairground entrance on the Champ de Mars as a symbol of the triumph of science, engineering, and industry.

  • 1890

    Claude Monet, chief exponent of Impressionism, purchases a house in Giverny, whose landscape profoundly inspires him. About this time, he begins the first of several series of paintings depicting a single subject in various conditions of light and weather. His subjects include haystacks (29.100.109), poplars, the facade of Rouen Cathedral, and water lilies. He exhibits these during the 1890s in several one-man shows at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris.

  • 1891

    Paul Gauguin makes his first trip to Tahiti, where he stays until 1893. There he paints Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) (51.112.2), in which he adapts the vernacular art and customs of the South Pacific to express a Christian theme. The two central figures are based on a photograph of a low relief in the Javanese temple of Borobudur, characteristic of Gauguin’s liberal borrowing from photography and other sources. A late work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), painted in Papeete in 1897, is Gauguin’s allegorical variation on the theme of the three ages of man—or in this case, woman, here represented by female figures in a Tahitian landscape.

  • 1892

    Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), an Alsatian Jew and French general staff officer, is tried and wrongly convicted for passing French secret documents to a German military attaché. The resultant controversy, known as The Dreyfus Affair, is largely the result of anti-Semitism in France. After the court martial and nearly immediate acquittal (1898) of the actual traitor, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the pro-Dreyfus critic Émile Zola publishes “J’accuse,” an open letter to the president of the French Republic accusing the judges of acquitting Esterhazy on orders from the war office. Zola is tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but flees to England. Dreyfus is finally exonerated in 1906.

  • 1894

    Claude Debussy (1862–1918) composes the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), an orchestral work inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of 1876. Debussy is the major exponent of an impressionistic movement in music that rejects narrative and drama—ideals championed by Romantic composers such as Richard Wagner—with the aim of evoking subtleties of mood, atmosphere, and transitory impressions. Inspired by contemporary painting by Monet and Symbolist poetry, Debussy achieves impressionistic effects through the use of new chord combinations, whole-tone chords, pentatonic pitch collections, timbre, and unresolved dissonances. He is also closely associated with the Symbolist movement in music, which, like its counterparts in the visual arts and literature, rejects a strict adherence to naturalism in favor of evocation, suggestion, and imagination.

  • 1895

    German entrepreneur Siegfried Bing (1838–1905) expands and reopens his Oriental crafts shop in Paris as the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Bing is a specialist in Eastern arts, and promotes a Japanese aesthetic as a means of uniting art and craft in a manner that imbues even the most utilitarian object with a simple beauty. He is credited—through the foundation of a periodical, Le Japon Artistique, and various exhibitions of ancient artifacts and contemporary works—with the promotion of japonisme in France. The Art Nouveau style borrows from Japanese art its emphasis on linear ornamental motifs such as intertwining vegetal forms. Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau features designs by the painters Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Paul Ranson (1864–1909), as well as Belgian architect Henry van de Velde (1863–1957). Other masters of this style are Hector Guimard (1867–1942), designer of the elegant cast-iron tendrils that adorn entrances to the Paris Métro (ca. 1900), and René Lalique (1860–1945), jewelry and glassware designer.


“France, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)