How 5 Famous French Paintings Can Help You Learn Advanced Vocabulary
We’ve got a French two-for-one special going on today.
We’re combining French language and art for a fantastic, in-context learning experience.
Isn’t it so much easier to learn a foreign language when you’re also learning about something else?
Learning French just sort of fades into the background when you’re also immersed in interesting content.
And there’s perhaps no content more interesting than art for a lover of Paris, France and French!
Advanced French vocabulary is truly easier to learn when you’re discovering France’s most famous paintings.
Words used to describe landscapes (paysages), colors and techniques will help you sound like the biggest art history buff around when discussing French art with your friends.
Not to mention, discovering these masterful works of art will make the French vocabulary that comes along with them a breeze to remember. You’ll be able to effortlessly associate words with blended colors, forms, faces and brushstrokes.
You don’t need to visit Paris to discover these works of art, but once you’ve uncovered the keys to studying them—and speaking about them!—you just may want to plan a trip and see some of these works of art (œuvres d’art) for yourself!
Learn Advanced French Vocabulary with 5 Renowned Parisian Art Exhibits
1. La Liberté guidant le peuple (Musée du Louvre)
The Louvre museum boasts two great galleries of large format French paintings, one devoted to Neoclassicism (néoclassicisme) and the other to Romanticism (romantisme). La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830), or Liberty Leading the People, can be found in the latter wing. The famed painting by Eugène Delacroix is interesting for two separate reasons.
The first has to do with French culture and history. The painting was created to commemorate the July Rebellion of 1830. Painted in the same year, it’s an important and intriguing testament to this rebellion which dethroned Charles X after the monarchy had been reinstated in France following the fall of Napoleon’s Empire. The painting represents an important and tumultuous part of French history, displaying several key figures, including, of course, Liberty—also the French figure of Marianne—in the center.
But that’s not the only reason that the painting is so important. It’s also a key to understanding romantisme in the French art tradition. Romantisme was characterized by a freedom (liberté) of color, so it’s important to study the effect of color in this painting.
Given the subject matter, it’s not surprising that the key colors of the painting are the blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge) of the tricolor flag. Not only does Liberty carry the flag (porte le drapeau) displaying these colors, but they can also be found in the clothing of the man kneeling before her. This was included in the painting in case censors (la censure) forced the flag in the top portion of the painting to be cut out.
But color isn’t the only important element of this painting. The structure and symbolism (symbolisme) are important to study as well. Liberty is depicted as a goddess, but also as Marianne, a woman of the people, even wearing the Phrygian cap that had become a symbol of the first French Revolution in 1989. Corpses (cadavres) form her pedestal and allow her to enter into the world of the viewer.
Key Phrases for Discussing La Liberté guidant le peuple
J’adore le travail de couleur de Delacroix. — I love the way that Delacroix works with color.
Le saviez-vous ? Victor Hugo s’est inspiré du gamin dans l’œuvre pour créer le personnage de Gavroche des Misérables. — Did you know? Victor Hugo was inspired by the child in the work to create the character of Gavroche in “Les Misérables.”
Certains critiques pensent que la Liberté constitue la dernière vision avant la mort de l’homme situé en bas à gauche, d’où son regard fixé sur elle. C’est vrai qu’on dirait que c’est la seule personne dans le tableau à la voir ! — Some critics think that Liberty is the last dying vision of the man on the bottom left, which is why he’s staring at her. It’s true that it seems he’s the only person in the painting who can see her!
2. Monet’s Les Nymphéas (Orangerie)
Perhaps some of the most famous paintings in France are Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas), painted at his home in Giverny, Normandy from 1914-1926. While some of the 250 paintings (tableaux) he completed in this study can be found all over the world, an impressive collection of some of the largest of these works has been collected at the Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries gardens.
His water lilies are above all a study in color (une étude de couleur). Because Monet was the leader of the Impressionist movement (impressionisme) in France, a study of the water lilies is also, in some ways, a study of the movement. These paintings demand to be examined up close so that the brushstrokes (coups de pinceau) can have their full effect.
Key Phrases for Discussing Monet’s Les Nymphéas
Je trouve que c’est important de voir les Nymphéas comme un ensemble au lieu d’étudier chaque tableau individuellement. — I think it’s important to regard Water Lilies as an ensemble instead of studying each painting individually.
Il faut regarder chaque tableau et de loin et de près pour découvrir l’ensemble. — You have to look at each painting from afar and close up to discover it completely.
3. La danse au Moulin Rouge (Musée d’Orsay)
While the Louvre contains works of art (des œuvres d’art) completed through the beginning of the 19th century, the nearby Musée d’Orsay is devoted to work completed after that period. It’s no surprise, then, that many of the famed late 19th and early 20th century painters are featured, including Toulouse-Lautrec.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La danse au Moulin Rouge (1895) is a work depicting a famed can-can dancer of the time, La Goulue née Louise Weber. She danced often at the Moulin Rouge, where Toulouse-Lautrec, ever the Montmartrois, spent much of his time.
The work, composed of oil on canvas (huile sur toile), is most notable for its conveyance of movement and ambiance. But this isn’t the only painting of la Goulue attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec. Other works of the same subject were painted with gouache, an opaque watercolor paint. Experimenting with different types of paint allowed artists to have different constraints and therefore be challenged further to create their masterpieces.
Key Phrases for Discussing La danse au Moulin Rouge
Toulouse-Lautrec a employé la couleur afin d’attirer l’œil du spectateur sur la Goulue, tout comme elle aurait fait elle au spectateur de son spectacle. — Toulouse-Lautrec used color to attract the viewer’s eye to la Goulue, just as she would have done to viewers of her show.
Sans couleur ni forme précises, les spectateurs de la Goulue fondent dans l’arrière-plan pour créer l’ambiance du cabaret comme elle aurait été. — Without precise color or form, la Goulue’s audience fade into the background to create the cabaret ambiance as it would have been.
Les coups de pinceau de Toulouse-Lautrec démontrent de façon très vivante le mouvement de la robe de la Goulue. — Toulouse-Lautrec’s brushstrokes show the movement of la Goulue’s dress in an incredibly lively way.
4. Le Radeau de la Méduse (Musée du Louvre)
Le Radeau de la Méduse (1819), or The Raft of the Medusa, is another of the Louvre’s large format French paintings. This painting was painted by Théodore Géricault and yet again enters into the field of romantisme.
What unites this painting with that of Delacroix is the portrayal of current events (des faits réels) in art, something which hadn’t really been explored by many artists up until that point.
Delacroix was inspired by the true story of the Medusa, a ship that crashed and, due to not having enough lifeboats on board, left several of its passengers to die on a raft (radeau). The raft was eventually rescued, but only after several deaths and horrific stories of cannibalism. Géricault’s desire to use true facts to portray this gruesome tale inspired him to use interviews with survivors for research.
The composition (la composition) of this painting is of particular interest: it’s composed of two pyramids or triangles, one of hope and one of despair, la pyramide de l’espoir and la pyramide du désespoir. A study of these two terms in French shows that the language naturally defines hope and despair as opposites. Géricault would have known this and used his classical training to bring this to the attention of the viewer (spectateur).
Key Phrases for Discussing Le Radeau de la Méduse
Le saviez-vous ? Géricault n’aimait pas peindre des pieds, alors on n’en aperçoit qu’un seul dans le tableau. — Did you know? Géricault so hated to paint feet that you will only see one in the painting.
Le choix de Géricault de mettre sur l’apex de la pyramide de l’espoir un homme noir était très polémique pour l’époque. — Géricault’s choice to put a black man at the top of the pyramid of hope was a very controversial choice for the time.
L’emploi de deux triangles dans la composition du tableau montre la formation technique classique de Géricault : il s’agit d’un choix très courant lors des compositions Renaissances et Baroques. — The use of two triangles in the composition shows the classical technical training of Géricault: this was a very common choice made in Renaissance and Baroque compositions.
5. La Danse (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris)
While much of the art that you’ll find in Paris’ museums dates to at least a century ago, you’ll find some beautiful examples of modern art (art moderne) in the city as well. One such work is La Danse (1931-1933)—The Dance—by Henri Matisse.
The work offers a very interesting study of rhythm (une étude de rythme) using 11 different pieces to make the whole. The dance is portrayed by nymphs whose bodies seem to dance amongst the bright colors (les couleurs vives)—dull or dark colors would be les couleurs ternes. The work is meant to be seen in several panels (des panneaux), thus adding to the feeling of movement and rhythm.
The paintings should not be confused with the 1909 painting La Danse by the same painter which exists in two versions, one in Russia and the other in New York.
Key Phrases for Discussing La Danse
Il est intéressant de voir comment Matisse évolue dans sa conception de la danse depuis son tableau de 1909. — It’s interesting to see how Matisse evolves in his conception of dance from his painting in 1909.
La technique de Matisse d’employer des formes découpées afin de créer sa composition est vue par certains critiques comme une traduction plastique du mouvement propre à la danse. — Matisse’s technique of using cut-out forms to create his composition has been seen by some critics as being a plastic translation of dance’s own movements.
Now that you’ve learned some ways to discuss many of France’s most famous works of art, it’s time to set out on your own! But don’t stop here. While this is a great start, don’t be afraid to continue to expand your cultural knowledge with the help of FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With the key vocabulary and phrases you’ve gained here, you’ll soon be able to chat to your French friends about art like a pro.