BBC4’s Art of France: How to understand the French through their paintings

Art historian and presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon tells the story of France's revolutionary art history in the BBC4 documentary series

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In Britain, we think we know France: its chic Parisian boulevards, the beaches and châteaux along the Dordogne, the lush vineyards of Bordeaux. But how well do we really understand our closest neighbour, and its turbulent history?

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“France has always been Britain’s great enemy and its forbidden lover,” says art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. “So when we understand France, in a way, we’re sort of understanding ourselves.”

Graham-Dixon’s new three-part series, Art of France, attempts to deepen our knowledge of France through its art, taking viewers from the rise of Gothic architecture through to the Cubists and Existentialists.

“I want to show that there’s more to French art than impressionism,” he says. “Painters like Monet, Renoir and Cézanne tend to get an unfair lion’s share of the coverage and attention. French art is rich in lots of other areas and time periods, too.”

One of those periods is the French Revolution of 1789. “It was probably the seismic event of modern civilisation,” Graham Dixon explains, “and not only did it happen in France, but it was totally embedded in art. Paintings were commissioned with the intention of showing the French people that the revolutionary way was the right way.”

Using art as propaganda was vital to the revolution, and remained vital under Napoleon Bonaparte, the military commander who became emperor in 1804. “Napoleon understood the power of art to shape people’s opinions, to make people see him as a hero, to sign men up to the great project of making France a leading imperial power in the world. He invited artists to paint to help create a sense of the nation.”

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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – rumoured to be Picasso’s favourite French painter – was one of those artists. He met with Napoleon briefly and did a drawing – the ruler was famously too fidgety and important to spend five hours sitting still – before creating his portrait, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806), aged only 26.

Brimming with symbols of power, and portraying Napoleon as if a king, or deity, Ingres presents Napoleon “so well, so powerfully, so bizarrely, that when he saw it, even Napoleon thought it was a bit much,” says Graham-Dixon.

“In every way, it’s perfect: it’s everything Napoleon was projecting. Ingres saw that Napoleon was a megalomaniac, almost a lunatic, who wanted to rule the world.

“He painted that so perfectly that Napoleon didn’t like it, because it tells a truth about him that he didn’t want expressed. He took it, but he hid it away in the Museum of the Army, where it still is.”

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So the key to understanding France’s past is through its art, says Graham-Dixon. “You can get a truer version of history from art, because the French artists themselves are almost too honest to paint real propaganda – they’re too good to be that deceitful.

“Even when French artists are trying to depict the official version of the truth, they’ll often give you something else, which is very chilling, very moving and very beautiful.”

The Monet painting that gave Impressionism its name – Impression, sunrise – is returning to André Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) in Le Havre from 9 September to 8 October 2017. For more information about Normandy, which was the birthplace of Impressionism, go to: normandy-tourism.org/impressionism


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