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French Cultural Patterns

Arts and literature. Literary and artistic creativity have generally been highly valued by the French people, and these activities have flourished, spreading the influences of French culture throughout the world. Such 18th-century author-philosophers as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were instrumental in shaping the ideas of modern France, and the works of Jean Racine, Moliere, and other neoclassical playwrights are still widely performed. Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, and Marcel Proust were among the literary giants of the 19th century. French authors have won 11 Nobel prizes for literature, far more than those of any other nation. (See also French Literature; Balzac; Hugo; Moliere; Proust; Racine; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Voltaire.)

Painting has also long been a vital art form in France. Artists often enjoyed the patronage of the nobility, producing works of quality and variety. During the 1800s the impressionist movement was largely the inspiration of such French artists as Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet, and many art trends of the 20th century also originated in France (see Painting; Degas; Monet; Renoir). In addition, the atmosphere of free inquiry and artistic integrity that generally has been present in France has attracted many artists and writers from other countries. Leonardo da Vinci, from Italy, spent his later years in France, and Pablo Picasso, from Spain, is an outstanding 20th-century example. Many American writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, lived in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. Music has always been important in the French culture, which has also supported many avant-garde works (see Music, Classical; Opera). Poetry, sculpture, ballet, and other arts have flourished in France, as have such newer art forms as photography and motion pictures (see Ballet).


Architecture. Through the centuries architecture has been the visible, enduring record of the peoples who have inhabited France, of their cultural influences, and often of the historic currents that have swept across Europe. Prehistoric stone monuments are abundant, particularly in Brittany, where the famous alignments at Carnac may have astronomical, as well as religious and cultural, significance. Arenas, theaters, triumphal arches, and other evidence of Roman colonization may be widely seen. Many of them have been restored in recent years.

During medieval times preoccupation with defense and nation building led to the construction of strong fortresses. Although most of them suffered during the centuries of warfare that followed, some survived or have been restored, including La Cite, the vast walled city at Carcassonne. Religious fervor found expression in architecture at the same time, and most of the famous churches and cathedrals of France were built then. Many examples of the earlier Romanesque style remain, but the soaring beauty of such Gothic cathedrals as those in Paris, Reims, Amiens, Chartres, and Beauvais place them among the most treasured French buildings. The majority of these cathedrals were begun in the 13th century.

During the Renaissance the unity, power, and wealth of France were expressed in the impressive, often extravagant creations of the monarchy. Near Paris, such palaces as the ones at Versailles, Vincennes, and Fontainebleau still rank among the leading architectural masterpieces. The valleys of the Loire River and its tributaries are dotted with such sumptuous ornamental chateaux, or castles, as those at Chambord, Chenonceaux, and Blois.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the zenith of French military and colonial power gave rise to grandiose architecture, much of it in Paris. The Arch of Triumph celebrates the victories of Napoleon I, and urban renovation of the mid-1800s provided such buildings as the Opera and such broad streets as the Champs-Elysees. The Eiffel Tower, which has come to symbolize Paris and even all of France, was built as a supposedly temporary exhibit for the World's Fair of 1889 (see Eiffel Tower).

French architecture has continued to be vital and imaginative. Le Corbusier was one of the most famous of all modern architects. Such buildings as the controversial but successful Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, continue to attract notice. (See also Architecture; Le Corbusier.)