French Art Vocabulary — Learn Basic French By Talking About Art!

One of the best ways to become more confident in speaking French is to learn the important vocabulary and expressions to talk about what you enjoy — like French art!

Today, we’ll cover some basic French art vocabulary and sentences, so you can start diving deeper into this important part of French culture… and talk about it like an adult, not just using the frustrating child-level vocabulary you picked up along the years.

Share your stories, opinions, and avoid embarrassing mistakes!

Let’s dive into a beautiful topic.

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1) Basic Art Vocabulary in French

In French:
Une œuvre d’art = a work of art.

→ Notice the “œ” (“e dans l’o”, e in the o, that’s pronounced “uh” – as in les oeufs (de Pâques) = (Easter) eggs)

In this lesson, we’ll focus on:
La peinture = the art of painting / the act of painting / paint (the substance).

Je me suis mise à la peinture. = I took up painting.
J’ai acheté de la peinture rouge. = I bought some red paint.

A painting in a frame is un tableau. That’s most paintings you’ll see in a museum. For example:

“La Joconde” est un tableau très célèbre. = “Mona Lisa” is a very famous painting.

→ That’s the joke in this short video titled À musée vous, à musée moi, from the German-French TV channel Arte. It’s a fun, quick video series all about painting and art in French. I recommend you check it out!

Other vocabulary you might want to use when talking about paintings:

  • Le titre = the title
  • L’artiste = the artist
  • Le peintre / la peintre = the painter (masculine & feminine)
  • La technique, such as la peinture à l’huile / l’huile sur toile = oil painting
  • Le style = the style of the painting
  • Le mouvement = the art movement it belongs to

For example, here are some key styles and movements in French art:

L’art médiéval = Art from the Middle Ages

Le néo-classicisme (~1750 – 1810) – inspired by the Renaissance, Greek and Roman mythology, and favored under Napoleon I. A later, more derogatory name for this style is “l’art pompier” (= “firemen art”), for its frequent depiction of men in shiny helmets and pompous attitude. A famous neoclassical French painter is Jacques Louis David, who painted works like Les Sabines (1799) which you can see in the Louvre today.

Lart nouveau (~1890-1910) – literally, “New art.” This style is very present in Parisian architecture, especially in the entrances of le Métro. The poster by Théophile Steinlen for La Tournée du Chat Noir is a famous depiction of Art Nouveau, that you can find on countless Parisian postcards.

 

The name of the show is a pun on “amusez-vous, amusez-moi” (= “have fun, entertain me”, with musée = museum in the middle)

2) Share your feelings about art with French vocabulary

The goal of learning French art vocabulary is to talk about the feelings art evokes in you, and to share your ideas and personal stories.

You can use simple sentences such as:

  • J’aime bien. = I like that.
  • J’aime pas. = I don’t like it.
  • J’aime beaucoup. = I like it a lot.
  • J’adore ! = I love it!
  • C’est magnifique ! = It’s wonderful, breath-taking.

For example:
J’aime beaucoup la peintre naturaliste Rosa Bonheur.
= I really like the naturalist painter Rosa Bonheur.

J’adore Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, dans le style rococo.
= I love Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, in the rococo style.

Les couleurs sont magnifiques.
= The colors are amazing.

Other paintings might make you say:
Ça me choque. = It’s upsetting, it’s shocking to me.
Ça me met mal à l’aise. = It’s making me ill at ease, it’s making me uncomfortable.

For example:
Les personnages de Bernard Buffet me mettent mal à l’aise.
= The characters in Bernard Buffet’s paintings make me uncomfortable.

Generally, you can also start a good conversation by looking for similarities or analogies. “What else does it remind you of?” “Which similarities do you find with something else?”… Or share your own interpretation!

Ça me fait penser à… [quelque chose / quelqu’un]
= It makes me think of [something / someone]

Ça me rappelle… = It reminds me of…

Pour moi, ça parle de… = For me, it’s about… / It deals with…
Pour moi, ça évoque… = For me, it deals with… it touches on… it conveys… it evokes…

For example:
Ça me fait penser à Delacroix. Ça me rappelle “La Liberté Guidant le Peuple.”
= It makes me think about (Eugène) Delacroix. It reminds me of (his famous painting) “La Liberté Guidant le Peuple” (Freedom Leading the People).

Pour moi, ça parle de la mortalité.
= To me, it’s about mortality.

This last painting, Les Bergers d’Arcadie (1640) (= the shepherds of Arcadia) is by French painter Nicolas Poussin, an artist of le classicisme. The painting represents shepherds in the mythical, idyllic land of rural Arcadia. They’re gathered around a tomb, where it’s written “Even in Arcadia, I am” (in Latin.) The painting is displayed in the Louvre museum.

Naturalisme” art (~1880-1900) turned its eye towards “real nature,” agriculture, and workers during the Industrial Revolution. The most famous French “naturaliste” writer was Émile Zola.

Rococo” style (~1720-1760) was the last development of the exuberant Baroque style under French king Louis XV, full of aristocratic XVIIIth Century fun. A famous “Rococo” painter was Jean Honoré Fragonard.

3) Where can you look at French paintings ?

You can find paintings in une galerie d’art (= an art gallery), or in small art shops that are everywhere in France. They’re a great way to find local contemporary artists.

J’adore me balader en ville et entrer dans les galeries d’art.
= I love to walk around a city and check out the art galleries.

Of course, you can also visit un musée (= a museum) and stroll around its exhibitions.

By the way, don’t make this embarrassing mistake:

Une exposition = Une expo = An exhibition, a museum displaying art or documents.
Une exhibition = An obscene flashing in a public place. It’s not the same !

In every French city beyond a certain size, you’ll find un Musée des Beaux-Arts (= a museum for the fine arts.) They’re a great stop for an afternoon of art appreciation.

But the most famous French museums (and the greatest French paintings) are in Paris, particularly le Musée du Louvre and le Musée d’Orsay.

Resources on the Louvre:

Le Musée d’Orsay is a late XIXth Century train station in Paris, transformed into a museum for late XIXth Century French art. It particularly features l’impressionnisme, with artists such as Claude Monet or Gustave Caillebotte.

More resources on impressionism and French art in general:

Et toi ?
What’s your favorite French work of art or artist, and why?
What memories do you keep of your visit to a French museum?
Share your stories and opinions in the comments below this video!

Check out these other lessons to help you talk about French culture with more confidence:
5 easy French expressions (lesson in French)
French popular culture analysis: Le Chat (Philippe Geluck)

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Join the conversation!

  • Merci, Géraldine! Ce leçon est exceptionnel. Je suis heureuse que le National Gallery of Art à Washington, DC a rouvert récemment (avec beaucoup de restrictions, bien sûr). Ça me plaît d’admirer les tableaux and les sculptures remarquables dans la collection après une longe attente. (“C’est Pas Sorcier” était splendide aussi.)

  • Très bien ~

    If you Google – Erik Satie ~ Once Upon a Time in Paris
    (artwork by Edouard Leon Cortes) – you will be treated
    to beautifully soothing piano music (Gymnopédies) plus
    wonderful images of the Paris of once-upon-a-time. Allez ~

    France’s contribution to the world of art is truly enormous –
    where should we start ? My first ever visit to Paris was
    by train into La Gare St-Lazare (Claude Monet) and the
    time there included going to Le Louvre to see, yes,
    La Joconde (da Vinci).

    I stray away from France here somewhat, but other
    artists whose work I admire are William Hogarth,
    George Grosz and Carl Larsson, to name but three.

    Merci Géraldine pour une leçon superbe ~ tu m’as
    fait beaucoup réfléchir.

    • Hi John!

      I love that Gymnopédies video 🙂

      Thanks for your art recommendation too!

      Have a great day,

      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française

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