Centre for Continuing Education

French Art History Course: The Realist Avant-garde to the School of Paris

Art History. Explore humankind’s amazing cultural heritage.

Study objects of art and their historical development the smart way with Art History courses at the University of Sydney.

L’Ecole de Paris reflected the extraordinary position of the French capital as the undisputed centre of the global art world during the first four decades of the 20th century. Ever since the emergence of the Realist Avant-garde, France has played a leading role in the cultural life of Europe. A wave of artists of all nationalities gravitated towards the city of lights, and contributed to the climate of creative intensity. By the mid-1920s, Paris was home to an estimated 70,000 painters and sculptors, most of whom survived in poverty, first in Montmartre, later in Montparnasse.


This Art History course aims to:

  1. Define the works of art for their pictorial value in their historical context;
  2. Record the evolution of art through times;
  3. Recognise various scenes represented in art which include an understanding of iconography and symbolism;
  4. Follow a methodology to help read a work of arts in terms of lines, colors, and perspective;
  5. Identify art works for those planning to travel to the sites discussed in the course.


The benefits are immense and valuable. At the end of the course, a student will be able to measure the diversity of French art and understand the concept of Modern Art that exploded during the first four decades of the twentieth century. The student will be able to look at a work of art, place it within a historical, cultural and artistic context and deciphers the message behind its aesthetical beauty.


This Art History course will cover the following content:

Realism and Impressionism

In the mid-Nineteenth Century, great art was still defined as art that took it’s subjects from religion, history or mythology and its style from ancient Greece and Rome. But Courbet and Millet called for an art that would depict, as he called it, the beauty of modern life, appropriate for an industrial, commercial, urban culture. Later, Manet painted modern life in Paris, a city which was undergoing rapid modernization in the period after 1855. The generation which followed Courbet found a more accurate pictorial solution to the ‘scientific optical objectivity’. This was the foundation of Monet’s Impressionism.

Post Impressionism

The work of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat together constitute Post-Impressionism and yet their work is so varied and unrelated, we might never otherwise think of these four artists as a group. Each of these artists was concerned with solving particular issues that had to do with their own individual sensibility. Here we will explores the sketchy multi-perspectival views of Cézanne, Seurat’s systematized critiques of upper middle-class Paris, Gauguin’s fascination with the primitive and exotic, and van Gogh’s unerring ability to convey deeply human experiences.

Fauvism and Cubism

Les Fauves (the wild beasts) used colour the way most artists use line, to define form in space. From these brilliant early experiments, Henri Matisse went on to create some of the most daring and satisfying art of the early 20th century avant-garde. The Spaniard Picasso changed the way we see the world. Together with the French artist George Braque, Picasso undertook an analysis of form and vision that would inspire radical new visual forms across Europe and in America.

Les Nabis and Orphism

The Nabis were a Symbolist group, founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. The subjectivity and what might be called the artist’s personal style was, in fact, accomplished through the choice of how to arrange these lines and colours. Orphism style founded by Delaunay was distinguished by faceted compositions, vibrant colour, and contemporary subject matter that together conveyed delight in the modern life and its technological innovations.

French Expressionism

Rouault, Soutine, and Chagall were the main representatives of this particular mouvement in France. This style was characterized by the exteriorization of the painter’s impulsive reactions to life, and less concerned with the elaboration of pictorial material and forms, than with the expression of his deepest inner feelings; the expressionist painter himself became the creator of an art of anxiety, unease, neurosis, and apocalyptic threats, in short, an art of fantasies which were projected in the form of a creative spontaneity.


The Surrealist movement was founded in Paris by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists such as Mason, Miró, Tanguy or even Dali believed the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with taboos.


As opposed to Impressionism, in which the emphasis was on the reality of the created paint surface itself, Symbolism was both an artistic and a literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colours. Symbolism can also be seen as being at the forefront of modernism as it could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form.

Abstract Concepts

What is the Idea Behind Abstract Art? The basic premise of abstraction is that the formal qualities of a painting are just as important as its representational qualities. Plato already evoked the beauty of abstract art mentioning that non-naturalistic images (circles, squares, triangles and so on) possess an absolute, unchanging beauty. We will review different types of abstract art and what they mean for each artists such as Picabia, leger, Klein and the first geometric abstraction manifested in Art Deco.

Intended Audience

This history course is suitable for personal interest adult learners, university students and active retirees who are interested in understanding more about Art history.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion