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Nowhere in 18th-century Europe was painting more sophisticated, technically accomplished and innovative than in Paris. Knowledgeable patrons, thorough artistic training and, from the 1730s, the opportunities of regular public exhibitions all contributed to this.

Although grand narrative paintings continued to be made, the increasing informality of daily life was reflected in pictures of greater intimacy. The participants in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s pictures express feelings by suggestive glances rather than theatrical gestures, while Jean-Siméon Chardin’s children are sympathetically portrayed as individuals, rather than standardised images of childhood. Erotic art broke beyond the mythological or low-life to include subjects that were recognisably contemporary.

Many painters adopted a lighter palette, frothier brushwork and swirling compositions. These better suited the interior decoration of the period, which was dominated by pale shades, mirrors and delicate carved wood. The 1780s saw a reaction to this. A new generation of painters, including Jacques-Louis David and Jean-François-Pierre Peyron, looked back to the classical compositions and more controlled brushwork of Raphael and Poussin.