The Rococo

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The Rococo

Changing Tastes.

During the first decades of the eighteenth century, a new decorative style emerged in the visual arts in France, and soon spread to many other parts of Europe. Characterized by a lighter spirit, swirling lines, and a propensity for everyday themes of enjoyment, this style was to become known as the Rococo or Rocaille. The word derived from a plasterer's term to describe this craft's technique of imitating the forms of rocks and boulders. Since the late Renaissance, plasterers had been employed throughout Europe creating fanciful grottoes in the gardens of the nobility. Around 1700, though, the techniques that the craft used to build up plaster came to be used in the interiors of royal residences and Parisian townhouses, and walls that were heavily encrusted with plaster designs suddenly became all the rage in France. These rocaille techniques later lent their name to the entire period of the early eighteenth century; like Baroque, the Rococo, or in French Rocaille, period became synonymous with heavily encrusted, even decadent decoration in the minds of the Neoclassical artists and authors of the later eighteenth century. In truth, the art of the early eighteenth century remained as varied as at any other time in European history, yet a shift in taste is undeniable in France during the last decades of the seventeenth century and in the early years of the eighteenth. The Baroque art favored throughout much of Louis XIV's reign displayed a haughty grandeur, evident in its monumental scale, mythological and historical themes, as well as its formal lines. As the century of the Sun King drew to a close, a new fondness for more informal paintings and sculptures flourished. While Versailles and other royal residences indulged the new tastes, it was in the homes of Paris's wealthy elites that this fondness for a sensual art that depicted the joys of everyday life developed most strongly. Although the new lighter art had begun to flourish in the final years of the reign of Louis XIV, its popularity increased dramatically in the years immediately following his death. The new king, Louis XV, was only five years old when he assumed the throne, and during the regency of his uncle, Philippe II, the duke of Orléans, the style made great inroads in Paris. The rise of the Rococo coincided with changes in French society, as quiet intimate gatherings became the norm, rather than the imposing formal receptions of the Baroque era. In Parisian architecture of the time, a new fashion developed for smaller, human-scaled rooms, in which families entertained small circles of friends. It was in these intimate salons that many of the gatherings of Enlightenment intellectuals and their disciples took place. In these rooms, richly decorative paintings treating the joys and entertainments of everyday living became common decorations, as French aristocratic society indulged a penchant for amusement and pleasure.


The painter most notable for developing a distinctively Rococo style in painting was Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), who despite his short life shaped tastes in eighteenth-century France. He was born at Valenciennes, a town on the French-Flemish border, but otherwise not many details about his early life are known. Around 1702, he came to Paris, and he began to move in a group of Flemish artists that painted in the capital at the time. He seems to have studied the art of Rubens and the Venetian masters, and the tradition of the Low Countries artists of the seventeenth century was particularly important in his development, too. During the late seventeenth century a taste for decoration in the Chinese style had begun to spread throughout Europe, and in this regard France was no exception. One of Watteau's early endeavors in Paris was to create chinoiseries, decorative designs that suggested Chinese themes. After 1704, the artist became associated with Claude Gillot, an engraver, illustrator, and painter who created elegant images of groups of satyrs and comedians. Gillot's work appears to have been important in shaping Watteau's own art during the 1710s, as the artist first produced a number of images of commedia dell'arte players, and then proceeded to develop a new style of fête galantes. The subject of these works was the fashionable pastimes of Paris' wealthy and aristocratic society, and in the years between 1714 and 1717 the artist painted a number of fête galantes. In some of these he posed his own fellow artists as if they were members of aristocratic society, while in others he painted aristocrats donning the clothing of peasants or of commedia dell'arte characters, two entertainments that were often practiced by aristocrats of the day in the countryside around Paris. Over the centuries, many have judged Watteau's work to be merely "pretty," yet a closer examination shows that he included subtle details intended to suggest deeper meanings. His landscapes are highly idealized, more beautiful than nature in reality is, but the statues that surround his characters or the musical instruments that his actors play convey a highly restrained language of emotion. The origins of this kind of art lay in the Dutch and Flemish genre paintings of the seventeenth century, although in Watteau's hands he elevated the genre of everyday entertainment and amusement into a cultivated, highly elegant art form.



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Boucher and Fragonard.

It was François Boucher (1703–1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) who were to carry forward this elegant and refined style into the mid- and later eighteenth century. Boucher played a role as a designer, draftsman, and painter, and by virtue of his relatively long life, he came to leave a definite imprint on all the arts in eighteenth-century France. His art treated pastoral themes, but from the new dimension of sensuality that the Rococo enjoyed so limitlessly. His pictures were filled with images of the ancient gods, shepherds, lovers, and other rustics and they often suggested a frank and open sexuality. Their ready intelligibility and free decorative quality made Boucher's art a commodity that was readily adaptable to everything from porcelain to toile du jouy, a kind of cloth popular at the time that featured images of rural scenes. Boucher was an excellent draftsman; he was alleged to have made more than 10,000 drawings in his life. His style was light and free, and he was the first who tried to bring this draftsman's spirit into the art of painting. Although he was prolific throughout his life, Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot came to criticize his art in the second half of the century for its overt prettiness as well as the artist's propensity to show bare bottoms. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, by contrast, was an amazingly adaptable artist whose career long outlasted the popularity of Rococo decoration and design. Today, Fragonard is remembered best for images like The Swing, a picture showing an elegantly dressed aristocratic woman in free flight above two admirers. The artist's output was far more varied than this piece of Rococo elegance suggests. After an early career as a painter of historical themes, the genre advocated as the epitome of artistic expression by the Royal Academy in Paris, he came to paint genre scenes like The Swing. Later he concentrated increasingly on landscapes, especially after he won the French Prix de Rome, the Royal Academy's prize that underwrote a period of study in the ancient city. Like Boucher, Fragonard's reputation has long labored under the critique that he was merely a pretty artist. More recently, his work has come to be reassessed, and the depth of the artist's compositional and drafting skills have been more fully realized. As the founder of a family of artists who designed for the French decorative arts industry, Fragonard's influence was to last long after his death.


G. Brunel, François Boucher (New York: Vendome Press, 1986).

F. Moureau and M. M. Grasselli, eds., Antoine Watteau (1684–1721): Le Peintre, son temps et sa légende (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1987).

M. D. Sheriff, Fragonard. Art and Eroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

M. Vidal, Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Conversation in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

see also Architecture: The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

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The Rococo

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