The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

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The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

French Origins.

In the years immediately following the death of King Louis XIV, design in France began to take on an entirely new feeling. On the one hand, public buildings continued to be constructed using the classically influenced designs that French architects and royal patrons had favored since the early seventeenth century. On the other, domestic spaces quickly became more elegant. This style is known in English by the Italian word that described it, "Rococo," although the French word rocaille had the same meaning. It referred to "rockwork," or plaster sculpted to appear as if it was stone. Since the sixteenth century, these techniques had been employed to create fanciful grottoes from stucco in the gardens of palaces and country villas. Around 1700, though, rocaille techniques began to move indoors, and French plasterers made extensive use of the techniques in palaces and townhouses. Rocaille now referred to delicate scrolling patterns of stucco in swirls and arabesques, designs that were reproduced over and over again on walls, ceilings, and wood paneling during the first half of the eighteenth century. These patterns first appeared at Versailles and in other royal residences around 1700, and in a decade or two, rocaille became fashionable in the decoration of homes in Paris.

Development of the Rococo.

The fashion for plaster decoration sculpted in the new fanciful shapes that rocaille techniques offered was just one of several changes in taste and fashion that occurred in France soon after the death of King Louis XIV in 1715. As one of the movement's most important decorative devices, the term rocaille summed up the entire decorative impulses of the age. Outside of France, this period in architectural and decorative design has been referred to by its Italian equivalent rococo since the eighteenth century. The rise of the new style reveals a rather sudden shift in aesthetic values, a shift inspired by important changes underway in French elite society. The vast interior spaces of the seventeenth-century Palace of Versailles had favored dark and sonorous colors and the use of paneling crafted from dramatic polychromed marbles. The palette of the Rococo was altogether lighter, favoring white or ivory walls decorated with low-lying reliefs trimmed with gilt. Subtle shades of pastels figured prominently in the paintings that were hung in these rooms, or which were executed as frescoes on the walls. A fashion for mirrors intensified the bright light in these spaces, also. In sum, the feeling of a Rococo interior was considerably gayer and less forbidding than that of seventeenth-century spaces. The scale of these rooms, too, was often smaller, given more to quiet, intimate gatherings than the formal reception areas of the earlier period.


It was in Paris that these new fashions took hold most quickly, and there the new elements of interior design decorated many salons in the mid-eighteenth century. The development of the Rococo came at a time when Paris regained an important status in the early years of Louis XV's reign. In the years between 1715 and 1722, the young king centered his government, not at Versailles, but in France's largest city, as the regent, Philippe d'Orléans, preferred the town to the country. This brief re-establishment of government in Paris did much to stimulate a flurry of interior decoration and building, as nobles who had taken up residence in Louis XIV's seat of power at Versailles returned to the capital to be closer to the court. Instead of the elaborate angular and symmetrical formality of Louis XIV's age, the Rococo designers of Paris in these years produced rooms that were models of restrained and decorative delicacy. Much of this elegance, though, could not be seen by the general public since the façades of many fine townhouses built at the time continued to use the classical forms that had been popular in Paris since the seventeenth century. The Rococo fashion was an almost exclusively upper-class phenomenon, one that by 1735 had become the reigning style of interior decoration. In that year, Germain Boffrand created two striking rooms in the interior of the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris: the Oval Salon and the Salon of the Princess. These spaces survive today and demonstrate many of the central features of the style as it moved to a high point of development. In place of the angular symmetry that had prevailed during the time of Louis XIV, Boffrand's rooms feature a creative and curving asymmetry. Delicate, low relief ornament cover the walls, yet these surfaces are not nearly so heavily encrusted with decoration as the Baroque interiors that preceded them. Instead great patches of white show through Boffrand's scheme of elaborate swirling, gilt patterns. Through the repetition of vertical lines used throughout these spaces the designer called attention to these rooms' high, decorative ceilings, even as he used windows to catch and refract the light off the many gilt surfaces. The result produced a jewel box effect. While Boffrand's rooms still rank among the greatest achievements of the fashion, numerous upper-class townhouses in Paris and throughout France were being remodeled as tastes changed. While most of these spaces were not nearly so elaborate as those at the Hôtel de Soubise, typical Rococo rooms came to be paneled with wood painted white or ivory and decorated with the typical patterns of gilded plaster. Elaborate stucco decoration also figured prominently, with many plaster decorative reliefs being used prominently at the boundary between ceilings and walls.

The Rococo Conquers Versailles.

Even at Versailles, a palace once filled with imposing and dark interiors, the royal family remodeled many rooms to fit with the changing fashion. In the years after 1722, Louis XV reestablished government in the seventeenth-century palace, although by the 1730s he had grown tired of the forbidding decoration of many of Versailles' rooms. In 1735, Louis XV decided to redesign his private apartments within the palace. He chose the lighter Rococo fashion to replace the dark decoration that had previously filled these rooms, and he divided his apartments into several smaller cabinets that included a bedchamber, clock room, private office, and bathroom, eschewing the elaborate bedchamber of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV. But once his new accommodations were completed, Louis XV did not return to that uncomfortable bedchamber. He favored instead the smaller scale of his new, more private surroundings. The king thus evidenced the same desire for intimate settings as did the elites of Paris and other French cities.

Family Values

With the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and the removal of the court to Paris during Philippe d'Orléans' regency … the building of magnificent but nonetheless discreet town houses or hôtels in Paris announced a shift in the values of French domestic architecture. This shift, in turn, opened up opportunities of painters to represent these interiors in ways that took advantage of the social meanings of greater intimacy and familiarity.

Before the bottom fell out of his fiscal schemes, John Law (1671–1729), a Scottish monetary reformer in the employ of Philippe d'Orléans, helped to earn many Parisians instant wealth, which sent them on buying sprees the like of which had not previously been set outside of the royal family. Philippe had hoped to reduce the enormous public debt incurred during the later years of the reign of Louis XIV, and initially Law's plans worked. He supervised the founding of a bank that would issue notes, replacing scarce gold and silver currency, and paper money was issued in large quantities. Before the paper currency lost most of its value, Law's strategy had a significant impact on building activity in Paris. Suddenly, it seemed, many had the means to build or renovate existing structures, and furnish them with paintings, marble busts, and the beautiful cabinetry, sofas and chairs produced by the craftsmen who had once been in the employ of Louis XIV.

Jacques-François Blondel (1705–1774), Louis XV's architect, became a spokesman for how domestic architecture should look and function in eighteenth-century France. Blondel claimed to be a follower of Vitruvius, the first-century Roman architect and theorist, in endorsing what Blondel called "commodity, firmness, and delight." The idea of commodity means not just the useful and convenient, but also the commodious or comfortable. Although a building should hold true to sturdy traditions of architecture ("firmness") and display the aesthetics of the age ("delight"), it must also be comfortable. Comfort was hardly a quality sought by Louis XIV and his architects. Nor, as we have seen, was it of primary importance to the prosperous salon society of early to mid-eighteenth-century Paris.

Blondel understood that the French nobility needed homes that would have a grand room for ceremonial purposes, a reception room that was smaller yet still public, and private appartements for the members of the family. The Rococo hôtel was constructed for a family, a husband, wife, and children. Domestic servants were kept in separate rooms (often above the low-ceilinged bedrooms) or in their own apartments. Therefore, the private spaces—even the salon, which was both a reception room and a place for banquets—were built on a scale that would easily accommodate but not overwhelm the nuclear (rather than extended) family and their occasional guests.

source: Vernon Hyde Minor, Baroque and Rococo. Art and Culture (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999): 342–343.


The rise of the Rococo style of decoration coincided with the development of the salon as an institution of French culture. In the first half of the eighteenth century these cultured meetings of elites and intellectuals became increasingly important in the social life of Paris. While the salon eventually played a key role in the rise of the Enlightenment and later of the French Revolution, it was, at its base, a place where large groups of cultivated individuals who prized wit and speech, the social graces, and connoisseurship of art and music could gather. By 1750, a large city like Paris had about 800 salons that met regularly to discuss issues of civic, philosophical, or artistic importance. The craze for decoration in the Rococo, then, was one consequence of the emergence of these salons, as wealthy families competed against one another to create spaces worthy of the lofty discussions that occurred within their homes. In these new social groups members of the nobility mingled alongside merchants and students in the new private spaces that Rococo architecture offered. Women often presided over the discussions that took place in these salons, a sign of the rising status they acquired at the time as leaders of intellectual discussion as well as arbiters of domestic taste and consumption. The undeniably feminine character of much of the Rococo derived in large part from the new role that wealthy women played as consumers of art and the refined accessories of domestic living. The movement's designs also embraced a taste for the foreign, even as they made use of motifs that were rustic and surprisingly mundane. For exotic inspiration, designers turned to the Near and Far East, adopting decorative details from elements of Chinese and Arabic design. At other times they reached out to idealize rural life, filling their rooms with scenes of landscapes, hunts, or country life. Fabric printed with these scenes became popular at the time, much of which had still to be imported into France from other countries at mid-century. To avoid squandering the country's resources, Louis XV chartered a royal factory for producing the popular cloth in 1762 at Jouy-en-Josas, a small village near Versailles. The village name contributed to the modern term "Toile du Jouy" or just merely "toile" to indicate a kind of fabric filled with narrative scenes of daily life.

The Style Spreads.

The primarily decorative dimension that the Rococo took in France is undeniable. As a result, architectural historians have long debated whether the Rococo merits any consideration as an "architectural" period at all. Outside France, though, the Rococo developed a more pronounced architectural dimension, particularly in Germany and Austria. By contrast, the style was unpopular in England, where except for a small number of rooms decorated in this fashion, the Rococo's influence remained limited. In Rome, architects and designers remained impervious to the fashion's popularity and continued to produce buildings and monuments that used the grand, imposing proportions of the Baroque. Elsewhere in Italy, small pockets of Rococo-influenced architecture were to be found, most notably in the capital of the duchy of Savoy, Turin, and in Naples, Italy's largest city at the time. Thus of all the places to which the Rococo traveled outside France, it was in Central Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria, where the movement produced its greatest landmarks. In that region, the Rococo developed, not just as an interior fashion, but as an architectural phenomenon as well. A key figure in encouraging the popularity of the style in this region was François de Cuvilliés (1695–1768), a French-speaking designer whose family originally hailed from Flanders. Cuvilliés came to work in the city of Munich through an extraordinary set of circumstances. In 1711, he became a court dwarf in the service of the Bavarian duke Maximilian II Emmanuel while that prince served out a term of exile from his native country. Several years later, Cuvilliés returned with the duke to Munich, where he eventually received an education in the court. By 1720, the duke's official designer was schooling him in architecture. He soon left for Paris, where he stayed for five years to finish his studies. Thus Cuvilliés was a student in Paris during the early years of Rococo's rise to popularity among aristocrats and the wealthy. When he returned to Munich in 1725, he attained a position of prominence among the many accomplished designers practicing in southern Germany at the time. During his long career his most celebrated accomplishments included a series of pleasure villas constructed for the Bavarian dukes in the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace outside Munich, rooms designed in the suburban palace at Schleissheim, and the Residence Theater in Munich. This last structure, carefully rebuilt after its devastation in the Second World War, is known affectionately today in Munich merely as the "Cuvilliés." The theater is ornate and decorative in the extreme since the architect relied on ornamental features to make obvious the distinctions between the various levels of aristocrats who visited the theater. He massed the greatest decorative details, for instance, on the ducal box and first balcony that surrounded it, which was reserved for the highest levels of society. In the balconies above, these decorations diminished with each level. While his design was highly decorative, Cuvilliés was an astute student of theatrical design and provided a space that was an excellent venue for good drama. It continues even now to serve its original purpose as home to many theatrical productions in Munich.

CuvilliÉs' Influence.

As a student, Cuvilliés had acquired a firsthand knowledge of the ways in which Parisian plasterers produced their stunning rocaille effects. In the years that he served as court architect in Munich, his influence ensured that these techniques became a fixture of architecture in Bavaria and southern Germany. By mid-century designers used the new skills to stunning effect in their creation of buildings that appear like sculptural masses constructed out of the fluid shapes that rocaille techniques afforded. At this time, architects in southern Germany also made use of the Rococo's possibilities for creating churches that were brilliantly filled with light. Thus, the Rococo in the region developed into far more than a fashion for domestic interior design. Throughout Central Europe, many buildings originally begun in the Baroque style, like the Zwinger Palace in Dresden or the Residence in Würzburg, acquired Rococo detailing. The Rococo achieved its most pronounced developments as an independent architectural movement, however, in Bavaria and the German south.

Major Designers.

The use of light, the creation of festive interiors, and the predominance of sinuous lines encrusted with ornament were central features of the new style, and these played a particularly dynamic role in the works of Germany's two most accomplished Rococo designers: Dominikus Zimmermann (1685–1766) and Johann Michael Fischer (1712–1766). Zimmermann's greatest work is his Church of the Wies (meaning "meadow"), outside of the village of Steingaden in the Bavarian Alps. Begun in 1743 for a nearby monastery, this church housed a miraculous image of the flagellation of Christ, to which a pilgrimage had developed. Zimmermann developed the nave of the church as an elongated oval supported by eight columns that melded into the structure's ceiling in a riot of encrusted decoration. The Corinthian columns of some of these supports take on the effect of jewelry, sculpted as they are out of plaster and decorated with touches of gilt. Above, in the space where a cornice or entablature might normally separate the walls of the church from the ceiling, Zimmermann created a fluid space decorated with stucco and gilt encrustations so that it is difficult for the eye to tell where the walls end and the ceiling begins. Light floods into the space through the broad and elongated windows. The sinuous treatment of lines continues in the exterior, where the architect used long, flowing detailing to set off the windows. Modest, refined decoration also seems to drip from the building's pilasters and upper surfaces.


Like Zimmermann, Johann Michael Fischer already had a reputation as an accomplished architect when he began to create spaces using the Rococo style. He had designed a number of Catholic churches in Bavaria and throughout southern Germany since the late 1720s. In his mature work, though, he began to adapt the new style to a series of monastic churches he created during the 1740s. The largest and most famous of these was Ottobeuren in the small town of the same name in the German southwest. Previous architects had already established the monumental size of this structure and they had fixed its shape as a Greek cross. Fischer revolutionized their design by building two huge towers on the church's exterior and setting a convex central portion between them. These two towers frame the elaborately decorated gable that runs above the central entrance to the church. Columns set on both sides of the entrance further enhance the strongly vertical lines of the exterior. Inside, Fischer made the most of the Greek cross space by setting huge windows in the enormous walls and allowing light to fill the structure. The central piers that support that structure's main dome are decorated with colored faux marble pilasters so that they appear even larger than they really are. Throughout the interior Fischer left broad patches of walls, spaces later decorated with paintings by Johann and Franz Zeiler and sculptures by Johann Joseph Christian. These decorative elements skillfully enhanced the monumental lines developed by Fischer in the structure. As a result, Ottobeuren stands as one of the premier monuments of the German Rococo, an archetype for what Germans have long called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a masterpiece in which the imaginative fusion of all the arts work toward a single, greater goal.

Implications of the Rococo.

Great works of Rococo architecture like the Wies or the monastic church at Ottobeuren seem today to sum up the imaginative possibilities as well as the limitations of Rococo as an architectural and stylistic movement. In these structures, decoration combined with skillful architectural design to create works of incomparable beauty and greatness. In the hands of lesser lights, though, the fashion for encrustation led to many considerably less imaginative spaces. Fashion had sustained the rise of the Rococo since its beginnings in early eighteenth-century Paris. As the second half of the eighteenth century approached, and as Rococo design moved to its final stage of ornate elaboration, fashions just as quickly began to change. In the second half of the eighteenth century Neoclassical spaces, often serene and severe, revolutionized domestic, church, and public architecture throughout Europe just as quickly as the Rococo had changed fashions in the first half of the century.


Anthony Blunt, ed., Baroque and Rococo: Architecture and Decoration (New York: Icon Editions, 1982).

Julius S. Held and D. Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

Vernon Hyde Minor, Baroque and Rococo. Art and Culture (London: Laurence King, 1999).

Katie Scott, The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995).

see also Visual Arts: The Rococo

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The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

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