Rococo - History and Concepts

Started: 1702
Ended: 1780

Beginnings of Rococo

In painting Rococo was primarily influenced by the Venetian School's use of color, erotic subjects, and Arcadian landscapes, while the School of Fontainebleau was foundational to Rococo interior design.

The Venetian School

The noted painters Giorgione and Titian, among others, influenced the Rococo period's emphasis on swirling color and erotic subject matter. Pastoral Concert (c. 1509), first attributed to Giorgione, though now credited by most scholars as one of Titian's early works, was classified as a Fête champêtre, or outdoor party, by the Louvre when it first became part of the museum's collection. The Renaissance work depicting two nude women and two aristocratic men playing music in an idealized pastoral landscape would heavily influence the development of Rococo's Fête galante, or courtship paintings. The term referred to historical paintings of pleasurable past times and became popularized in the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau.

School of Fontainebleau 1528-1630

In 1530 King Francis I, a noted art patron, invited the Italian artist Rosso Florentino to the French court, where, pioneering the courtly style of French Mannerism, Rosso founded the School of Fontainebleau. The school became known for its unique interior design style in which all the elements created a highly choreographed unity. Rosso pioneered the use of large stucco reliefs as frames, adorned with decorative and gilded motifs that would heavily influence Rococo's emphasis on elaborated settings.

Gilding was a key contribution of Fontainebleau, providing exquisite splendor to objects as seen in Benevento Cellini's famous Salt Cellar (1543), which Francis I commissioned in gold. Even simple elements of Rococo interiors became highly accentuated as seen in the popularity of cartel clocks, embedding regular clocks into intricate settings that resembled pieces of sculpture, and which seamlessly complemented the overall look and feel of their surrounding interiors.

The Era of Rococo Design

Rococo debuted in interior design when engraver Pierre Le Pautre worked with architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart on the Château de Marly (1679-1684), and later at Versailles in 1701 when he redesigned Louis XIV's private apartments. Le Pautre pioneered the use of arabesques, employing an s-shaped or c-shaped line, placed on white walls and ceilings. He also used inset panels with gilded woodwork, creating a whimsical, lighter style. Le Pautre was primarily known as an ornemaniste, or designer of ornament, which reflects the popular role at the time of artisans and craftsmen in developing the highly decorative style.

During the reign of Louis XIV, France had become the dominant European power, and the combination of great wealth and peaceful stability led the French to turn their attention toward personal affairs and the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. When the King died in 1715, his heir Louis XV was only five years old, so the Regency, led by the Duc d' Orléans, ruled France until the Dauphin came of age. The Duke was known for his hedonistic lifestyle, and Rococo's aesthetics seemed the perfect expression of the era's sensibility. Taking the throne in 1723, Louis XV also became a noted proponent and patron of Rococo architecture and design. Since France was the artistic center of Europe, the artistic courts of other European countries soon followed suit in their enthusiasm for similar embellishments.

Jean-Antoine Watteau

Jean-Antoine Watteau spearheaded the Rococo period in painting. Born in Valenciennes, a small provincial village in Belgium that had recently been acceded to the French, his precocity in art and drawing led to his early apprenticeship with a local painter. Subsequently he went to Paris where he made a living producing copies of works by Titian and Paolo Veronese. He joined the studio of Claude Audran, who was a renowned decorator, where he met and became an artistic colleague of Claude Gillot, known for his decoration of commedia dell'arte, or comic theater productions. As a result, Watteau's work often expressed a theatrical approach, showing figures in costume amongst backdrop scenery, lit up with artificial light.

In 1712 Watteau entered the Prix de Rome competition of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and the Academy admitted him as a full member. His "reception piece" for the Academy, Embarkation for Cythera (1717), effectively launched the Rococo movement. The Academy coined the term Fête galante, or courtship party, to refer to the work, thus establishing the category that was to be a dominant element of Rococo painting. Fête galante paintings depicted the fête champêtre, or garden party, popular among the aristocratic class, where, dressed as if for a ball or wearing costumes, they would wine, dine, and engage in amorous pursuits within Arcadian gardens and parks. The artistic subject not only appealed to private patrons, but its mythologized landscapes and settings met the standards of the Academy which ranked historical painting, including mythological subjects, as the highest category.

Claude Audren was the official Keeper of the Luxembourg Palace and, while working with him, Watteau copied Peter Paul Ruben's series of twenty-four paintings of the Life of Marie de' Medici (1622-25), which was displayed at the palace. Ruben's series, combining allegorical figures and mythological subjects with depictions of the Queen and the aristocratic court, continued to inform Watteau's work. Rubens had pioneered the technique of trois crayons, meaning three chalks, a technique using red, black, and white, to create coloristic effects. Watteau mastered the technique to such a degree that his name became associated with it, and it was widely adopted by later Rococo artists, including François Boucher.

François Boucher

Influenced by Rubens and Watteau, François Boucher became the most renowned artist of the mature Rococo period, beginning in 1730 and lasting until the 1760s. Noted for his painting that combined aristocratic elegance with erotic treatments of the nude, as seen in his The Toilet of Venus (1751), he was equally influential in decorative arts, theatrical settings, and tapestry design. He was appointed First Painter to the King in 1765, but is most known for his long time association with Madame de Pompadour, the official first mistress of King Louis XV and a noted patron of the arts. As a result of his mastery of Rococo art and design and his royal patronage, Boucher became "one of those men who represent the taste of a century, who express, personify and embody it," as the noted authors Edmond and Jules de Goncourt wrote.

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour, born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, has been called the "godmother of the Rococo," due to her centrality in promoting the style and establishing Paris as the artistic capital of Europe. She influenced further applications of Rococo due to her patronage of artists such as Jean-Marc Nattier, the sculptor Jean Baptiste Pigalle, the wallpaper designer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, and the gemstone engraver Jacques Guay. The King's official first mistress from 1745-1751, she remained his confidant and trusted advisor until her death at the age of 42 due to tuberculosis. Her role and status became the de facto definition of royal patronage.

Rococo: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

French Rococo

France was the center of the development of Rococo. In design, the salon, a room for entertaining but also impressing guests, was a major innovation. The most famous example was Charles-Joseph Natoire and Germain Boffrand's La Salon de la Princesse (1735-1740) in the residence of the Prince and Princess de Soubise. The cylindrical interior's white walls, gilded wood, and many mirrors created a light and airy effect. Arabesque decorations, often alluding to Roman motifs, cupids, and garlands, were presented in gold stucco and plate relief. Asymmetrical curves, sometimes derived from organic forms, such as seashells or acanthus fronds, were elaborate and exaggerated. The minimal emphasis on architecture and maximum emphasis on décor would become cornerstone to the Rococo movement.

Painting was an essential part of the Rococo movement in France, and the noted painters who led the style, Antoine Watteau followed by François Boucher, influenced all elements of design from interiors to tapestries to fashion. Other noted artists included Jean-Baptiste van Loo, Jean-Marc Nattier, and François Lemoyne. Lemoyne was noted for his historical allegorical paintings as seen in his Apotheosis of Hercules (1733-1736) painted on the Salon of Hercules' ceiling at Versailles. A noted feature of French Rococo painting was the manner in which a number of noted artist families, such as the van Loos and the Coypels, maintained a consistent style and subject matter in their workshops.

Italian Rococo

Painting took the lead in Italian Rococo, exemplified by the works of the Venetian artist Tiepolo. Combining the Venetian School's emphasis on color with quadratura, or ceiling paintings, Tiepolo's masterworks were frescos and large altarpieces. Famed throughout Europe, he received many royal commissions, such as his series of ceiling paintings in the Wurzburg Residenz in Germany, and his Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy (1762-1766) in the Royal Palace in Madrid.

Italian Rococo was also noted for its great landscape artists known as "view-painters," particularly Giovanni Antonio Canal, known simply as Canaletto. He pioneered the use of two-point linear perspective while creating popular scenes of the canals and pageantry of Venice. His works, such as his Venice: Santa Maria della Salute (c. 1740), were in great demand with English aristocrats. In the 1700s it became customary for young English aristocrats to go on a "Grand Tour," visiting the noted sites of Europe in order to learn the classical roots of Western culture. The trips launched a kind of aristocratic tourism, and Venice was a noted stop, famed for its hedonistic carnival atmosphere and picturesque views. These young aristocrats were also often art collectors and patrons, and most of Canaletto's works were sold to an English audience, and in 1746 he moved to England to be closer to his art market and lived there for almost a decade.

Rosalba Carriera's pastel portraits, both miniature and full-size, as well as her allegorical works were in demand throughout Europe, as she was invited to the royal courts of France, Austrian, and Poland. She pioneered the use of pastels, previously only employed for preparatory drawings, as a medium for painting, and, by binding the chalk into sticks, developed a wider range of strokes and prepared colors. Her Portrait of Louis XV as Dauphin (1720-1721) established the new style of Rococo portraiture, emphasizing visual appeal and decorative effect.

In architecture, Italy continued to emphasize the Baroque with its strong connection to the Catholic church until the 1720s when the architect Filippo Juvarra built several Northern Italian Palaces in the Rococo style. His masterwork was the Stupinigi Palace (1729-1731), built as the hunting lodge for the King of Sardinia in Turin. At the same time, Rococo interiors became popular in Genoa, Sardinia, Sicily, and Venice where the style took on regional variations particularly in furniture design. Italian Rococo interiors were particularly known for their Venetian glass chandeliers and mirrors and their rich use of silk and velvet upholstery.

German Rococo

Germany's enthusiasm for Rococo expressed itself exuberantly and primarily in architectural masterpieces and interior design, as well as the applied arts. A noted element of German Rococo was the use of vibrant pastel colors like lilac, lemon, pink, and blue as seen in François de Cuvilliés' design of the Amalienburg (1734-1739), a hunting lodge for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII in Munich. His Hall of Mirrors in the Amalienburg has been described by art historian Hugh Honour as exemplifying "easy elegance and gossamer delicacy."

German design motifs while employing asymmetry and s- and c- curved shapes, often drew upon floral or organic motifs, and employed more detail. German architects also innovatively explored various possibilities for room designs, cutting away walls or making curved walls, and made the siting of new buildings an important element of the effect, as seen in Jacob Prandtauer's Melk Abbey (1702-1736)

English Rococo

England's employment of Rococo, which was called "French style," was more restrained, as the excesses of the style were met with a somber Protestantism. As a result, rocaille introduced by the émigré engraver Hubert-François Gravelot and the silversmith Paul de Lamerie, was only employed as details and occasional motifs. Around 1740 the Rococo style began to be employed in British furniture, most notably in the designs of Thomas Chippendale. His catalogue Gentleman's and Cabinet-makers' directory (1754), illustrating Rococo designs, became a popular industry standard.

Rococo had more of an impact upon British artists such as William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, and the Swiss Angelica Kauffman. In his The Analysis of Beauty (1753) Hogarth advocated for the use of a serpentine line, seeing it as both more organic and aesthetically ideal. Gainsborough first studied with Gravelot, a former student of Boucher, whose feathery brushwork and color palette influenced Gainsborough's portraiture toward fluidity of light and color. Though Swiss-born, Angelica Kauffman spent most of her life in Rome and London. From 1766 to 1781 she lived in London where influential Sir Joshua Reynolds particularly admired her portraiture. One of only two women elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, she played a significant role in both advancing the Rococo style and, subsequently, Neoclassicism.

Later Developments - After Rococo

In 1750 Madame de Pompadour sent her nephew Abel-François Poisson de Vandières to study developments in Italian art and archeology. Returning with an enthusiasm for classical art, Vandières was appointed director of the King's Buildings where he began to advocate for a Neoclassical approach. He also became a noted art critic, condemning Boucher's petit style, or "little style." Noted thinkers of the day, including the philosopher Voltaire, the art critic Diderot also critiqued Rococo as superficial and decadent. These trends, along with a rising revolutionary fervor in France caused Rococo to fall out of favor by 1780.

The new movement Neoclassicism, led by the artist Jacques-Louis David, emphasized heroism and moral virtue. David's art students even sang the derisive chant, "Vanloo, Pompadour, Rococo," singling out the style, one of its leading artists, and it most noted patron. As a result, by 1836 it was used to mean "old-fashioned," and by 1841 was used to denote works seen as "tastelessly florid or ornate." The negative connotations continued into the 20th century, as seen in the 1902 Century Dictionary description "Hence rococo is used... to note anything feebly pretentious and tasteless in art or literature."

Rococo design and painting would veer toward divergent paths, as Rococo design, despite the new trends in the capital, continued to be popular throughout the French provinces. In the 1820s under the restored monarchy of King Louis Philippe, a revival called the "Second Rococo" style became popular and spread to Britain and Bavaria. In Britain the revival became known as Victorian Rococo and lasted until around 1870, while also influencing the American Rococo Revival in the United States, led by John Henry Belter. The style, widely employed for upscale hotels, was dubbed "Le gout Ritz" into the 20th century. However, in painting Rococo fell out of favor, with the exception of the genre paintings of Chardin, highly praised by Diderot, which continued to be influential and would later make a noted impact on Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, and Vincent van Gogh.

Edmund and Jules de Goncourt rediscovered the major Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard in L'Art du XVIIIe siècle (Eighteenth-Century Art) (1865). He subsequently influenced the Impressionists, especially Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot, and has gone on to influence contemporary artists like Yinka Shonibare, Kent Monkman, and Lisa Yuskavage.

Also rediscovered by the de Goncourt brothers, Watteau's commedia dell'arte subjects influenced Pablo Picasso, Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, as well as many poets such as Paul Verlaine and Guillaume Apollinaire, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and the choreographer George Balanchine.

The term Rococo and the artists associated with it only began to be critically re-evaluated in the late 20th century, when the movements of Pop Art and the works of artists like Damien Hirst, Kehinde Wiley, and Jeff Koons created a new context for art expressing the same ornate, stylistic, and whimsical treatments. Rococo has had a contemporary influence as seen in Ai Weiwei's Logos 2017 where, as art critic Roger Catlin wrote, "What looks like a fancy rococo wallpaper design in black and white and in gold is actually an arrangement of handcuffs, chains, surveillance cameras, Twitter birds and stylized alpacas - an animal which in China has become a meme against censorship." The movement also lives on in popular culture, as shown in Arcade Fire's hit song "Rococo" (2010).

Key Artists

Do Not Miss

Important Art and Artists of Rococo

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article