"In my view, you must either do away with ornament - or make ornament the essence. It's not something you add. It's not icing on a cake. It's everything - or it's nothing."
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Jean-Antoine Watteau Signature
"This vision is within our grasp."
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François Boucher Signature
"One makes use of pigments, but one paints with one's feelings."
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Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
"In order to concentrate on reproducing it faithfully I must forget everything I have seen and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others."
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Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
"Fools talk of imitation and copying, all is imitation."
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Thomas Gainsborough
"Painting and living have always been one and the same thing for me."
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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Summary of Rococo

Centuries before the term "bling" was invented to denote ostentatious shows of luxury, Rococo infused the world of art and interior design with an aristocratic idealism that favored elaborate ornamentation and intricate detailing. The paintings that became signature to the era were created in celebration of Rococo's grandiose ideals and lust for the aristocratic lifestyle and pastimes. The movement, which developed in France in the early 1700s, evolved into a new, over-the-top marriage of the decorative and fine arts, which became a visual lexicon that infiltrated 18th century continental Europe.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Genre paintings were popular ways to represent the Rococo period's bold and joyous lust for life. This included fete galante, or works denoting outdoor pastimes, erotic paintings alive with a sense of whimsical hedonism, Arcadian landscapes, and the "celebrity" portrait, which positioned ordinary people in the roles of notable historical or allegorical characters.
  • Rococo art and architecture carried a strong sense of theatricality and drama, influenced by stage design. Theater's influence could be seen in the innovative ways painting and decorative objects were woven into various environments, creating fully immersive atmospheres.
  • Detail-work flourished in the Rococo period. Stucco reliefs as frames, asymmetrical patterns involving motifs and scrollwork, sculptural arabesque details, gilding, pastels, and tromp l'oeil are the most noted methods that were used to achieve a seamless integration of art and architecture.
  • The term "rococo" was first used by Jean Mondon in his Premier Livre de forme rocquaille et cartel (First book of Rococo Form and Setting) (1736), with illustrations that depicted the style used in architecture and interior design. The term was derived from the French rocaille, meaning "shell work, pebble-work," used to describe High Renaissance fountains or garden grottos that used seashells and pebbles, embedded in stucco, to create an elaborate decorative effect.

Overview of Rococo

Rococo Image

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.

Key Artists

  • Boucher's idyllic tableaus of classical mythology, pastoral landscapes which were some of the most popular artists of the eighteenth century.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau famous French Rococo paintings were of light-hearted scenes of elegant upper-class life and love.
  • Fragonard was an eighteenth century French painter whose works epitomized the Rococo style of art. Beyond visual attractiveness, his paintings were infamous for their undercurrent of eroticism.
  • Chardin is a lauded eighteenth-century French painter of still life, did much to advance the genre, influencing a great number of early European modern painters.
  • The great 18th century Tiepolo ranks as the supreme painter of the ornamental Italian Rococo style.
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Do Not Miss

  • Baroque art and architecture emerged in late sixteenth-century Europe after the Renaissance, and lasted into the eighteenth century. In contrast to the clarity and order of earlier art, it stressed theatrical atmosphere, dynamic flourishes, and myriad colors and textures.
  • Looking back to the arts of Greece and Rome for ideal models and forms, Neoclassicism was a major art period that set standard and redefined painting, sculpture, and architecture.
  • The term Grand Manner refers to a style of portraiture that emerged in Britain during the 18th century and was popular for in the United States.

Important Art and Artists of Rococo

The Embarkation for Cythera (1717)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau

This painting depicts a number of amorous couples in elegant aristocratic dress within an idealized pastoral setting on Cythera, the mythical island where Venus, the goddess of love, birthed forth from the sea. The gestures and body language are evocative, as the man standing below center, his arm around the waist of the woman beside him, seems to earnestly entreat her, while she turns back to gaze wistfully at the other couples. A nude statue of the goddess rises from a pedestal that is garlanded with flowers on the right, as if presiding over the festivities. On the left, she is doubly depicted in a golden statue that places her in the prow of the boat. Nude putti appear throughout the scene, soaring into the sky on the left, or appearing between the couples and pushing them along, and nature is a languid but fecund presence. Overall, the painting celebrates the journey of love. As contemporary critic Jeb Perl wrote, "Watteau's paired lovers, locked in their agonizing, delicious indecision, are emblems of the ever-approaching and ever-receding possibility of love."

As art critic Holly Brubach wrote, "Watteau's images are perfectly suspended between the moment just before and the moment after... the people he portrays are busy enacting not one but several possible scenarios." His figures are not so much recognizable individuals, as aristocratic types, with smooth powdered faces, that together create a kind of choreography of color and pleasure.

With this work, Watteau's reception piece for the Academy, he pioneered the fête galante, or courtship painting, and launched the Rococo movement. As Jonathan Jones wrote, "In the misty, melting landscapes of paintings ... he unequivocally associates landscape and desire: if Watteau's art looks back to the courtly lovers of the middle ages it begins the modern history of sensuality in French art."

Pierrot (c. 1718-19)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau

This painting (formerly known as Gilles) depicts Pierrot, a traditional character in Italian commedia dell'arte. He is elevated on center stage in what appears to be a garden and he faces the viewer with a downcast expression as his white satin costume dominates, its ballooning midsection lit up. He seems almost like a two-dimensional cut-out figure. Other stock characters surround him but Pierrot remains separate as if he has stepped out of their scene. The negative space in the upper left further emphasizes Pierrot's isolation. As Jonathan Jones wrote, "Watteau makes the fiction of the picture manifest," as the character, "in his discomfort and alienation, rebels not only against his stock character role in the comedy, but his role in this painting. His stepping out of the play is also a stepping out of the fiction painted by Watteau."

Watteau pioneered the artistic representation of theatrical worlds, a distinctive Rococo genre, and he also recast the character of Pierrot from a kind of bumbling, lovelorn fool into a figure of alienated longing. As Jones wrote, "representation of theatrical, socially marginal worlds, following Watteau, is central to French modern art, from the impressionists' cafe singers to Toulouse-Lautrec's dancers and prostitutes and Picasso's Harlequins." As the figure of Pierrot became a figure of the artist's alter ego, this painting influenced a number of later art movements and artists, including the Decadents, the Symbolists, and artists like André Derain, as seen in his Harlequin and Pierrot (c. 1924). The influence also extended to pop culture as shown in David Bowie's early performance in Lindsay Kemp's Pierrot in Turquoise (1967) where Bowie said, "I'm Pierrot. I'm Everyman. What I'm doing is theatre, and only theatre. What you see on stage isn't sinister. It's pure clown. I'm using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time."

The Entrance to the Grand Canal (c. 1730)

Artist: Canaletto

This noted landscape depicts the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice, with a number of gondoliers and their passengers maneuvering horizontally across the canvas. Their asymmetrical placement creates movement as three gondolas extend upward in the center and draw the viewer's eye into the distance, further emphasized by the perspective of the buildings on the right and the church on the left. The subtle use of local colors give the piece a golden feel and a sense of the idyllic life of the times, which was informed by the Venetian school's love of Arcadian landscapes that heavily informed the Rococo aesthetic.

Canaletto was a pioneer in painting from nature and conveying the atmospheric effects of a particular moment, which has led some scholars to see his work as anticipating Impressionism. As Jonathan Jones wrote, "the delicate feel for light playing on architecture...makes Canaletto so beguiling." At the same, his innovative use of topography, rendering a locale with scientific accuracy, influenced subsequent artists, as art historian John Russell noted, "he took hold of his native city as if no detail of its teeming life was too small or too trivial to deserve his attention."

Venice was a noted stop for British aristocrats on the Grand Tour, and most of Canaletto's work was sold to this audience. The British art dealer Owen Swiny encouraged him to paint small, even postcard-sized, topographical views to sell to tourists, and the banker and art collector, Joseph Smith, became a noted patron, selling a large number of his works to King George III. In 1746 Canaletto moved to London where he painted scenes of London, such as his Westminster Bridge (1746). Ever since his work has retained its popularity and influence: it was featured in the David Bickerstaff film Canaletto and the Art of Venice (2017), and this painting was used in the video game Merchant Prince II (2001).

Useful Resources on Rococo

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Rococo Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 25 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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