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Rococo Art

History, Characteristics of 18th Century Decorative Arts Movement.


For a brief introduction to the architectural aspects of this art style, see:Rococo Architecture.

Centred in France and emerging as a reaction to the Baroque grandeur of King Louis XIVs royal court at thePalace of Versailles, the Rococo movement or style ofFrench paintingwas associated particularly with Madame Pompadour, the mistress of the new King Louis XV, and the Parisian homes of the French aristocracy. It is a whimsical and elaborately decorative style of art, whose name derives from the French word rocaille meaning, rock-work after the forms of sea shells.

In the world of Rococo, all art forms, includingfine art painting, architecture,sculpture, interior design, furniture, fabrics, porcelain and other objets dart are subsumed within an ideal of elegant prettiness.

Rococo art is exemplified in works byfamous painterslike Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) especially his fete galante outdoor courtship parties; Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) with his pictures of love and seduction; Francois Boucher (1703-70) with his lavish paintings of opulent self-indulgence; the Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) known for his fantastically decorativeWurzburg Residence frescoes(1750-3); and the sculpture of Claude Michel Clodion (1738-1814), sculptor of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, best known for histerracotta sculptureof nymphs and satyrs. In Britain, Rococo painting achieved its zenith in the female portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).Rococo was eventually replaced byNeoclassical art, which was the signature visual style of Napoleon in France and of the American revolution.

Rococo is the frivolous, wayward child of noble, grandBaroque. The parent was born in Italy, the child in France. The Baroque (barocco, a rough pearl) developed in the early 17th-century and spread rapidly throughout Europe. At first predominantly a sculptural and architectural style, its greatest exponent and genius wasGianlorenzo Bernini(1598-1680) who, like Michelangelo before him, was first and foremost a sculptor, but turned naturally to painting, theatrical decorations and architecture while serving several Popes in the remodelling of Rome. His Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the small church of S. Andrea al Quirinale in Rome both reveal the tendencies which lead on to the rococo style: a brilliant use of light and shade on expensive and elaborate materials, such as coloured marbles and bronze.

The seventeenth century was an age of grandeur, of strong religious sentiments expressed clearly and forcibly in striking visual forms in the paintings of Caravaggio and Cortona, the sculptures of Bernini and the architecture ofFrancesco Borromini(1599-1667). Its most important manifestations were Italian, and it was really the swan song of Italy as a creative power, for already at the death of Pope Urban VIII, Berninis patron, the new star was making its appearance – France, which was to continue her meteoric rise throughout the century and dominate fashionable and artistic Europe in the succeeding century. See also:Rococo Artists.

In 1651 the young Louis XIV came of age and by the 1660s any dissensions in France had been totally suppressed, so that Louis could devote his attentions to the building and decoration of his palace atVersailles. Here, the Italian baroque style was adopted and modified by Louis all-powerful artist, designer and interior decorator,Charles Lebrun, to glorify not the saints of the Catholic Church, but the King of France: Le Roi Soleil. Louis absolute rule involved not only visual proof of his supremacy, but an elaborate court etiquette as stiff and unnatural as the gardens laid out by Le Notre around the Palace. This extreme formality was felt in such apartments as the famous Hall of Mirrors and the multicoloured Ambassadors Staircase, and it is against this background that the Rococo is set; France was demonstrating that already she was arbiter of taste and eager for novelty.

French Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

The Rococo is rightly associated with the 18th-century in France, but even within the last years of the previous century, indications of the new style appear, as in the work of the court architect,Jules-Hardouin Mansart(1646-1708), at the Trianon at Versailles, and at Marly, another royal residence. In these two buildings Mansart broke away from the stultifying use of marble and bronze, turning rather to wooden panelling and paler colours. The very scale of the Trianon indicates a desire to escape from the grandiose palace, a feeling which occasioned a number of highly significant works in the 18th-century. [Note also the influence of the earlierFontainebleau School(1530-1610) on the evolution of the Rococo style, in particular its playful stucco carvings and other Rococo-like motifs.]

Louis XIV appears to have much encouraged this reaction, as illustrated by his famous injunction to Mansart concerning the decoration of the room of the very young Duchesse de Bourgogne in the Chateau de la Menagerie: You must spread everywhere the feeling of youthfulness. This was in 1699, and the King still had another sixteen years to live, years which were to determine the course of art and decoration for at least the next generation, not only in France but as far afield as Sicily and Austria.

If the Rococo was specifically a French creation, many factors from further afield influenced and fostered the style, as, for example, the graphic works of such seventeenth-century Italian artists asStefano delia Bella, who spent a long time in Paris. In his designs delicate, feathery lines enfold forms which are often purely decorative in intent, as much rococo art was to be.

Many engraved books from the last decades of the seventeenth century reveal the rococo style in embryonic form. The tight scroll-work so characteristic of Flemish and German renaissance decoration, and even of the Fontainebleau School, was liberated, making it less severe and symmetrical, and fantastic elements were introduced, unknown in the originals. This is seen in France in the furniture ofAndre-Charles Boulleand in Venice in the furniture ofAndrea Brustolon, where curving, intricate baroque forms began to be modified around the turn of the century.

One of the first appearances of the new style in a highly important setting is in the bedroom of Louis XIV at Versailles. This was redecorated about 1701 mainly in white and gold, relying entirely for its effect on the crisp contrasts of finely sculptured pilasters against rich areas of gilded carving, and, set above the chimney-pieces, large mirrors with rounded tops. Large areas of Venetian mirror-glass were, of course, important decorative features as early as the creation of the Galerie des Glaces, and also of the Mirror Room in the Grand Trianon: they have often been mistakenly identified solely with the advent of the rococo style, in which, indeed, they were to play an important part. The design of Louis bedroom, however, still bears witness to a strong preference for the Classical Orders, with pilaster decoration in the typically academic seventeenth-century tradition.

One of the problems of any examination of rococo decoration is that we are uncertain as to how much of it originated from the small army of draughtsmen, whose leading figures such as Mansart kept behind the scenes, and how much from the great architects themselves. Thus, while a building or an interior passes as the work of Mansart or De Cotte, the novel details in it may just as well have sprung from a ghost designer with a certain sense of fantasy and an originality which the Royal Architect passed off as his own.

These draughtsmen were in all probability familiar with books of decorative patterns – derived from the era ofRenaissance art- illustrating the famous grotesques ofRaphaelin the Villa Madama and the Vatican Loggia.Grotesques, descended from the stucco reliefs and paintings in Roman tombs (or grottoes, hence grotesques), played an important part in French decoration as early as the 1650s and later appeared in some of Lebruns own decorations, such as those in the Galerie dApollon in the Louvre. They consisted of curving plant-and-scroll forms, often originating in an urn or pot and winding upwards in a regular pattern, inhabited by playful monkeys, insects and other creatures who provide a slight asymmetrical touch. The lightness of this type of decoration was borne in mind byPierre Lepautrewhen he decorated the Kings suite of rooms at Marly in 1699.

Lepautres interiors at Marly are, tragically, known to us only from drawings. They show that he dispensed with the heavy, rectangular frames around doors and mirrors, replacing them with miniature curving decorations integrated into the corners of mouldings, which themselves were finer and more elegant in effect than ever before. In place of the traditional painted and gilded ceiling, Lepautre simply articulated the great white plaster expanse with a delicate gilded rosette at the centre – this was to be imitated on both ceilings and panelling throughout the rococo period.

The rococo style developed most strongly during theRegency of the Duc dOrleans(1715-23), whose town residence was the Palais Royale. Here, licence was the rule, and the tone of rococo society was set: a society which demanded constant novelty, wit and elegance – precisely the qualities of the rococo style. Society opened its doors to people whom Louis XIV would never have accepted: the newly rich and increasingly important intellectuals. During the Regency much of the aristocracy, which had found itself confined to Versailles during Louis XIVs reign, returned to Paris and commissioned new town houses, as in the Place Vendome, where the transitional style can still be clearly seen.

Their interiors did not call for the elaborate ceiling-paintings of the previous century, and in their place a new school of painters emerged who specialized in the gently curving trumeaux (over-doors) and small-scale painted panels which form a great part of the output of (eg)Francois Boucher(1703-70). Also in constant employment from this period until the Revolution were the scupteurs, who executed the often minutely detailed carving on the boiseries, the decorated panel-framings.

It was in about 1720 that the transitional style began to give way to a clear rococo style. The term rococo probably derives from the French rocaille, which originally referred to a type of sculptured decoration in garden design. Certainly the leading designers of the rococo style,Gilles-Marie Oppenordt,Nicolas PineauandJuste-Aurele Meissonnier, were very much aware of it. The grotesques of the seventeenth century were now transformed into arabesques underClaude Audran, Watteaus teacher, full of a new fantasy and delicacy.

The main steps forward were made in interior decoration and painting, while little of importance happened to the appearance of the exterior, except that a certain light sophistication replaced the heaviness of the Louis XIV style, and, instead of relying on the Classical Orders, architects such asJean CourtonneandGermain Boffrandproduced buildings whose main effect lay in the subtle treatment of stonework and the skilful disposition of delicate sculpture against sophisticated rustication. In Paris, two of the best examples are the famous Hotel de Matignon of 1722-23 and the Hotel de Torcy of 1714.

In interior decoration a steady progression towards extreme elaboration is seen during the Regency, as demonstrated by the Palais Royale and Hotel dAssy, culminating in such triumphantly sophisticated rooms as the Salon Ovale of the Hotel de Soubise in Paris (1738-39) by Boffrand, whose influence on German rococo architecture was to be considerable.

A tendency to replace the huge series of very formal apartments favoured in the Louis XIV period with smaller, more intimate rooms is also seen, as in the Petites Appartements in Versailles, where form follows function more closely. Sadly these, together with many of the greatest rococo rooms, have disappeared without trace. Apart from Paris, much fine architecture and decoration in the full-blown rococo style was effected at Nancy, where the dethroned King of Poland lived.

NOTE: For other important art and design trends similar to Rococo, seeArt Movements and Schools(from about 100 BCE).

Paradoxically, the rococo style was heralded in painting, much earlier than in the other arts, by a Flemish painter,Jean-Antoine Watteau(1684-1721). He moved to Paris in about 1702 and began working as a theatrical scene-painter, before studying with the Keeper of the Luxembourg Palace, Claude Audran, an artist who painted in a decorative, late baroque style. It was the Rubens Life of Marie de Medicis series in the Luxembourg Palace which most impressed Watteau and through him was to influence the course of French rococo painting. He studied these together with the great Venetian painters and, in the words of Michael Levey, although he had no public career, no great commissions from Church or Crown; seldom executed large-scale pictures: had no interest in painting historical subjects, he became the greatest French artist of the first half of the century.

Watteaus pictures – See:Pilgrimage to Cythera(1717) Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg, Berlin – with their combination of Rubens colour and his own delicate eroticism, were always more than a little melancholy. The lyrical quality of his painting, with its suggestion of sophisticated amorality, was precisely that sought by French society in the Regency years: Watteau was not only catering for a taste but also creating one. For more about nudity in Rococo painting, see:Female Nudes in Art History.

The other two major painters of the French rococo period,Francois Boucher(1703-70) (noted also as the director of theGobelins tapestryfactory) andJean-Honore Fragonard(1732-1806), both purveyed an entirely different variety of the style from that of Watteau and are often thought to have vulgarized where Watteau had refined. Whereas Watteau achieved an all-enveloping aura of aristocratic distancing, Boucher and Fragonard produced a more intimate and obvious effect.

Significantly, Bouchers career opened as an engraver of Watteaus pictures, and from then on assumed the pattern of traditional success. Winning the Prix de Rome, he worked in Italy from 1727 to 1731. In 1734 he became an Academician, and with the help of his friend and Louis XVs mistress,Madame de Pompadour, he became the most sought-after painter in France for every type of picture, but in particular for his vividmythological paintingof classical subjects. In these, often rendered in a somewhat unsubtly erotic vein, Boucher, like Watteau, revealed a strong debt to Rubens and Venetian art, especially to Paolo Veronese, his finest predecessor in painting brilliantly clothed and displayed mythologies. Boucher became Director of the Academy in 1765, and altogether made a highly important contribution to the rococo movement through his many paintings and his designs for tapestries and other decorations.

In the unreality of most of his later forms one recalls Sir Joshua Reynolds sense of outrage at discovering Boucher had forsaken models. By comparison with the unreal world of Watteau, Bouchers settings are even less real, while the contrast withThomas Gainsborough, who composed his landscapes with pieces of mirror, twigs and moss, is still more extreme. Miniature trees surround rustic buildings, which appear to have been made in icing-sugar, and water looks as if it were made of glass. There is no real light and shade, perhaps so as not to contrast too strongly with the surrounding pale and shallow rococo boiserie decoration into which it was set.

While there were a number of great individual artists, there were also families of painters who followed an almost unchanging stylistic tradition. Among these are theCoypels, who executed the chapel ceiling at Versailles, theVan Loosand theDe Troys, all of whom painted consistently amusing pictures for the upper classes and for the rising middle classes, who appear for the first time in the rococo period as important patrons and to some extent account for the increased demand for portraiture. Some of the most delicious evocations of the sophistication of society are found in the portraits of Nattier, Drouais, Roslin and, of course, Boucher himself, whose delicate likenesses of Madame de Pompadour are among the finest portraits of any woman in that century. See also the Rococo portraits byElisabeth Vigee-Lebrun(1755-1842), the court portraitist to the French Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Alongside portraiture, many other specialized branches of painting arose, such as the still life, whereJean Baptiste Oudry(1686-1755) andFrancois Desportes(1661-1743) were foremost.

In these lesser fields one man is outstanding:Jean Chardin(1699-1779). His delightfully simple and deeply sincere genre subjects and his still life paintings have a quality which seem at first glance closer in feeling toDutch Realism- with an added dash of French precision and sensibility – than to the prevailing rococo style. A masterpiece could be born from a tiny picture of a Delft vase with a few flowers or from a simple two-figure study. It is their very delicacy and refinement that links them to the rococo. Another outstanding Rococo genre painter was the moralisticJean-Baptiste Greuze(1725-1805).

French Rococo Furniture and Decorative Arts

The same delicacy characterizesFrench Furnitureand a good deal of theFrench Decorative Artof the period. Between about 1715 and 1770French designerscreated furniture which remains unparalleled in its beauty of line and detail, minute finish and costly materials expertly used. Also in this period most of the furniture types with which we are familiar today came into being: such pieces as the writing-table (bureau plat), the secretaire (of many different types, notably the drop-front and cylinder type) and the sofa in many guises (canapes, lits de repos).

The heavy pieces of the later 17th-century inlaid with brass and tortoise-shell in the manner of Boulle were replaced from the Regency onwards by smaller, lighter pieces, a development that coincided with the decrease in the size of rooms and the lessening formality. The chest-of-drawers (commode) was lifted off the floor on delicate curving legs, and bombe fronts were covered with sinuous ormolu which often flowed over the entire piece and in which much of the finest decoration of the Rococo is found. In this rococo craft, superb uses were made of inlaid woods of all types, often imported from the Orient, contributing both to the high cost of the piece and to the craze for the exotic which invaded French society and led to the use (often entirely misplaced) of terms such as a la polonaise, a la grecque and a la chinoise. In furniture the major manifestation of this interest in the Orient was in the use of imported or imitation lacquer, many good pieces of Oriental lacquer suffering badly in the process of dissection and reshaping.

The display of luxury in rococo craftwork was not, of course, confined to furniture, and the stark appearance of many rococo ensembles today is misleading. The frivolities and trimmings – frills, ribbons, elaborate hangings on beds, doors and windows, festoons of fringes, gimps and baubles – often only associated with the Victorians, added to the atmosphere of luxury and comfort, a quality little known in seventeenth-century French interiors.

In spite of the extreme rigour of the Guild system, possibly even thanks to it, French furniture achieved, in the eighteenth century, such a state of perfection that it was sought after through-out Europe. The Guild regulations encouraged specialization and incited the sons of master craftsmen to continue in their fathers trade by the prospect of economic advantages. The result was exceptional professional skill, and the rise of veritable dynasties of joiners and cabinet-makers, handing down the secrets of their craft from father to son.

Thus, the menuisier practised only the creation of the actual form of the furniture; the ebeniste created the elaborate layers of inlay and surface decoration and yet another craftsman was responsible for fitting the gilt-bronze decoration over the prepared framework; no guild was permitted to intrude on the territory of another. As with the other arts, great names arose in each field:Foliot,Lelarge,Sene,Cressent, and an increasing number of Germans:Oeben,Riesener,Weisweiler. They rose to positions of great influence and a signed piece by one of these craftsmen was as sought after as any painting by Boucher or Fragonard.

The Rococo was a style in which the feminine element predominated, demonstrated in furniture in the supple and often sensuous curves, fragile appearance, and even terminology: duchesse (duchess) and sultane (sultana). Flowers decorated much of the wall-panelling and furniture of the period, and many rococo boiseries contain elaborate trompe doeils of garlands and sprays of flowers inhabited by tiny birds and animals, the direct descendants of the grotesque. The small scale of much of the furniture, particularly pieces designed for writing, almost precludes its use by a man, although, paradoxically, one of the finest creations of the period, Louis XVs own desk executed by Oeben and Riesener between 1760 and 1769 is large and surprisingly masculine.

Porcelain was sometimes incorporated into French furniture design, usually in the form of painted plaques or discs set in bronze frames. Much of it is from the factory of Sevres. Louis XV had himself provided funds to back a porcelain enterprize at Vincennes, near Paris, specifically to imitate Meissen porcelain, which moved in 1756 to Sevres. Although not the first factory in France to produce porcelain (Rouen and Saint-Cloud were both operating in the last years of the seventeenth century), Vincennes-Sevres was certainly the most successful in its production of hard-paste porcelain, counting important painters such as Boucher among its designers.

The value attached to Sevres porcelain is attested to by the number of individual pieces or sets such as that made for the Empress Maria Theresa in 1758 sent by Louis XV as diplomatic gifts. Other famous sets include the services made for Catherine the Great and Madame du Barry. The colours perfected at Sevres are not so different from those found in Bouchers paintings – greeny blues and a wonderful pink known as rose Pompadour. The types of objects manufactured ranged from wall-sconces to ink-wells and pot-pourri vases, of which some of the finest examples are in the Wallace Art Collection, London.

For more about Rococo porcelain and Rococo sculpture, read about two important French sculptorsJean-Baptiste Pigalle(1714-1785) andEtienne Maurice Falconet(1716-1791).

The rococo style in France represented her greatest artistic contribution before the rise of Impressionism in the nineteenth century and embraced all the arts to an extent found nowhere else in Europe apart from Germany. The amazing quality of French Rococo is due to the maintenance of the highest standards throughout. It has the added appeal of patronage by such figures as Madame de Pompadour, with whom the style is identified, and it stood at the end of a long tradition of the finest French craftsmanship.

A large part of the story of the Rococo in Italy is that of painting in Venice – especially painting by the great geniusGiambattista Tiepolo(1696-1770) – since the important products of the style in its most original form are found there. With the exception of some buildings by Juvarra and Bernardo Yittone, Italian architecture of the first half of the century passes fairly directly from the late baroque style to early Neoclassicism, with little evidence of a definite rococo style.

Italian Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

Architecture anddecorative artwas dominated by the work of two men at the turn of the century, Bernini and Borromini, but in particular the latter. Soon, however, the leading architect in Rome wasFerdinando Fuga(1699-1782), a Florentine whose greatest works were the Palazzo delia Consulta (1732-37) and the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore (1741-43). In the former, a delicate rhythm was created not by massive orders of columns but by subtly proportioned and slightly recessed panels. Against these were set highly decorative windows, and the whole was crowned by a large central sculpture of angels supporting a cartouche. It is much more sculptural in effect than any French building of the same date, and links up rather more with German Rococo. The same central emphasis is found in the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore, but there the whole facade is conceived as an open loggia, relieved only by light sculpture. Elsewhere in Rome, other architectural undertakings were coming closer to the spirit of the Rococo, as for example, in the Spanish Steps (1723-25) byFrancesco de Sanctis.

While French architects such as Boffrand were searching for an economical means of expressing the sophistication of their interiors on the exterior, Italian architects were still very moch more concerned with the exterior as the vehicle for an immediate impression. They often devoted their energies to this at the expense of the interiors and as a result only succeeded internally where huge spaces were involved, as in some of the works ofFilippo Juvarra(1678-1736).

Juvarra was born in Messina into a family of silver-smiths and was trained in Rome under Carlo Fontana, gaining his first successes as a designer of elaborate and decorative stage scenery, an experience which was later to stand him in good stead. After being appointed First Architect to the King at the Court of Savoy in 1714, he travelled to Portugal, London and, in 1719-20, Paris, probably seeing French Rococo in its earliest stages. On his return he became Italys closest parallel to the French architect-designer, involved with not only architecture, but interiors, furniture and the applied arts. His outstanding achievements are the hunting lodge he designed between 1729 and 1733 for the Court at the Castle of Stupinigi, the Church of the Carmine (1732-35) in Turin, and the sanctuary of the Superga near Turin (1717-31). Of these, Stupinigi is his most exciting creation. Gigantic wings radiate from a domed central core Surmounted by a bronze stag, the white exterior preparing one for the incredible spatial acrobatics and colour inside the central Great Hall, which is close to many of Juvarras architectural fantasies and theatrical drawings. Much use is made of illusionistic painting,trompe loeilurns filling giant niches painted above the many chimney-pieces in the hall, while a gently swaying gallery runs round the walls and seems to pierce the great piers. It is a theatrical tour de force. By comparison, the Superga and the Carmine seem a little pedantic, but the former is sensationally sited on a hilltop dominating the surrounding area with its elegant portico and high dome flanked by onion-domed towers.

Comparable to Juvarra wasBernardo Yittone(1704-1770), who worked exclusively in Piedmont, where he was born and to which he returned after studying in Rome and editing the great baroque architect Guarinis Architettura Civile. His most important works are in obscure villages in Piedmont and unite Guarinis spatial complexity with Juvarras lightness and brio. In this vein, his masterpieces are the Sanctuary at Vallinotto (1738-39) and the church of Santa Chiara at Bra of 1742.

While Vittones domestic architecture is pedestrian, Juvarras is not, and his rococo interiors are among the finest in Italy. Unlike France, Italy was not ruled by one monarch, so patronage was usually limited to a particular area of the country, as in Juvarras case. His patron, Vittorio Amadeo II of Savoy, was fortunate in having such an able court architect, and for him Juvarra designed the facade of the Palazzo Madama in Turin (1718-21), and some of the few interiors which approach the French in quality; such is the Chinese Room of the Royal Palace in Turin with its lacquer and gilded boiseries, influenced, possibly, by JA Meissonniers book of ornaments published in 1734. A comparison of Juvarras interiors with others in Italy shows that he alone stood on an equal footing with other European designers.

Italian Rococo Furniture and Decorative Arts

Unfortunately the history of Italian rococo furniture does not follow such an easy pattern as the French. The style of the seventeenth century overlapped into the eighteenth, and pieces which are ostensibly datable before the turn of the century are often in fact much later. Much of Juvarras furniture remains fairly heavy, using natural forms in quite a different way from French designers such as Nicolas Pineau or Meissonnier.

Splendour, left over from the baroque age, was still the dominant mood for all major interior designs, and there was no feeling, as in France, or even Germany, for the small scale. Thus were produced more sophisticated but equally imposing furniture and se