The French side of the Rococo art movement represented only a fraction of what Rococo as a whole had to offer. From satire and domesticity to religion, there is so much more to this movement than what the fluffy, salacious, and pastoral works of Fragonard or Boucher would have you believe. The Rococo was more than just senseless affairs and the posh lives of the aristocracy. It is far more layered than one might think!
1. Domesticity and the Mundane in Rococo Art
What is so fascinating about Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin is that he feels like an early preface to the Realist movement. There is a softness to his paintings that still gives an air of warmth that the aristocracy would want to see from art with lower-class people as the subject matter. Yet, the lack of ornamentation and dramatic details makes it seem like the least Rococo piece that will be discussed, especially by French Rococo standards.
What French Rococo art was most known for was frivolity and romanticizing everyday life, but it was rarely treated in the same mundane way as Chardin. On the other end of the spectrum was François Boucher, who excelled in romanticizing the everyday realm and making it palpable and attractive to the wealthy and affluent. His work The Gracious Shepherd is a perfect example. Despite the fact that Chardin was French, he went in a completely different direction with his work.
His Le Bénédicité focused on the domesticity of the bourgeois class, like many of his works, which attracted the aristocracy. This rather mundane and modest work was so different from what was typical during the French Rococo that the aristocracy could not help but be interested. It depicts a mother encouraging her children to say their daily prayer during lunch, and it reveals a modesty to Third Estate family life that was admirable.
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During this time there was little to no documentation of the impoverished, through art, because it was not a subject matter that was deemed appropriate for the eyes of the wealthy and affluent; so, when they first saw this painting they assumed it was a family of peasants, instead of a decently well off working-class family. Most of the upper class lived lives of ignorance and assumption, in this regard.
It is even more evident in this work that Chardin has a penchant for realism and attention to detail when looking at the simple detail of steam added over the food. This sense of realism makes the viewer believe that Chardin was there and saw this family with his own eyes. He was able to show an accurate representation of mundane domestic life with care. There is also the pot in the bottom right, the slight shine on the rim and the tarnish can help you feel like you are observing a scene and not an image.
Another surprising aspect of Chardin’s Rococo works was that they were reflective of Dutch still-life paintings. His Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit is another piece that further establishes his immense attention to detail. From the ridges of the fruit to their reflection in the flask, Chardin made sure he documented every detail with his brush. Something that could easily have been missed, like the distorted reflection of the orange in the silver cup, was expertly rendered. While typical French Rococo art is detail-oriented, it was never for such mundane subject matters, and Chardin revealed another way that Rococo could be represented.
2. Religious Imagery and Epic Frescoes
When you look at French Rococo art there isn’t typically this attention to religious iconography and imagery, unless it has anything to do with the Greek and Roman gods. However, Christian and Catholic imagery were not prevalent at all. Sure people were going to church and could appreciate a good fresco any day, but during their leisure time, piety was the least of their concerns, because there was too much fun to be had!
This could be seen as ironic because you have pieces like The Immaculate Conception by Italian Rococo artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Based on the assumption that he was Catholic, like the majority of his Venetian cohorts, it shouldn’t be surprising that he took religious imagery seriously and appreciated the works of the Classical and High Renaissance eras of art, which comes through heavily in his work.
His Institution of the Rosary is a wonderful blend of Rococo art and the classics. It has the light and airy feel that is expected of Rococo, unlike his earlier work during his phase of experimenting and tenebrism. The change can be attributed to his fascination with the works of Paolo Veronese seen at the Undine Palace. This ceiling fresco commemorated the advent of devotional practices in the Catholic Church, from prayer to meditations, which were aided by the rosary. The fresco gives off the illusion of looking up into the open sky, beyond the early realm. He seamlessly uses trompe-l’œil throughout the painting.
There is so much detail in this artwork because it communicates the actual institution of the rosary as an epic tale. At the top of the stairs is St. Dominic handing rosaries to those who wish to escape the pain and sin of the earthly realm and be welcomed into heaven through religious practice and faith. Below, if you look closely at the bottom there is a faded, ghostly-looking hand that is emerging from the darkness as if to ascend to the heavens as well.
This is evident due to the Virgin Mary and child Christ hovering above him in the realm of heaven with angels. The illusion of the bottom spilling from the fresco connects the painting to the viewers in that it is “touching” our realm and adds interest. Due to his technique, the art itself becomes a visual metaphor; it guides our eyes to see the transport of the soul that is led by religion from earth to heaven.
Lastly, there is the theory that this fresco was meant to be religious propaganda. This artwork is a response to the Counter-Reformation of the Church. The use of enticing imagery and trompe-l’œil was so that the Catholic church could bring more people back from the Protestant belief system that was a result of the Reformation. In the protestant faith, there is a belief that there is no need for imagery in faith as romanticized as in the Catholic faith. In that regard, it can be said that the Church had the upper hand because due to human curiosity there was more of a comfort in the known instead of the unknown. Using his work in this way aligns Tiepolo more with the staunch ideals of William Hogarth, which meant sending messages through art instead of just appealing to the whims of the aristocracy.
The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy is more of what you would expect to see from the religious imagery of the Rococo art movement but even then, the epic nature of it changes the weight of the fresco. Casually seeing a Venus modesta is not the same as watching your monarchy being equated to the gods. Tiepolo’s frescoes contributed to the re-strengthening of the hold of the Catholic Church and the power of the teachings of God. Not only that, he helped to uplift aristocrats instead of merely entertaining and flattering them.
3. Theatrics of the Everyday in French Rococo
Like Chardin, we see glimpses of the everyday in the art of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. However, unlike Chardin, Greuze dramatizes the lives of regular people instead of just casually depicting them. There is more of the theater that is expected from the Rococo art movement. His paintings have more of a Neoclassic feel to them than the works of Chardin, giving credence to how the affluent people had an interest in the lives of the middle class in the most superficial of ways.
The nobility wanted to be entertained, above all. Accuracy didn’t matter, what mattered was the story and the aesthetic appeal, which is why the works of William Hogarth baffled and insulted many. Greuze’s Broken Eggs is about a family’s outrage at the loss of their daughter’s virginity. A metaphor is therefore conveyed through the broken eggs strewn about, which the aristocrats found to be entertaining in its scandal. Greuze still appealed to the drama that the wealthy loved about the French Rococo.
The Father’s Curse – The Ungrateful Son is another prime example of the scandalous scenes that the aristocracy thrived on. In this painting the son wishes to leave behind his family to join the military, while his whole family is opposed to it. There is anger, frustration, and fear exuding from this painting. There is also amusement if you look to the far right, where the son’s friend looking entertained by the absurdity of the moment. The dramatic movements Greuze creates are reminiscent of Neoclassical and Baroque works which similarly entertain on a superficial and allegorical level. In creating this effect Greuze was able to elevate the lives of the lower class.
4. Innovative Portraiture and Subject Matter
What sets Rosalba Carriera’s work apart from the De La Tours and such, is her delicate subtlety when it came to how she blended colors and attention to detail, without completely idealizing her subjects. Her Allegories of Four Continents series is a fine example of this. Her artworks are a balance of realistic and ideal form, unlike many French Rococo works which seek to convey ideal form only. She also made a point to use small details in her pastels to give a glimpse into her subject’s matters instead of giving everything away like many Rococo pieces tended to do. It is evident that she used a restricted palette to achieve this level of balance and unity in the individual works.
Unlike many painters before her, Carriera had no qualms about casually painting foreign subject matters. It seems that whenever a foreigner was depicted it was because they were dying, being villainized, impoverished, or being sexualized, but Carriera gave her viewers something different. That isn’t to say that all artists stayed within these boxes, however. Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson is a fine example of respectfully painting a foreign subject matter. But then on the other end, you have his The Revolt of Cairo, which is war and death and the villainization of foreign people. Carriera helped contribute to the more subtle aspects of the Rococo instead of the drama and minimal accouterments, probably inspiring the likes of Chardin with the ways in which she portrayed her subjects in a simpler manner than her colleagues.
5. Judgment and Cynicism in Rococo Art
William Hogarth, the Rococo King of bitterness and satire, is a prime example of what people don’t think about when they think of Rococo art. There are no frills, there is no sugar coating, just the raw truth of life in the upper class. When we are supplied with images of women by William Hogarth they are either miserable or shown in a state of mania. He depicts women in a way where they are never happy or if they are, it’s essentially the calm before the storm. This dalliance is nothing like the works of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The is no romance, just a woman’s discomfort and a man’s drive to satisfy his sexual urges, regardless of how the woman feels. In Before, the woman’s lack of enthusiasm is even more obvious from the book on piety in her vanity.
Hogarth’s other etching, appropriately named After is part two of Before. There is a lack of spice and fluff to the affair that is considered typical of the Rococo art movement. It doesn’t seem like the woman enjoyed herself, only the man had gotten his fill, pulling up his pants in haste to leave. His signature use of the dog conveys the instability in their relationship, first in Before with it barking wildly at the two, to the dog facing away in this work, with a quiet acceptance but disappointment. It is no surprise that the crux of Hogarth’s interpretation of the Rococo is essentially turning everything from the French Rococo on its head. He was hellbent on changing what the Rococo art movement should be, in all of his cynical artworks.