Rococo art developed during the 18th century as a celebration of joy, wealth, and careless pleasure. It dominated the spheres of art, architecture, music, design, and fashion, producing the most lavish pieces Europe has ever seen. The French Revolution put a sudden and dramatic end to the dominance of the excess and decoration of Rococo. Read on to learn more about the frivolous art of Rococo.
Origins & Etymology of Rococo Art
Rococo art was invented by eighteenth-century artists who strived to free art from drama and emotional intensity, looking for pure aestheticism and hedonism. The Rococo period was a direct descendant of the era of Baroque but devoid of political subtext. Baroque art was part of Catholic propaganda, which aimed to make art expressive and emotional in order to bewitch the viewer and trigger religious devotion. The word Baroque came from a Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, while Rococo referred to a way of decorating furniture with broken seashells. Rococo art was colorful and rich in tone and texture, utterly rejecting minimalism and any form of balance and measure. It was a chaotic visual delight—enchanting at first but nauseating after prolonged exposure.
Although Rococo heavily relied on natural forms, it never actually copied from nature directly. Rococo landscapes were imaginary exotic locations filled with idyllic scenes. Numerous paintings and sculptures celebrated pleasure, excess, and happiness in their simple earthly form. Instead of showing pain and suffering or threatening the audience with a higher power, Rococo invited people to experience the physical pleasures of love, travel, and luxury. Sexualized depictions of women were hardly a groundbreaking invention at the time, yet Rococo art managed to trespass the boundaries of what was acceptable. The Rococo bodies were shamelessly nude, openly demonstrating their physical desires.
The Internationality of Rococo
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The outrageous excess of Rococo had a shorter lifespan than its Renaissance and Baroque ancestors, yet nonetheless spread through the continent rapidly. It mostly became popular in Catholic regions since the Protestant ethic valued discipline and frugality over demonstrations of wealth and power. Still, in Protestant England, the influence of Rococo—dubbed the French taste—was present in porcelain design, furniture, and portrait painting. Famous artists included Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
The most prominent and recognizable branch of Rococo was the French one. Artists Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard dominated the scene, holding the positions of artists of the Royal Court. Not everyone enjoyed this equally. After inspecting the salacious works of Boucher, some accused him of using women, including his wife.
In Germany, Rococo mostly spread in Catholic Bavaria. The predominantly Protestant territory of Prussia also fell under the spell of Rococo, mainly in the form of the Sanssouci palace built for King Frederick The Great. German Rococo architecture was less grandiose than the French one, yet it demonstrated the same love for decoration and detail. King Frederick’s palace had only one floor, but every element of it was special and nuanced. The most prominent attraction of Sanssouci was the Chinese House, a small pavilion in pseudo-Chinese style used for parties. From its base to its roof, the pavilion was decorated with gilded sculptures of Chinese musicians, dancers, exotic animals, and palm trees.
The Italian Rococo felt right at home in the North, particularly in Venice. At the time, Venice started to lose its power as a trading center and re-established itself as a mysterious and magical place for wealthy travelers. Masquerades, balls, and gambling opportunities attracted rich foreigners, and with them came a new style of art. The Rococo Venice promoted an alluring mystical land promising all sorts of decadent joy.
How to Recognize Rococo Architecture?
The Rococo architecture followed the principles dictated by the visual art of the time. Dining rooms, libraries, study rooms, and bedrooms all served a specific purpose and were decorated in accordance with it. The main characteristics of Rococo architecture include natural curvy forms, overflowing decoration, and a penchant for asymmetry. While the seemingly chaotic Baroque architecture still maintained a certain order, Rococo completely discarded the rules, striving to use every shape and form available in nature. The color scheme also became much bolder. There were pinks, blues, and yellows, there were pearls and gold.
A particularly distinctive trait of Rococo architecture is seen in the use of stucco. This was a decorative coating in the form of a paste, which hardened when it was applied to a surface. Rococo architects and decorators used stucco to create relief-like textures on furniture, ceilings, and walls.
Traveling as Leisure
Despite its exclusivity and frivolity, Rococo, like any other art movement, reflected the ideas and concepts of its age. In the eighteenth century, travel became a new sort of entertainment for the rich and powerful. Europe was hardly surprising for them, but the undiscovered lands of India, China, and Japan appeared to be fairytale places full of mysteries and wonders.
Exotic animals became one of the favorite subjects of Rococo artists. For centuries, the animal iconography in Europe remained almost intact with small exceptions of explorers’ accounts and imaginary beings from Medieval manuscripts. This time the situation was different: the aristocracy could afford to ship animals that were never seen before to their palaces. Louis XIV, or the Sun King, ordered the construction of an animal menagerie in Versailles. His expensive toys included tigers, flamingos, rhinos, elephants, zebras, and gazelles.
The French aristocracy also shared a widespread belief that porcelain cups could neutralize poison. Because of this belief, they recreated Chinese technology. Although the protective function of the material turned out to be false, the interest in Chinese techniques gave rise to a new type of art, still associated with European tradition.
Rococo art was simultaneously obsessed with nature and faraway lands and indifferent to it, preferring imagination to reality. A similar treatment of subjects would happen centuries later with the development of Art Nouveau, with Orientalism and Japonism once again enchanting the public mind.
Madame de Pompadour: Rococo Embodied
One of the most remarkable characters who shaped Rococo was the infamous Madame de Pompadour, who embodied the excess and frivolity of her time. She was the official chief mistress of Louis XV. This title came with benefits including personal apartments, diplomatic missions, and serving as an advisor to the king. Her influence was omnipresent: she commanded imprisonments and executions, appointed ministers, and ruled external affairs. At the same time, she was a great patron of arts, brought a specific shade of pink into fashion, and amassed an astonishing porcelain collection. The portraits of Madame de Pompadour were mostly painted by her favorite artist and close friend Francois Boucher. These works show a gentle young woman with deep blue eyes, one that seems as delicate and fragile as a rose. These paintings, which made a stark contrast with her actual behavior at court, were intended for the King’s eyes, to enchant him even further with Madame de Pompadou’s beauty and charm.
Madame de Pompadour’s spending habits were overrun only by those of the last French Queen Marie Antoinette. Hundreds of lavish dresses, ridiculously expensive parties, menageries of exotic animals, numerous art collections, and the nickname Madame Deficit—all of these things left Marie Antoinette a lasting symbol of greedy, spoiled aristocracy. Bored and looking for new experiences, she ordered the building of an artificial village where she could play pretend while wearing simple muslin dresses. Of course, Marie Antoinette barely knew anything about the real life of peasants. Just like in painted Rococo scenes, her understanding of the world outside Versailles was purely an idealized fantasy that ignored reality in all possible ways.
The Dark Side of Rococo: Decadence and Delusion
Behind all the joy and glamour of Rococo, a dark and ugly side persisted. What seemed like a glorious and charming movement at first concealed tragic inequality and deep cultural and political crisis. Many found the loud and intense insolence of the Rococo offensive, if not catastrophic. Crude eroticism, performative consumption, and deliberate ignorance of objective reality became its downfalls. A deeply escapist movement, Rococo could not survive the violent crash that came in the form of the French Revolution. The menagerie of Versailles was turned into a food bank for starving citizens, who diversified their diet with ostriches and zebras. The excessiveness of decoration became ridiculous and kitschy, so the strict and solemn Neoclassicism came into fashion.