The lavish and decorative Rococo art developed in the eighteenth century. The already complex and excessive composition of Baroque turned into pure ornamentality, almost to the point of turning images into patterns. Rococo artists celebrated pleasures of life, ranging from ethereal idyllic scenes to quasi-pornography. They also focused on European aristocratic life and leisure. Below are seven remarkable painters who represented different sides of Rococo art.
1. French Rococo Artist François Boucher (1703-1770)
The French court artist François Boucher was the leader of the newborn French Rococo movement and one of its main representatives. Like many artists of his generation, he found his inspiration in the works of Peter Paul Rubens and his students. However, Boucher’s work was shamelessly erotic, with bodies being unmistakably physical, devoid of the ethereal fleur of Antique sculpture. While the spoiled aristocracy adored his willingness to fulfill their salacious desires, some found his crude eroticism repulsive.
Boucher was one of the favorite painters of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the French king Louis XV. Boucher painted some of her most exquisite portraits and even gave her engraving lessons. His provocative style of work represented the general state of morals behind the walls of Versailles. Spoiled by unlimited riches and leisure, the aristocracy found entertainment in physical pleasures and vulgar games. François Boucher painted portraits of the King’s mistresses stretched nude and Greek goddesses embracing each other, all surrounded by fairytale-like landscapes. The intense pink of their flushed skin left no ambiguity and no mystery.
2. Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806)
Jean-Honore was a student of François Boucher. Just like his teacher, he became one of the best-known artists of the Rococo era. Fragonard also felt perfectly at ease painting provocative erotic scenes, kitschy interiors, and lavish decorations. The idea for his legendary painting The Swing came from the painting’s commissioner, who wanted to depict his mistress on a swing with himself looking under her skirt. Originally, he proposed the idea to another painter, yet such a frivolous subject embarrassed him. Fragonard, however, was happy to paint this, with only one detail adjusted to lower the intensity of a potential scandal. The commissioner wanted a bishop to push the swing, while Fragonard insisted on painting a layman.
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During the French Revolution, Fragonard lost most of his patrons under the guillotine blade. Understanding the grave danger he was in because of his association with the nobility, he fled to Provence. He died at the beginning of a new century and was forgotten by historians for decades. Nonetheless, he left a lasting impact on the development of French art. His son Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard became an accomplished painter, while his grand-niece Berthe Morisot represented the innovative and radical generation of the Impressionists.
3. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was a portrait painter closely associated with the court of Louis XVI. Le Brun was a close friend of the Queen and had outlived her for almost fifty years, remaining a dedicated monarchist until her last days. Although her style is usually classified as Rococo, most art historians find the influence of Neoclassicism in her works. Neoclassicism was already developing prior to the French Revolution. Le Brun was indifferent to the kitschy and pompous Rococo fashions and preferred to drape her models in scarves and pieces of fabric.
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun demonstrated her artistic talent from an early age, with her father, a pastellist Louis Vigée, greatly impressed by the quality of her childhood works. In her late teenage years, she secured financial stability through her artistic practice. Although her marriage to another portraitist Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was not a happy one due to the husband’s infidelity and financial control, she found great happiness in motherhood. One of the most popular paintings of Le Brun is her self-portrait with her daughter Julie. While she usually followed the formal canons of painting which prescribed expressing a limited range of emotions, in her self-portraits she was usually smiling widely and showing her teeth.
4. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Thomas Gainsborough was one of the most influential artists of Rococo-era England. He started his artistic career as a landscape painter deeply fascinated by the nature of his native Suffolk. However, after his marriage in 1746, he realized that he would not be able to provide for his new family with an income of a landscape artist, so he switched to portrait painting. Over the next forty years, Gainsborough would earn the reputation of one of the greatest English masters.
One of the most remarkable features of Gainsborough’s portraiture was his focus on the sitter’s personality instead of their regalia. His greatest rival, painter Joshua Reynolds, always made sure his subjects would have all their medals and honors on display if they were men and their prettiest dresses and jewelry if they were women. Gainsborough wanted to depict true character reflected in the eyes, poses, and surroundings of his models. Such an approach was too innovative for the artist’s time and would become popular in the nineteenth century. Although this artistic decision may have cost Gainsborough more than several commissions, it certainly made him one of the most significant artists of the Rococo era.
5. William Hogarth (1697-1764)
If Gainsborough represented the gentle and ethereal aspect of the English Rococo, William Hogarth marked its dark side. An avid nationalist and an ill-tempered drinker, he was indeed a talented painter who became famous for his series of works condemning the morals of his age. That being said, Hogarth was far from a respectable and faithful family man himself.
Hogarth was a member of the infamous Hellfire Club, a secret drinking society of the English elites, notorious for its debauchery. The club members included high-ranking politicians and government officials. Even Benjamin Franklin attended several meetings during his years in London. Notable was the Club’s anticlerical stance, with mockery of religious authority. During regularly organized orgies, they dressed as priests and invited prostitutes dressed in nuns’ clothing. They performed pagan rituals, sacrificing to Venus Bacchus, although these were mostly crude jokes and not their actual beliefs. Hogarth was a close friend of the founder of the Hellfire Club, Francis Dashwood. Dashwood owned numerous portraits, but his favorite one was Hogarth’s portrait of him dressed as Saint Francis of Assisi. He is portrayed while reading a pornographic novel instead of the Bible. The Bible itself is painted right next to a figure of a nude woman that’s positioned there instead of the crucifix.
6. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
Tiepolo was the undisputed leader of the Venetian School of painting of his generation and the most important ceiling painter of the Rococo era. Unlike Baroque ceilings that were dramatic and full of contrasts, the Rococo ones featured pastel tones. Nature was shown as a gentle paradise made of pink skies and fluffy clouds.
During Tiepolo’s time, Venice went through a period of economic and social decline. While it lost its status as the trade capital, it was nonetheless famous for its art and entertainment. Venice rebranded itself as a tourist hotspot designed for wealthy Europeans looking to experience exquisite art, beauty, and pleasures. Artists like Tiepolo created this image of Venice in their works. They showed the city as a magical and sublime place full of pure aestheticism in every corner.
7. Famous Rococo Artist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757)
Rosalba Carriera was one of the most influential artists of the Venetian Rococo, and certainly one of the most successful woman artists of all time. She mainly worked with pastels and miniatures, offering her clients custom ivory boxes for sniffing tobacco. The history of her training is unclear, although we know that her grandfather was a painter as well. Rosalba’s mother acted as her agent, inviting guests and negotiating deals. She became so phenomenally famous that her clients throughout Europe referred to her as simply Rosalba, using only her first name.
In her works, Carrera often used Venetian masks, particularly a very specific type called moretta. Morettas were made of lace or velvet and featured no fastener. The only way to keep this mask on your face was to clutch a button from its inner side between your teeth. Morettas protected women’s skin from the sun, but they protected their reputations. In the 1700s, walking through the city alone was considered indecent for any respectable woman. Thus, women were wearing masks in public in order to protect their image while running their daily errands.