The Rococo summary and notes



The Rococo summary and notes


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The Rococo summary and notes


The Rococo   1700-1789


The elaborate style of Rococo (from a combination of Portuguese barroco, and the French word for artificial shells used in rock gardens, rocaille) is generally associated with the reign of the French king Louis XV, although it actually embraces a larger time period, and had influence in a number of European cultural circles. Eighteenth century France saw the full flowering of Le Monde, with the court of Louis XV embodying for many the epitome of decadence, excessive and outrageous consumption, and guileless abuse of the lower class for the pleasure of the ruling class. In fact, the term of the Sun King’s successor is rife with disagreement among historians; some hold that he saw the destructive affect of the culture of Versailles on the health of the nation, and took positive steps in an attempt to overcome the forces that would lead to the Revolution of 1789, while others dismiss his progressive leanings. Unlike his bold predecessor, Louis XV was by nature shy and reclusive, and was closely guided by regents and ministers until he took full control at a mature age. Punctilious, formal, and regal in bearing, he cut a kingly figure, but was not a natural leader; this led to the forces of Versailles and Le Monde overwhelming the king, making him at turns tyrannical or fatalistic and withdrawn. As a ruler he tended towards the capricious, and no one’s position in court was safe. The decisive stroke that many historians agree led to the downfall of the Bourbons was Louis XV’s move in 1749 to increase the “tenth” wartime tax to a “twentieth” tax to achieve financial stability in peacetime; for the first time this tax was to include the French church, the nobility, and others in advantageous positions. He was supported by the writer Voltaire and the anti-clergy Philosophes, free-thinking activists, and could have become a great, enlightened absolutist, but finally capitulated to the clergy, in the end losing support of factions on both sides.

Some of Louis’ best, and worst, political choices revolved around his taste in mistresses. His marriage to the Maria Leszczynska, daughter of the dethroned King of Poland, did not prevent him from indulging in a constant stream of girlfriends, often kept in the love-nest Deer Park. He however, installed two official consorts at Versailles. The first, Madame de Pompadour, never left his side from 1745 to her death in 1764, sovereign over the distribution of court patronage and generally an indispensable and stable aid to the King in all affairs of State. She acted as a cultured and enthusiastic patron of artists at Versailles, hiring court decorators and overseeing the constant aesthetic embellishment of the building and grounds. She created Louis’ world, for he barely left the Palace after 1748, losing touch with the country he was trying to rule. His second official mistress, Madame du Barry did not enjoy the popular support of her predecessor, and was seen broadly as a brazen opportunist. She shifted the official taste of the court to a new style and philosophy, Neoclassicism, late in Louis the XV’s life, perhaps in a political move to deflect the virulent criticism she received.

Louis the XVI, and his infamous queen Marie-Antoinette, brought the Bourbons to the end of their great seventeenth and eighteenth century run. Plagued by indecision and divisive advisors, he was unable to quell the mounting financial crises of France, offering his subject finally neither prosperity nor stability. In 1788 the crown was unable to either attain loans or to pay the creditors already holding massive debts against it. Without political or popular support, with an empty treasury, the crown was wrested from power, as were the venerated artistic styles and forms that had supported it, and a different form of culture, and its expressions, was born.

The Salon


The men of LeMonde began to shift their preferences for female companionship from ladies of court, to actresses and other high-profile women of the urban scene, during eighteenth century France. As the sense of obligation imposed via the intensive hierarchy of Versailles bounded leaders’ public lives, their private lives became a theater for them to find self-expression and worldly display. As professional theatres multiplied in Paris, along with the accompanying press and gossip coverage, the most riveting social activity moved from Versailles to the newly entrepreneur-driven city. While men of court tended to use its ladies to the advantage of their social status (often to the detriment of the ladies’) the roles were almost reversed in the rise of the Rococo. Men of stature competed to become financial patrons of stars of the Paris stage; sentiment became the driving feature of the male patron, with the kept woman, in contrast, acutely aware of the precariousness of her position, and careful not to be left high and dry by her married lovers. Some of these women came to be greatly sought after as leaders of taste and culture, and became hosts to artists, intellectuals, and other “free-thinkers” among the Libertines, of who many came to become harbingers of the new society after the fall of the crown. Although they at times attained great wealth and influence in society, with respectable women copying their every fashion move, they still were looked upon as outcasts, “sinners,”  officially considered tainted, however popular they became through performance or society. The sexual, cultural, and social patronage of actresses and dancers remained an integral part of French cultural machinery well into the modern era. Women of the French Theater, from the Old Regime until the fin-de-siecle of the nineteenth century, occupied a position as artists and creators of culture equivalent to the Japanese Geisha or the Greek Hetaerae.


Germany and Austria


High Baroque style came to be well established in Catholic Germany, especially Bavaria, and Austria, taking on a uniquely local momentum after the splitting of the Hapsburg dynasty. Ferdinand and his successors, ruling the Holy Roman Empire of Southern Germany and Austria, championed ambitious and imaginative elaborations of Baroque visual language. During the period of Charles VI, in particular, massive blooms of Rococo architecture and painting sprouted in Vienna and other great cities of the empire.


Jakob Prandtauer, 1660-1726.  Benedictine Monastery Church, Melk, Austria, 1702-36. The Benedictine order was well known for its tradition of hospitality to travelers, which was brought into service of the highest caliber in the church at Melk. Princes, bishops, diplomats and other distinguished visitors were hosted in the sprawling quarters of the monastery, which housed a great library, as well as settings grandiose enough for the most important of lodgers. 


Johann Balthasar Neumann, 1687-1753. Residenz at Wurzburg, 1719-44. The rule of the bishop-prince Ferdinand was celebrated by the construction of an extensive palace. The decorative program of the monumental exterior culminates in the delicately and effusively ornate interior. Pastel shades of color predominate, punctuated by restless and leafy gilded plaster details; the final effect is that of being ensconced in a grove of softly rustling, golden trees. 


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1696-1770.  Frescoes  at Wurzberg, 1751-52. Neumann’s collaborator was the greatest Italian painter of the Rococo, Tiepolo. A native of Venice, the prodigious fresco painter expanded on the vivid space and atmosphere of Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto in his luminous murals in the gilded palace.


Chariot of Apollo. The sun-god, caught in the moment of daybreak, represents endless expansion and fantasy; all is excitement and anticipation as Apollo’s entourage and witnesses cluster along the edge of the open sky. Tiepolo truly punctuates the flatness of the wall with seamless illusion, lifting the viewer far away from the hard earth into infinite, inviting softness.


The Marriage of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Beatriz of Burgundy.  Revealed by gilt-plaster drapery, the colorful glimpse of the moment of the vows titillates the viewer to imagine the great crowd and space surrounding the wedding party. The crucifix behind the presiding bishop is almost completely obscured, suggesting that the Christian empire is one of celebration, not sacrifice, at least for the nuptial audience.


Germain Boffrand,  1667-1754. Louis XV and the Duke d’Orleans created an entirely new style of living when they temporarily relocated court to Paris during the early Rococo. Living quarters of great elegance and opulence were necessary for major players in court to carry out their business properly. Architects such as Boffrand rose to the challenge, creating islands of luxury in the teeming city for the affairs of Le Monde, townhouses called Hotels. The rooms served as appropriate settings for the early Salons, where meetings and liaisons could be appropriately conducted.


Salon de la Princesse, Hotel de Soubise, Paris, begun 1732. The sensuality of love, the energy propelling social interactions in this milieu, was heightened by the delicacy of the décor, with painted panels of putti, cupids, and mythological lovers bridging the spaces between, boiseries, carved wooden panels subdividing the walls and vaults of the apartments.


 Hotel Amelot de Gournay, Paris, 1740. Even the exteriors were seductive, with curved planes gently leading the worthy visitor into the rarified world of the host.


Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1684-1721. Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, 1717. Watteau submitted a new subject to the Academy for admittance, and they accepted it as part of a new category of painting, the Fete Galante. A group of well dressed young lovers appears either to be arriving at, or departing, the legendary island of love. Louis XIV had been very fond of staging elaborate theatrical events in the formal gardens of Versailles, and casual entertainments there began to take on a general air of theatricality. The term galante is misleading, however. In its English translation, gallant is understood as descriptive of an honorable, cultured gentleman. Galante, however, refers, in French, to cultured hedonism, the pursuit of amoral worldliness. The island of Cythera, here, refers to affairs of the flesh more than the heart.


Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1699-1779. Teacher of one of the masters of High Rococo style, Fragonard, Chardin was inspired by the popular genre paintings of the Dutch Baroque making their way into France, rather than the comings and goings of Le Monde. In his gentle yet insightful visions into everyday affairs and common objects, he evokes the momentous importance of small things.


Still Life with Coffee Pot and Glass of Water, 1732. Chardin had an uncanny ability to imbue the humblest of household objects with a transcendental poetic presence. Texture and light are painstakingly observed and rendered, with each inch of surface as lovingly wrought as the other. The two vessels appear as if characters on a stage, so vivid that they nearly speak to one another; perhaps they represent that which is clear, pure and atmospheric in contrast to that which is opaque, earthly, and mysterious, the two extremes presenting their dichotomy for meditation. The onions between them indicate that the experience of bridging a dichotomy is and intense one, more bitter than sweet.


Girl with Shuttlecock, 1740. A girl, at the brink of becoming a woman, ponders the shuttlecock, which is a symbol for frivolous things and activities. The artist defines a perfectly poised moment, a moment of decision, or indecision, asking the viewer to consider their own sense of fate and purpose.


Francois Boucher, 1703-70. This apprentice of Watteau came to attain the privileged position of royal decorator, answering to Louis XIV’s influential mistress, Madame de Pompadour. After 1735 Boucher worked continuously on the decoration of the royal residences at Versailles and Fontainbleau. All surfaces and forms become delicate treats in his paintings, with every subject, from human flesh to fabric to landscape forms, meant to titillate the senses and heighten the appetite. The softness and delicacy of not only the forms themselves, but the poses, gestures, and attitudes of the figures themselves signal the evolution of sexual manners which arose during the flush of the Rococo. An unprecedented amount of attention was paid to making the habits, deportment, appearance, and aroma of the human body consistently attractive and pleasant, especially to the opposite sex. Many modern standards of personal grooming began here, where the ladies and gentlemen of Le Monde regarded their romantic experiences as something higher than the animals and peasants rutting in the fields and gutters.


Bath of Diana, 1742. The Greek goddess of the hunt, Diana, is captured here at a moment of repose. In her legend, no mortal man is allowed to glimpse her naked at penalty of death. The educated audience of Boucher would have noticed with guilty pleasure that the hapless hunter, Actaeon, is likely just about to stumble upon Diana and her attendant. This young French goddess, however, would surely not loose her hounds on the dashing young man, adding a new connotation to the title “mistress of the hunt.”


Portrait of Mme de Pompadour, 1755. Portraits composed an important part of a Rococo artist’s ouvre and income, and Boucher added his most elegantly seductive touch to his most privileged of sitters, his patroness. He painted her many times, in many situations, always making her seem perfectly composed yet relaxed, delicate yet powerful and intelligent.


Jean Honore Fragonard, 1732-1806. Bouchers’ apprentice, Fragonard, inherited the title of royal decorator after his master’s death in 1770. He added a higher level of intensity and drama to the eroticism of Boucher at an unfortunately problematic time in the reign of Louis XV. Working for Madame du Barry, the controversial last mistress of the Rococo king, the artist came into his peak at the moment that du Barry needed to give the impression of greater sobriety.


The Swing, 1766. When still working under the umbrella of the Academy and in Boucher’s shadow, Fragonard produced this relentlessly charming and lascivious picture, the young lady shamelessly and carnally flirtingwith her privileged companion. The artist truly invites us to leave the bounds of the earth through sensual pleasure.


The Loves of the Shepherds, 1771-73. This cycle of paintings, created for the salon of du Barry, signals the height and end of the Rococo; the mistress of the court rejected the paintings in favor of the new, more somber fashion of Neoclassicism. Now housed in the Frick Museum in New York, the series of vivid paintings takes the viewer through various charming stages of seduction in a lush fantasy garden.


The Philosophes


The paper-culture created by the increased beaurocracy of the court and the journals of news, gossip, and essay circulating in Paris gave rise to an increasing number of dissenting voices in the midst of Le Monde decadence. A large number of social and artistic critics meditated on and prescribed remedies for society’s ills.


Voltaire 1694-1778


The famous playwright had demonstrated a tendency towards outspokenness early in his career, and was imprisoned more than once for his defiance. Released after a term in jail in 1726, he was banished from France for a time, most of which he spent in London. There he became acquainted with the populist themes and more naturalist acting styles of Shakespearean drama, and brought back to his home country the notion that art should serve moral purposes. With the publication of his influential Lettres Philosophiques he celebrated a more humanistic approach to cultural activity inspired by his experiences in England. Combining themes of current popular interest with theatrical spectacles illustrating the exoticism of Frances exploits in the Americas and other strange places, Voltaire created a new, broader base for the creation of art in eighteenth century France. The essence of his message, that reason should reign over human affairs, became reflected in a number of quarters, and was expressed in harmony with the growing notion that “Nature” was the source of human goodness and dignity, not cultural or religious institutions.


Denis Diderot 1713-84


Novelist, playwright, essayist, and editor of the massive French Encyclopedia, Diderot firmly united high moral  purpose with art in his influential reviews of Paris Salons during the 1860’s. He hailed riveting experience of the artwork itself, the cumulative effect of its techniques, as the conveyor of truth. Praising Chardin over even the moralistic Greuze, the critic brought the refined aesthetic experience of the court into the commerce of common objects and everyday dilemmas. He confessed that “It seems to me that I have seen enough tits and behinds (in paintings). These seductive things interfere with the soul’s emotions by troubling the senses.”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-78


The most vociferous critic of the excesses of the eighteenth century, Rousseau called for a didactic art, glorifying great men who have served their country well. His more masculine aesthetic had little room for the “feminizing” effects of salon culture. In writings such as Letter to D’Alembert on Theater he sketched out a distrust and distaste for theater as antithetical to strong family life and destructive to the rightful role of women. In his eye, if women were too strong, men would invariably be weak, and civic virtue in turn would be undermined. He evoked Stoic Roman law condemning actors as a philosophical justification for his position. His decrying of the influence of modern experiments in social and gender structures inspired artists in a variety of mediums to go “back to nature.”


Jean-Baptiste Greuze,  1725-1805.  Greuze was numbered among the growing crowd of painters producing work for the new public Salons of fine art being hosted by the Academy. The broader public had a greater taste for more universal themes of morality than Le Monde, and celebrated new approaches and subject matter that related more the realities and struggles of their lives. New genres of morality painting also appealed to the ranks of the philosophes, who looked to Nature and the innate dignity of man for inspiration.


The Broken Pitcher, 1761. Here the virtue of the maid is related directly to the vessel she holds, valued if intact, and rendered, apparently, irrevocably marred by its untimely and useless breach. The flowers of her maidenhood, as well as her bosom, appear about to spill at any moment. Greuze often depicted the plight of women in society, trying to evoke sympathy as well as alarm for the damage that is done to women as a result of loose sexual and gender mores. The new moralistic society, ironically, placed a good deal of the responsibility for the dissipation of the morals of that society squarely on the shoulders of its women.


 Adelaide Labille Guiard,  1749-1803. Elected to the French Academy in 1783 along with Marie-Louise Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun, Guiard successfully petitioned to end restrictions of women entering the Royal Academy.


 Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785Her self-portrait emphasizes the monumental role that women have always played in society by the heroic scale of the painter, while staying dressed in charming Rococo dress. Represented by the bust observing her work from the shadows, her father is present in the continuing artistic heritage of the family. In spite of the conventionality of her and her students attire, they break from Rococo femininity by their stance; unlike the fluttering birds of Boucher and Fragonard, these women are rooted firmly on the earth.


Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. 1714-85.The leading sculptor of late Rococo, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, began to lend his portrait subjects more and more casual dignity, relying upon personality rather than theatricality to keep the viewer’s attention. He completed commissions for such important Rococo clients as Mme de Pompadour.


Portrait of Diderot, 1777. Pigalle was one of the few successful Rococo artists to make a true transition into the greater humanism of Neoclassicism. In his portrait of the great writer Diderot, who wrote treatises exhorting artists to raise public morals through their art, the sculptor lets the delicate charm of his usual style take a second seat to the earnest intelligence of the sitter.




As European powers attempted to construct their individual histories in coherent pedigrees stretching back to the ancient world, travel became more and more important as cultural capital. In what came to be called the Grand Tour, interested persons of means made pilgrimages to the sources of Western civilization, especially as embodied in the ancient works of Italy, and especially Rome. In order for one’s education to be complete, a tour of the great ruins of the cultural capitals was necessary, more or less retracing the steps made by Baroque artists such as Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. Artists in Italy in particular began to specialize in ravishing, sometimes fanciful, images of their home for consumption by the tourist trade. This interest also became the basis for the next important experiment in culture, Neoclassicism.


Giovanni Antonio Canal, “Canaletto,1797-1768. Continuing the veduta, “view” painting tradition of Claude Lorrain, Canaletto turned his attention to picturesque vistas of urban settings, especially those of Venice. Highly trained  in the theatrical use of perspective, he blends mathematically (for the most part) precise, structured images of plazas and other architectural environs, with vivid effects of lighting and local ritual into a convincing painting of “being there.” The realistic strength and reputation of his painting helped create a lively market for more affordable prints of evocative Italian scenes and settings.


The Bucintoro at the Molo, 1732. One of the most festive days in Venice is brilliantly captured and conveyed by Canaletto: the Doge returns on his glorious barge fro the Lido on the Day of the Sensa, when each year La Serenissima is symbolically re-wedded to the sea. Positioned on one of the attendant gondolas, the viewer is close enough to see colorful detail, yet distant enough to absorb the whole grand spectacle.




Cultural leaders reacted both politically and artistically against what they perceived as the excesses of Italian Baroque art. They hearkened back to the elegant simplicity of Palladio for renditions of English Classicism; it is a testament to the flexibility of Palladio’s theories that works as divergent as Versailles and the London Chiswick House both draw inspiration from its designs. The delicate, sensuous, soft and evocative French Rococo techniques of painting were imitated in British visual essays on nobility, cultural legitimacy, and sensibility. Art in England emulated the formal inventiveness and willingness to experiment with classical forms of French art, while exploring those ideas in a completely different social structure.


Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, Chiswick House, West London, England, 1724-29. This clearly Palladian design was perfectly suited to lifting the British aristocracy into a realm of rarified taste and experience, as separate from the average subject’s experience as a Paris Salon.


John Wood the Elder, The Circus, Bath, England. 1754-58. This group of gentrified townhouses imposes the Roman ideas of a grand city onto a residential development in Wood’s hometown of Bath. Evoking urban planning projects such as Bernini’s St. Peter’s Piazza the Colosseum, and the gardens at Versailles, the aggressive circular form imposes aesthetic order on human experience.


Rober Adam, Anteroom, Syon House, Middlesex, England, 1760-69. Although this Scot architect’s alliance with Neoclassic theorists in Rome associates him with that movement, his colorful and playful improvisations on classical motifs and orders give his work a sense of fantasy consistent with Rococo taste.


William Hogarth, 1697-1794.The first great English painter of the modern era, Hogarth blends the charming, restless painting style of the French Rococo with an interest in dramatic and complex narrative presentation to create a visual equivalent to the sentimental comedies of Sir Richard Steele. Although Hogarth was a master engraver and gifted painter, he desired to be a sort of dramatist, creating morality plays that would be constantly on stage. Generally painting in series, such as Marriage a la Mode or The Rake’s Progress, he vividly, humorously, but sympathetically detailed the guileless individual’s disastrous encounters with the seductions and follies of modern society.


Marrage a la Mode: the Contract, and The Aftermath, 1730. In what almost appears to be a send-up of French Rococo society, a marriage agreement is made solely on the basis of social ambition and avarice. The various managers of the contract greedily conspire for their own benefit, oblivious to the human cost of such affairs. The morning after the wedding, the hapless couple is awash in bills, bankrupt both morally and financially before they’ve begun. He sits, a drunken fool, ignoring his incensed bride, apparently conniving her next machination.


Thomas Gainesborough, 1723-92. This great master of English portraiture spent a good deal of his career documenting and flattering nobility in the provinces outside of London. He revels in the private ease and casual grace of his upper class patrons. His style remained consistent and individual until his move to London, where he took on stylistic traits of the great academician, Reynolds. 


Robert Andrews and his Wife, 1748-50. In a bold asymmetric composition, he positions his calm sitters at the hub of a great arc of landscape leading off into the distance. Though well-dressed and posed as a couple, the most distinctive characteristic of the husband and wife is their sense of private thought; they are clearly distinct minds with individual consciousnesses. They clearly take pride in the landscape not as playground, but as possession.


Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1784. Reynolds sought to emulate Lebrun’s ideal of painting grand subjects in a grand style, and established what he believed to be essential rules and theories in his leadership in the Academy. He was most successful in fantasizing portrait subjects in poetic or mythological settings, enveloped in a nostalgic sfumato: delicacy of expressionand gravity of conception.


Music in the Rococo


In 1772 the composer Jean-Philippe published his Treatise on Harmony, establishing the system of major and minor harmonic scales that are common in the modern world. He described music in diatonic scales, with 12 equally spaced “tempered” notes spanning the distance between two octaves. This tempered scale made it possible for a keyboard to encompass multiple octaves, prompting composers to explore new avenues and modes of expression. The 48 pieces comprising the Well-Tempered Clavier  by Johann Sebastian Bach took advantage of this expanded keyboard.

            Great levels of complexity and versatility emerged from the hands of a number of great composers and schools of music during the Rococo. The first of these, Antonio Vivaldi, rose from being the son of a violist and a student of the priesthood to the greatest composer of operas in Venice. Bach’s more famous contemporary and friend Philipp Telemann brought together a range of influences from other styles and artists in the creation of his dance suites, sonatas, quartets, and concertos. These forms were all combined in the famous chamber pieces, called Tafelmusik. The highly serious lyricism of the German-born George Frederic Handel, admired and patronized by George I of England, was in turn satirized by John Gay, Jonathan Swift, and Johann Christoph Pepusch in the widely popular The Beggar’s Opera. Lyrical, declamatory, or precociously inventive, Rococo music stretched the bounds of the forms it had inherited from Baroque precendents.




Writing was dominated in the Rococo by sentimental morality plays, from England’s Sir Richard Steele and Colley Cibber, to Phillipe Destouches and Pierre Marivaux in France. Great tragedies finally enjoyed a resurgence in the works of Voltaire, with more traditional comedies being practiced by the Comedie Italiene and Comedie Francais, one of the most powerful dramatic groups in France.

            The greatest theatrical innovations of the age came in the areas of scene design and acting. The painters Boucher and Canaletto were employed a great deal as designers and painters of great spectacles, with paintings beginning to resemble settings on stage in theater or in the gardens of Versailles as the period progressed. Boucher’s pupil Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg , who apprenticed under scene designer Louis-Rene Boquet, carried French practices (which had been learned in part from the residence of great Italian designers such as Giocomo Torelli during the reign of Louis XIV) into London at the invitation of the great actor and producer David Garrick; both men contributed greatly to advanced in directional stage lighting. Hogarth, Reynolds and Gainsborough were all involved to some extent in designing and painting stage sets.

            In England and France women began to rise to prominence on the stage; the Anne Oldfield, Sarah Siddons, and Adrienne Lecourvreur became part of the lexicon of the theatrical world.


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