Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767 (photo By Jean-Honoré Fragonard – wartburg.edu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=611509)
The Rococo Style was an expression of wit and frivolity, although at its best it has a more somber, satirical undercurrent. It was primarily the style of the aristocracy as well, who had little to do, since Louis XIV had stripped their power, and handed it to government bureaucracy. The style is generally light, fluffy, and pastel, and focuses on the pleasure of the moment. The name for the style comes from the French words rocaille and coquille, and referred to the preference for shell-like, rocky motifs, especially in the gardens, which were turned into fanciful grottoes with purposely overgrown plants and trees and faux-architectural ruins. This faux-natural theme in the gardens can also be seen in the garden represented by Fragonard’s painting above, and fits with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advocated for a return to nature.
Rococo garden, Schloss Veitshöchheim, Franconia, Germany (photos by By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Boboli Gardens, Pitti Palace, Florence, Grotto by Bernardo Buontalenti with Paris Abducts Helen by Vincenzo di Rossi (photo by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136860)
At the same time, there were serious advances taking place in music and science. This is the moment when the piano and other louder instruments were created, partially to be able to fill the new symphony halls with sound. It was the period of Mozart and Handel, and the rise in popularity of opera. Linnaeus also developed the classification system still used in biology today, and, by 1750, the Industrial Revolution was underway in England. Politically, Frederick the Great turned Prussia into an aggressive military power, and began the process of unifying Germany.
Another part of the aesthetic of the Rococo was the use of chinoiserie, the fanciful take on Chinese art and culture that came out of the craze for Chinese porcelains, silks, and other trade goods. The Pagoda designed for Kew Gardens in London by William Chambers in 1761 is an example of this, and was only one part of the overall focus on the exotic and fanciful. Romanticized views of these exotic-seeming elements of European landscapes and gardens were also popular.
William Chambers, Pagoda, Kew Gardens, London, 1761 (photo by By Targeman – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2165524)
In France, the death of Louis XIV in 1715 released the nobility from his tight control. His great-grandson, the new king Louis XV was only 5, and so the nobility moved to Paris, and began to build elaborate hôtels, urban townhomes that were more like mini-palaces. Here, the ladies of the house, called salonnières, began to have daily (or nightly) salons, where politicians, philosophers, artists, and many others would come together to discuss current events, art, science, etc. These typically took place in ornate rooms, often roughly circular or oval in shape, and without corners to encourage conversation. A good example of this is Germand Boffrand’s Salon de la Princesse from the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris, designed c. 1740. Another shift noticeable in this Salon, especially if it is compared with the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles, is the paintings, here showing the story of Cupid and Psyche, which focus on the softer subjects like love.
German Bouffant, Salon de la Princess, Hôtel de Soubise, Paris, c. 1740 and Charles-Joseph Natoire, The Story of Psyche, 1737-1739 (photos By Chatsam – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47395491 and By Charles-Joseph Natoire – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15463504)
One of the leading painters of the Rococo in Paris was the Flemish artist Antoine Watteau, known for his fêtes galantes, or festive gatherings, which became so popular another category was added to the Salons for his acceptance into the Académie. These, like Pilgrimage to Cythera and Departure from Cythera, are light, pastel paintings of scenes of lovers and enjoyment, done in a Rubenesque, painterly fashion. Cythera was also the mythical island home of Venus, the goddess of love, so it fit within this fashionable subject matter of an idyll. Fragonard’s painting, The Swing, pictured at the top, is another one of these fashionable idylls, but here the young woman is having fun in her Rococo garden. She is being pushed on the swing by a man, perhaps her father or husband, while her young lover hides in the rose bushes, and gets an up-skirt view. The Cupid statues in the piece seem to be in on the joke, but her dog is about to reveal the young man’s hiding place. The piece both reveals aristocratic pursuits, and the eroticism inherent in them, while perhaps also offering a bit of a negative commentary on these pursuits.
Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717 and Departure from Cythera, 1717 (photos By Antoine Watteau – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=160130 and By Antoine Watteau – Retouched from File:L’Embarquement pour Cythere, by Antoine Watteau, from C2RMF.jpg, originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15715131)
One of the most interesting of Watteau’s works is L’Enseigne de Gersaint (The Shop Sign of Gersaint), made for the shop of his art dealer, Edme-François Gersaint, on the Pont Notre Dame in Paris. Watteau, who was in failing health at the time he painted this, was staying with Gersaint at the time. In this work, originally painted on one canvas, workers are packing away a painting of Louis XIV, referring to the change in king and in French culture. Wealthy, aristocratic people are browsing the shop, and closely examining a painting of nudes, while a beautiful shop girl, who may also be available for purchase, helps others with jewelry. Watteau’s greatest comment on society in the work is the dog picking at fleas in the street outside of the shop, perhaps a reference to the aristocrats as fleas on France.
Antoine Watteau, L’Ensigne de Gersaint (The Shop Sign of Gersaint), 1721 (photo by Antoine Watteau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
François Boucher may have been the most well-known and powerful of the French Rococo, in no small part because he had the patronage of Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise du Pompadour, the chief mistress to Louis XV. He often used her as his model in paintings of Venus, such as Venus Consoling Love from 1751. In this work, Boucher shows his talent of painting different textures, switching from the feathers of the doves, silks of her drapery, and leaves of the trees and plants. Boucher painted a number of portraits of the Marquise, which often showed her as an Enlightenment intellectual, but maintained comparisons of the Marquise and Venus, with the roses on her dress. Often, such as in the portrait from 1758, there are references to her connections to Louis XV, as she remained an important advisor to the king even after they were not involved in a sexual relationship any more.
François Boucher, Venus Consoling Love, 1751 (photo by François Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
François Boucher, La Marquise du Pompadour, 1756 and Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, la Marquise du Pompadour, 1758 and (photos By François Boucher – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518252 and By François Boucher – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6333527)
A number of the portraitists at this time were also female artists, many of whom were well-respected and had nobility as their patrons. Rosalba Carriera was known for her use of pastels, or pigments rolled into sticks and held together with a binder. Her portrait of the young Louis XV done in 1721 shows the young but dignified king in a softer, less intimidating manner than the portrait of his great-grandfather by Rigaud. Her work was also very influential for younger artists like Élizabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Vigée-Lebrun was one of the leading portrait painters in eighteenth-century Europe, whose greatest patron was Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France. A comparison of 2 portraits of Marie-Antoinette by Vigée-Lebrun shows the maturation of the Queen. The one painted in 1778, immediately after her marriage to Louis XVI, emphasizes her regal nature, and is in keeping with traditional royal portraiture, down to the column behind her emphasizing the royal family’s role as the support of France. The one painted 10 years later emphasizes the Queen as a mother, in keeping with the vogue of Rousseau’s ideas of mother’s duties to their children. The empty crib is meant to remind viewers of the death of a child, and the entire work was supposed to humanize an unpopular Queen, making her more sympathetic. Vigée-Lebrun and Labille-Guiard also did self-portraits which referenced their roles as female artists, and Labille-Guiard was instrumental in having the number of women in the Acadèmie doubled (from 2 to 4). Her portrait of herself with 2 students has the typical Rococo surface elegance, but serious message about role of women artists. Here, her students, also women, are excitedly viewing the work of their master. Vigée-Lebrun’s Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat is a conscious reference to Rubens’s portrait of Susanna Fourment, also called The Straw Hat. Here, though, it is the female artist looking coyly out of the work at the viewer.
Rosalba Carriera, Louis XV, 1721 (photo by Rosalba Carriera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Élizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette, 1778 and Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1788 (photos By Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1021832 and By Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150165)
Élizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782 and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785 (Photos By Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/elisabeth-louise-vigee-le-brun-self-portrait-in-a-straw-hat, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23940843 and By Adélaïde Labille-Guiard – http://www.ladyreading.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=512615)
Rococo painting in England emphasized portraiture, especially of the wealthy, and nature. Sir Joshua Reynolds was the founding President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768, and produced about 2000 portraits of clients from the upper classes. These often emphasized the wealth and landholdings of the sitter, or, as in the case of his portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons, their claim to fame. Siddons was one of the most famous actresses of the London theater scene in the 18th century, and his portrait emphasizes drama. His portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, emphasized her role as a mother to her daughter, showing the English aristocracy was also reading Rousseau. Thomas Gainsborough was another of the famous portraitists in England, known for his full-length portraits set in landscapes. His portrait of Elizabeth Linley, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the famous singer of the period, puts her in a vast landscape, and shows his debts to Rubens and van Dyck.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1783 and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire with her daughter, Lady Georgiana Cavendish, c. 1785 (photos by Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In architecture, as in painting, Rococo emerged from late Baroque classicism, which it both elaborated and refined. Rococo architecture reached its height in Germany, with structures like Balthasar Neumann’s Würzburg Residenz, modeled on Versailles. It is in the staircase of this structure that the changes to Baroque classicism become clear, with the elaborate gilt stucco on the cornices and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s frescoes on the ceiling, which serve to glorify the bishop-princes of the Schönborn family. The throne room of this structure really emphasizes the links to Versailles architecturally, as well as the links to the salons of the Parisian hôtels. Here, through the use of gilt stucco, pastel colored marbles, and frescoes, the room has an impressive, over-the-top feel. The portion that shows the investiture of Bishop Harold by the emperor includes a faux-drape of honor drawn back in front of the scene and trompe-l’oeil moments, such as the halberd of the soldier on the steps and the dog that seems to be sitting atop an engaged column.
Balthasar Neumann, Würzburg Resident, Bavaria, 1719-1753 and staircase with frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1752-1753 (photos By Franz VisualBeo Horvat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=701006 and By Oktobersonne – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50065324)
Balthasar Neumann, Throne room of the Würzburg Resident with frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Investiture of Bishop Harold, Kaisersaal, Residenz, Würzburg, Germany, 1751-52 (photos by By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17365446 and By Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15465344)
German Rococo church architecture in Bavaria was heavily influenced by Boromini and palace architecture. Dominikus Zimmermann’s Wieskirche, or Church of the Meadow, borrows Boromini’s elliptical plan, and combines it with the wedding-cake interior decoration of Neumann’s Residenz. The interior is filled with pastel marbles, gilt stucco, and a ceiling fresco of Heaven that features Jesus sitting on a rainbow.
Dominikos Zimmermann, Wieskirche, Bavaria, 1745-1754 (photos by By Dallas Epperson, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48806281 and By michaelXXLF – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=284163)
Johann Baptist Zimmermann, Ceiling Fresco of the Wieskirche, before 1758 (photo By Johann Baptist Zimmermann – Olympus C-5060, F/2,8, 1/30 Sekunde, ISO-100, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17668623)
In the Age of Enlightenment, philosophical ideas translated into political movements. Much of this was based on the writings of the 17th century Englishman, John Locke, who advanced “empiricism,” the basis of the scientific method. There were also some very radical political ideas of this period, many of which came from the French philosophes, or thinkers, who were often middle-class and well-educated. These philosophes, many of whom frequented the salons of the Parisian salonnières, used the journals and newspapers of the day to advocate for social and political change, including religious freedom, universal education, and, in France, a Constitutional monarchy. Many of their ideas came from Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government, which argued against the divine right of kings. This work argued that the government ruled at the will of the governed, and could be overthrown at any time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau went further in his Social Contract, where the “contract” was not between people and government, but between the people themselves. By the end of the 18th century, the success of the American and French revolutions broke Western European belief in the divine right of kings. Many of these philosophes, and some American Founding Fathers, were Deists, which means they saw god as a clockmaker who set the world in motion and walked away, leaving man to his choices. Others were atheists, which was a rising idea in the 18th century.
It is also in this period that there is the beginning of modern art theory and art history. The term aesthetic is an 18th century term. Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the 1760s moved to Rome, and became the Papal librarian. He has been called the father of art history based on his 1764 publication The History of Ancient Art which argued that style was determined by culture. His categories of Greek art became a model for later art historical divisions. Immanuel Kant published Critique of Judgment in 1790 where he advocated the notion of aesthetic assessment of and response to both nature and art. For Kant, beauty resided in the interplay between the viewer and the viewed, which gave the aesthetic response a significant and independent role in human experience. G.W.F. Hegel in the early decades of the 19th century combined elements of Winckelmann and Kant. He addressed the spiritual concern between art and religion, and identified the historical evolution of style as inevitable and could be perceived and understood in retrospect. All of this shows the interest in scientific classification of all aspects of life in the 18th century, and the attempts by philosophers to explain as much as they could about the natural world, man, and man’s place in their world.
The Frenchman Denis Diderot was one of the philosophes in Paris, and he wanted to publish a book, or series of books, that explained everything, from how to smelt iron, to how to make wallpaper, to the nature of god. The encyclopédistes classified knowledge on a scientific basis, and this desire fit with the ideals of universal education. His Dictionnaire Raisonné des Arts, des sciences, et des métiers also called the Encyclopédia. This was banned by the French censors working for the government of Louis XV, but the patronage of the Marquise du Pompadour got the work published. Diderot and the other encyclopédistes combined detailed engravings with detailed articles to explain the arts, sciences, and other things explained in the Encyclopédia.
Pages on Tinsmithing from the Encyclopédia, 1751-1772
The philosophes typically promoted the bourgeois realist art over the aristocratic Rococo style. This sort of art, as personified in the works of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, emphasized the simpler things of the lower classes, as well as the morals of these classes. There are no erotic undertones in these works, and the works have the feeling of 17th century Netherlandish paintings by Rembrandt or Vermeer. His La Fontaine (Servant Getting Water) shows a middle-class house, with a woman and child visible in the background, and the servant in the foreground. The color palette here is much more somber, and there is an emphasis on realistic depiction of the things that would be found in a bourgeois house.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Fontaine (Servant Getting Water), 1733 (photo By Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin – LwEbD1QuT9v-hA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21880104)
In England, the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby focused often on the scientific experiments that would happen after supper in the homes of the wealthy. These often used light as the means to tell the story. Traditionally, light associated with god(s) and the divinity of rulers; in Christian art, Christ was the “light of the world.” With the Enlightenment, light became associated with the rational and empirical—the primacy of reason and intellect. His painting of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump highlights this idea, with the light emphasizing the central scene of the experiment, and the young boy in the back drawing back the curtains to reveal the dim moonlight. The message is that the light of science and reason was stronger.
Joseph Wright (of Derby), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 (photo by Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Another popular strain in English bourgeois art of the period was that of William Hogarth, who satirized contemporary manners and social conventions. He was particularly pointed in his criticisms of the nobility, and often did series that commented on what he saw as the lack of moral compass of the elite. His series Marriage-a-la-Mode critiqued what he saw as the French influence in marriage, which was arranged as a financial transaction, often so that one family could gain social standing. In the first painting of this series, Lord Squanderfield (the name is a purposeful pun) has run out of money, and is arranging the marriage of his son to the daughter of a wealthy upper middle class man. It is obvious, from the young couple’s lack of interest in each other, that the marriage is doomed to failure, and Hogarth made sure to give the young man a mark of syphilis on his neck to emphasize his lack of morals. The rest of the series deal with cheating, murder, and death, ending in tragedy for both families. Hogarth would paint these as series, and would sell prints of the paintings to the middle class, who avidly collected these paintings satirizing the upper classes.
William Hogarth, Marriage-a-la-Mode: The Marriage Contract, c. 1743 (photo By William Hogarth – The National Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38101317)
Countercurrents persisted in art throughout the 18th century. There was a prevalence of irony and satire, such as with Hogarth, and darker forces underlay the optimistic view of nature and levity of Rococo. In Germany, the Sturm und Drang movement was ruled by a belief that nature had power over reason, heavily drawn from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, which was about the human battle for control over evil nature. Caspar David Friedrich’s watercolor sketch from 1797 shows this German ideal, one that would become stronger in the early 19th century with the rise of Napoleon.
Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Pavilion, 1797 (photo by Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In the British colonies of North America, there was a continuation of the classical in both portraits and history paintings. John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere uses Caravaggesque tenebrism with a view of Revere’s status as a silversmith Colonial Boston. Benjamin West painted The Death of General Wolfe, a scene from the Seven Years War. But, this was almost refused by the king because the contemporary dress of the figures was thought vulgar, since the universal message was thought to be better conveyed with the figures wearing togas.
John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, c. 1768–70 (photo by John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, c. 1770 (photo by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=160192)
In architecture, in England at least, there was a return to the Classical, and a number of revival styles sprang up. Richard Boyle, the Earl of Burlington modeled his villa, Chiswick House, near London, on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. He even used the centralized plan of Palladio’s Late Renaissance structure, although he modified some parts of the house to make it more befitting an English country estate. Robert Adam was a leader of the Classical revival, as well as an amateur archaeologist who studied Roman ruins and dug at Pompeii. His remodeled fireplace niche in the entrance hall of Osterley Park House created the atmosphere of a Roman villa, using what he had seen in Pompeii, although there was a lack of understanding of the place of color in Roman structures. Horace Walpole remodeled his villa of Strawberry Hill at Twickenham near London in the Gothic Revival style. This is a large, sprawling structure without the soaring grandeur of Gothic buildings. He drew on romantic notions of the Gothic as beginning in England, and created a fantasy of what Gothic was, including the use of English Perpendicular fan vaulting.
Richard Boyle (Earl of Burlington), Chiswick House, near London, begun 1725 (photo By Patche99z at English Wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia where it had a different name: File:Chiswick House 022b.jpg; description page is/was here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3005530 and Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=985967)
Robert Adam, Entrance Hall, Osterley Park House, 1767-1768 (photo By MCAD Library – https://www.flickr.com/photos/69184488@N06/11891497834, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49074017)
Horace Walpole, Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, Near London, 1749-1777 (photos By John Wilder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35818644 and By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35736789)
There were other movements and strains of art beginnings in the late 18th century as well, with the Revolutions and the rise of Napoleon. This would lead to the rise of both Neoclassicism and Romanticism.