Rococo, also referred to as “Late Baroque”, is an 18th-century artistic movement and style, which affected several aspects of the arts including painting, sculpture, architecture, interior design, decoration, literature, music and theatre.
The Rococo developed in the early part of the 18th century in Paris, France as a reaction against the grandeur, symmetry and strict regulations of the Baroque, especially within the context of the Palace of Versailles. In such a way, Rococo artists opted for a more jocular, florid and graceful approach to Baroque art and architecture. Rococo art and architecture in such a way was ornate and made strong usage of creamy, pastel-like colours, asymmetrical designs, curves and gold. Unlike the more politically-focused Baroque, the Rococo had more playful and often witty artistic themes. With regards to interior decoration, Rococo rooms were designed as total works of art with elegant and ornate furniture, small sculptures, ornamental mirrors, and tapestry complementing architecture, reliefs, and wall paintings. The Rococo additionally played an important role in theatre. In the book The Rococo, it is written that there was no other culture which “has produced a wittier, more elegant, and teasing dialogue full of elusive and camouflaging language and gestures, refined feelings and subtle criticism” than Rococo theatre, especially that of France.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Rococo started to fall out of fashion, and it was largely supplanted by the Neoclassic style. In 1835 the Dictionary of the French Academy stated that the word Rococo“usually covers the kind of ornament, style and design associated with Louis XV’s reign and the beginning of that of Louis XVI”. It includes therefore, all types of art produced around the middle of the 18th century in France. The word Rococo is seen as a combination of the French rocaille, meaning stone, and coquilles, meaning shell, due to reliance on these objects as motifs of decoration. The term Rococo may also be interpreted as a combination of the word “barocco” (an irregularly shaped pearl, possibly the source of the word “baroque”) and the French “rocaille” (a popular form of garden or interior ornamentation using shells and pebbles), and may be used to describe the refined and fanciful style that became fashionable in parts of Europe during the eighteenth century. Owing to Rococo love of shell-like curves and focus on decorative arts, some critics used the term to derogatively imply that the style was frivolous or merely modish. When the term was first used in English in about 1836, it was a colloquialism meaning “old-fashioned”. As a matter of fact, the style received harsh criticism, and was seen by some to be superficial and of poor taste, especially when compared to neoclassicism; despite this, it has been praised for its aesthetic qualities, and since the mid-19th century, the term has been accepted by art historians. While there is still some debate about the historical significance of the style to art in general, Rococo is now widely recognized as a major period in the development of European art.
Rococo developed first in the decorative arts and interior design. Louis XIV’s succession brought a change in the court artists and general artistic fashion. By the end of the king’s long reign, rich Baroque designs were giving way to lighter elements with more curves and natural patterns. These elements are obvious in the architectural designs of Nicolas Pineau. During the Régence, court life moved away from Versailles and this artistic change became well established, first in the royal palace and then throughout French high society. The delicacy and playfulness of Rococo designs is often seen as perfectly in tune with the excesses of Louis XV’s reign.
The 1730s represented the height of Rococo development in France. The style had spread beyond architecture and furniture to painting and sculpture, exemplified by the works of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. Rococo still maintained the Baroque taste for complex forms and intricate patterns, but by this point, it had begun to integrate a variety of diverse characteristics, including a taste for Oriental designs and asymmetric compositions.
The Rococo style spread with French artists and engraved publications. It was readily received in the Catholic parts of Germany, Bohemia, and Austria, where it was merged with the lively German Baroque traditions. German Rococo was applied with enthusiasm to churches and palaces, particularly in the south, while Frederician Rococo developed in the Kingdom of Prussia. Architects often draped their interiors in clouds of fluffy white stucco. In Italy, the late Baroque styles of Borromini and Guarini set the tone for Rococo in Turin, Venice, Naples and Sicily, while the arts in Tuscany and Rome remained more wedded to Baroque.
In Great Britain, Rococo was always thought of as the “French taste” and was never widely adopted as an architectural style, although its influence was strongly felt in such areas as silverwork, porcelain, and silks, and Thomas Chippendale transformed British furniture design through his adaptation and refinement of the style. William Hogarth helped develop a theoretical foundation for Rococo beauty. Though not intentionally referencing the movement, he argued in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) that the undulating lines and S-curves prominent in Rococo were the basis for grace and beauty in art or nature (unlike the straight line or the circle in Classicism). The development of Rococo in Great Britain is considered to have been connected with the revival of interest in Gothic architecture early in the 18th century.
The beginning of the end for Rococo came in the early 1760s as figures like Voltaire and Jacques-François Blondel began to voice their criticism of the superficiality and degeneracy of the art. Blondel decried the “ridiculous jumble of shells, dragons, reeds, palm-trees and plants” in contemporary interiors. By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassical artists like Jacques Louis David. In Germany, late 18th century Rococo was ridiculed as Zopf und Perücke (“pigtail and periwig”), and this phase is sometimes referred to as Zopfstil. Rococo remained popular in the provinces and in Italy, until the second phase of neoclassicism, “Empire style”, arrived with Napoleonic governments and swept Rococo away.
There was a renewed interest in the Rococo style between 1820 and 1870. The British were among the first to revive the “Louis XIV style” as it was miscalled at first, and paid inflated prices for second-hand Rococo luxury goods that could scarcely be sold in Paris. But prominent artists like Eugène Delacroix and patrons like Empress Eugénie also rediscovered the value of grace and playfulness in art and design.
Rococo in different artistic modes
Furniture and decorative objects
The lighthearted themes and intricate designs of Rococo presented themselves best at a more intimate scale than the imposing Baroque architecture and sculpture. It is not surprising, then, that French Rococo art was at home indoors. Metalwork, porcelain figures and especially furniture rose to new pre-eminence as the French upper classes sought to outfit their homes in the now fashionable style.
Rococo style took pleasure in asymmetry, a taste that was new to European style. This practice of leaving elements unbalanced for effect is called contraste.
During the Rococo period, furniture was lighthearted, physically and visually. The idea of furniture had evolved to a symbol of status and took on a role in comfort and versatility. Furniture could be easily moved around for gatherings, and many specialized forms came to be such as the fauteuil chair, the voyeuse chair, and the berger en gondola. Changes in design of these chairs ranges from cushioned detached arms, lengthening of the cushioned back (also known as “hammerhead”) and a loose seat cushion. Furniture was also freestanding, instead of being anchored by the wall, to accentuate the lighthearted atmosphere and versatility of each piece. Mahogany was widely used in furniture construction due to its strength, resulting in the absence of the stretcher as seen on many chairs of the time. Also, the use of mirrors hung above mantels became ever more popular in light of the development of unblemished glass.
In a full-blown Rococo design, like the Table d’appartement (c. 1730), by German designer J. A. Meissonnier, working in Paris (illustration, below), any reference to tectonic form is gone: even the marble slab top is shaped. Apron, legs, stretcher have all been seamlessly integrated into a flow of opposed c-scrolls and “rocaille.” The knot (noeud) of the stretcher shows the asymmetrical “contraste” that was a Rococo innovation.
Most widely admired and displayed in the “minor” and decorative arts its detractors claimed that its tendency to depart from or obscure traditionally recognised forms and structures rendered it unsuitable for larger scale projects and disqualified it as a fully architectural style.
Dynasties of Parisian ébénistes, some of them German-born, developed a style of surfaces curved in three dimensions (bombé), where matched veneers (marquetry temporarily being in eclipse) orvernis martin japanning was effortlessly complemented by gilt-bronze (“ormolu”) mounts: Antoine Gaudreau, Charles Cressent, Jean-Pierre Latz, Jean-François Oeben, Bernard II van Risamburghare the outstanding names.
French designers like François de Cuvilliés, Nicholas Pineau and Bartolomeo Rastrelli exported Parisian styles in person to Munich and Saint Petersburg, while the German Juste-Aurèle Meissonier found his career at Paris. The guiding spirits of the Parisian rococo were a small group of marchands-merciers, the forerunners of modern decorators, led by Simon-Philippe Poirier.
In French furniture the style remained somewhat more reserved, since the ornaments were mostly of wood, or, after the fashion of wood-carving, less robust and naturalistic and less exuberant in the mixture of natural with artificial forms of all kinds (e.g. plant motives, stalactitic representations, grotesques, masks, implements of various professions, badges, paintings, precious stones).
British Rococo tended to be more restrained. Thomas Chippendale’s furniture designs kept the curves and feel, but stopped short of the French heights of whimsy. The most successful exponent of British Rococo was probably Thomas Johnson, a gifted carver and furniture designer working in London in the mid-18th century.
The word ‘Rococo’ is derived from the French “rocaille”, a word used to describe the rock and shell work of the Versailles grottoes. Many pieces of carved furniture dating from the 18th century—in particular, mirror frames—depict rocks, shells, and dripping water in their composition, frequently in association with Chinese figures and pagodas.
Rococo architecture, as mentioned above, was a lighter, more graceful, yet also more elaborate version of Baroque architecture, which was ornate and austere. Whilst the styles were similar, there are some notable differences between both Rococo and Baroque architecture, one of them being symmetry, since Rococo emphasised the asymmetry of forms, whilst Baroque was the opposite. The styles, despite both being richly decorated, also had different themes; the Baroque, for instance, was more serious, placing an emphasis on religion, and was often characterized by Christian themes (as a matter of fact, the Baroque began in Rome as a response to the Protestant Reformation); Rococo architecture was an 18th-century, more secular, adaptation of the Baroque which was characterized by more light-hearted and jocular themes. Other elements belonging to the architectural style of Rococo include numerous curves and decorations, as well as the usage of pale colours.
There are numerous examples of Rococo buildings as well as architects. Amongst the most famous include the Catherine Palace, in Russia, the Queluz National Palace in Portugal, theAugustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces, Brühl, the Chinese House (Potsdam) the Charlottenburg Palace in Germany, as well as elements of the Château de Versailles in France. Architects who were renowned for their constructions using the style include Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian architect who worked in Russia and who was noted for his lavish and opulent works, Philip de Lange, who worked in both Danish and Dutch Rococo architecture, or Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann, who worked in the late Baroque style and who contributed to the reconstruction of the city of Dresden, in Germany.
Rococo architecture also brought significant changes to the building of edifices, placing an emphasis on privacy rather than the grand public majesty of Baroque architecture, as well as improving the structure of buildings in order to create a more healthy environment.
Solitude Palace in Stuttgart and Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum, the Bavarian church of Wies and Sanssouci in Potsdam are examples of how Rococo made its way into European architecture.
In those Continental contexts where Rococo is fully in control, sportive, fantastic, and sculptured forms are expressed with abstract ornament using flaming, leafy or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps and flourishes and broken curves; intimate Rococo interiors suppress architectonic divisions of architrave, frieze and cornice for the picturesque, the curious, and the whimsical, expressed in plastic materials like carved wood and above all stucco (as in the work of the Wessobrunner School). Walls, ceiling, furniture, and works of metal and porcelain present a unified ensemble. The Rococo palette is softer and paler than the rich primary colors and dark tonalities favored in Baroque tastes.
A few anti-architectural hints rapidly evolved into full-blown Rococo at the end of the 1720s and began to affect interiors and decorative arts throughout Europe. The richest forms of German Rococo are in Catholic Germany (illustration, above).
Rococo plasterwork by immigrant Italian-Swiss artists like Bagutti and Artari is a feature of houses by James Gibbs, and the Franchini brothers working in Ireland equalled anything that was attempted in Great Britain.
Inaugurated in some rooms in Versailles, it unfolds its magnificence in several Parisian buildings (especially the Hôtel Soubise). In Germany, French and German artists (Cuvilliés, Neumann, Knobelsdorff, etc.) effected the dignified equipment of the Amalienburg near Munich, and the castles of Würzburg, Potsdam,Charlottenburg, Brühl, Bruchsal, Solitude (Stuttgart), and Schönbrunn.
In Great Britain, one of Hogarth’s set of paintings forming a melodramatic morality tale titled Marriage à la Mode, engraved in 1745, shows the parade rooms of a stylish London house, in which the only rococo is in plasterwork of the salon’s ceiling. Palladian architecture is in control. Here, on the Kentian mantel, the crowd of Chinese vases and mandarins are satirically rendered as hideous little monstrosities, and the Rococo wall clock is a jumble of leafy branches.
In general, Rococo is an entirely interior style, because the wealthy and aristocratic moved back to Paris from Versailles. Paris was already built up and so rather than engaging in major architectural additions, they simply renovated the interiors of the existing buildings.
Though Rococo originated in the purely decorative arts, the style showed clearly in painting. These painters used delicate colors and curving forms, decorating their canvases with cherubs and myths of love. Portraiture was also popular among Rococo painters. Some works show a sort of naughtiness or impurity in the behavior of their subjects, showing the historical trend of departing away from the Baroque’s church/state orientation. Landscapes were pastoral and often depicted the leisurely outings of aristocratic couples.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) is generally considered the first great Rococo painter. He had a great influence on later painters, including François Boucher (1703–1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), two masters of the late period. Even Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727–1788) delicate touch and sensitivity are reflective of the Rococo spirit. Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s (1755–1842) style also shows a great deal of Rococo influence, particularly in her portraits of Marie Antoinette. Other Rococo painters include: Jean François de Troy (1679–1752), Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1685–1745), his two sons Louis-Michel van Loo (1707–1771) and Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (1719–1795), his younger brother Charles-André van Loo (1705–1765), and Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743). Both Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), were important French painters of the Rococo era who are considered Anti-Rococo.
During the Rococo era Portraiture was an important component of painting in all countries, but especially in Great Britain, where the leaders wereWilliam Hogarth (1697–1764), in a blunt realist style, and Francis Hayman (1708–1776), Angelica Kauffman who was Swiss, (1741–1807),Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), in more flattering styles influenced by Antony Van Dyck (1599–1641). While in France during the Rococo era Jean-Baptiste Greuze was the favorite painter of Denis Diderot (1713–1785), and Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788), and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun were highly accomplished Portrait painters and History painters.