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Related: 1700s - art

Odalisque c. 1745 - François Boucher

Anti-Rococo: William Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode, London, 1745 (National Gallery, London)


The Rococo style developed as a relief from formalities of Late Baroque interiors. It probably received its name among young assistants in the atelier of the neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, who used the word whimsically to designate the old shellwork style (style rocaille) of the ancien régime , which had been dowdy since about 1775.

To sketch the career of Rococo briefly, it began as a French style of interior decoration during the Régence that followed Louis XIV's death, 1715 - 1723: the "Régence style." Versailles was temporarily in eclipse, and French power and fashion centered around the court of the Regent, Philippe d'Orléans, at the Palais-Royal Paris. A Late Baroque designer for the Court, who was influential in starting this transitional "freeing-up" phase was Jean Bérain (1638 - 1711). An early departure of the new style was the fashion for "Bizarre pattern" woven silks during the first decade of the century, where the large repeated medallion elements of Baroque silks were replaced by abstract and Orientalizing patterns with a diagonal movement.

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 ).

The beginning of the end of Rococo occurred in the early 1760s, when a handful of French students were experimenting with classical styles at the French Academy in Rome, a style taken up in avant-garde salons in Paris from the mid-1760s, as the Gout Grec ("Greek taste"), but which made no appearance at Court until the new king Louis XVI and his fashion-loving Queen came to the throne in 1771. By 1780, Rococo was passé in metropolitan French circles. It remained popular in the provinces ("French provincial") and in Italy, until the second, archaeological phase of neoclassicism, "Empire style," swept the Rococo away.

Rococo in England was always thought of as the "French taste" and was largely confined to silver, ceramics and furnishings. But about 1830, the English were among the first to revive the "Louis Fourteenth style" as it was miscalled at first, and paid inflated prices for second-hand goods that could scarcely be sold in Paris.

Francois Boucher, Le Dejeuner, 1739, Louvre:As its effect was less pronounced on the exterior face of architecture than on the disposing and scale and decoration of interiors, French Rococo was at home indoors (illustration, left). The mood of Boucher's picture of 1739, and details in it, epitomize several aspects of Rococo:

"Galante." The Galante style was the equivalent of Rococo in music, too, between Baroque and Classical, and it is not easy to define in words. "Courtly" would be pretentious in this upper bourgeois circle, yet the man's gesture is gallant. The stylish but cozy interior, the informal decorous intimacy of people's manners, the curious and delightful details everywhere one turned one's eye, the luxury of sipping chocolate: all are galante.

"Contraste." Rococo adopted a pleasure in asymmetry, a taste that was new to European style. The gilt-brass wall-lights balance one another, but each is elaborately asymmetrical, composed of abstract leaf and rocaille forms. The wall clock on its bracket, a well-known design by Charles Cressent is in a gilt-brass case filled with contraste in its details. Its theme: "Love conquers Time," with a Cupid atop the clockcase and Time with his scythe, collapsed below.

"Chinoiserie." Rococo taste enjoyed the exotic character of Chinese arts, and imitated them in wares produced in France. In the etagère (case of shelves) to the left of the chimneypiece are decorative tea things above a seated mandarin; they might have been imported, or they might have been European chinoiserie. (Wider aspects of fanciful European views of the East are discussed at the entry Orient.)

Design for a table by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, Paris ca 1730In a full-blown Rococo design, like the Table d'appartement ca 1730, by the German designer J.-A. Meissonnier, working in Paris (illustration, right), any reference to tectonic form has been blown away: 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.

In England, 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 Saloon'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.

The Rococo style was readily received in the Catholic parts of Germany and in Bohemia and Austria, where it was even further exaggerated; it remained in favor until the 1780s, maybe even longer. In Italy tendencies in the Late Baroque of Borromini and Guarini set the tone for Rococo in Turin, Venice, Naples and Sicily, while arts in Tuscany and Rome remained more wedded to the Baroque.

The small and the light, sweeps and flourishes, caught the public taste; in the interiors the architectonic yielded to the picturesque, the curious, and the whimsical. There developed a style for elegant parlours, dainty sitting-rooms and boudoirs, drawing-rooms and libraries, in which walls, ceiling, furniture, and works of metal and porcelain present one ensemble of sportive, fantastic, and sculptured forms. The horizontal lines are almost completely superseded by curves and interruptions, the vertical varied at least by knots; everywhere shell-like curves appear to a cusp; the natural construction of the walls is concealed behind thick stucco-framework; on the ceiling perhaps a glimpse of Olympus enchants the view— all executed in a beautiful white or in bright colour tones in contrast to the more somber colors of the Baroque period.

The sculptor Bouchardon represented Cupid engaged in carving his darts of love from the club of Hercules; this serves as an excellent symbol of the Rococo style— the demigod is transformed into the soft child, the bone-shattering club becomes the heart-scathing arrows, just as marble is so freely replaced by stucco. In this connection, the French sculptors, Robert le Lorrain, Michel Clodion, and Pigalle may be mentioned in passing.

For small plastic figures of gypsum, clay, biscuit, porcelain (Sèvres, Meissen), the gay Rococo is not unsuitable; in wood, iron, and royal metal, it has created some valuable works. However, confessionals, pulpits, altars, and even facades lead ever more into the territory of the architectonic, which does not easily combine with the curves of Rococo, the light and the petty, with forms whose whence and wherefore baffle inquiry.

Solitude Palace (Stuttgart, Germany) - a masterpiece of south-german secular Rococo architectureEven as mere decoration on the walls of the interiors the new forms could maintain their ground only for a few decades. In France the sway of the Rococo practically ceases with Oppenord (died 1742) and Meissonier (died 1750). Inaugurated in some rooms in the Palace of 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), Schönbrunn, etc.

In France 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). As elements of the beautiful France retained, to a greater extent than Germany, the unity of the whole scheme of decoration and the symmetry of its parts.

This style needs not only decorators, goldsmiths, and other technicians, but also painters. The French painters of this period reflect most truly the moral depression dating from the time of Louis XIV, even the most deliberated among them confining themselves to social portraits of high society and depicting "gallant festivals", with their informal frivolous, theatrically or modishly garbed society. The "beautiful sensuality" is effected by masterly technique, especially in the colouring, and to a great extent by quite immoral licenses or mythological nudities as in loose or indelicate romances. As for Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), the very titles of his works--e.g. Conversation, Breakfast in the Open Air, Rural Pleasures, Italian or French Comedians, Embarkment for the Island of Cythera— indicate the spirit and tendency of his art. Add thereto the figures in fashionable costume slim in head, throat, and feet, in unaffected pose, represented amid enchanting, rural scenery, painted in the finest colours, and we have a picture of the high society of the period which beheld Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. François Boucher (1703-1770) is the most celebrated painter of ripe Rococo. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rococo [Oct 2004]

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