Rococo: Art and the Aristocratic Pursuit of Pleasure

After the death of Louis XIV the French aristocracy flocked to Paris to enjoy the pleasures of town life, and a new style of art called the Rococo came into fashion.  Characterized by soft pastel colors, and frivolous themes of love and pleasure, the Rococo style reflected the privileged and pampered lifestyle of the aristocracy.  Meanwhile, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment was spreading rapidly throughout Europe, leading to democratic revolutions in France and the United States.  The Neoclassical style emerged as a reaction to the light hearted and frivolous themes of Rococo art. Celebrating ancient exemplars of “virtue,” the Neoclassical style expressed the new values of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on logic, reason, patriotism, and virtue.

Nicolas Lancret , Concert in the Oval Salon of Pierre Crozat’s House at Montmorency, ca. 1720

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the French aristocracy abandoned Versailles and flocked to Paris, where the aristocratic “salon” became the center of social life (salon is French for “room”).  Hosted by prominent aristocratic women, salons were intimate social gatherings that provided a welcome relief from the rigid formality of court life at Versailles.  This new culture of privilege and leisure gave rise to a new style of architecture, fashion, and design known as the Rococo.  From the French word rocaille, meaning “shell,” the Rococo style is characterized by pastel colors, and delicate ornamental patterns in the shape of scrolling vines, flowers and shells.    Decorative and light-hearted, the Rococo style was a reaction against the imposing grandeur of Louis XIV’s official style of art.

Art About Art:  Living the Life of Luxury as an 18th Century Parisian Socialite (CultureMap Houston)

François Boucher, Madame Bergeret, possibly 1766
National Gallery of Art

The Rococo style affected everything from fashion, to architecture, furniture, interior design, and porcelain.  It gave birth to French haute couture, and made Paris the fashion capital of the world.  The style reflected the pampered lifestyle of the 18th century aristocracy, who, as one contemporary put it, “We really have nothing else to do but to seek pleasant sensations and feelings.”  Imagine an art based on the pastimes of celebrity debutantes like Paris Hilton and her friends!

Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, 1750 (Smarthistory)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1766

In this painting by Fragonard a well-dressed lady flirts with her lover while another lover (a Bishop) pushes her on a swing.  As the swing arcs upward, she kicks off her shoe flirtatiously, providing her secret lover with a peek up her skirt.  Diminutive and sweet, the lady is like a fairytale princess, while the lush setting evokes an enchanted garden with its feathery-soft foliage and shimmering pastel colors.

The playfully erotic subject matter makes this work typical of Rococo painting — as does the style.  While Louis XIV’s academy emphasized the virtues of disegno, Rococo painters opted for sensual appeal of Rubensque color.  The rich shimmering colors and loose brushwork of Rococo painting was intended to provide pleasure (I like to think of it as “eye candy”) rather than moral or intellectual enrichment.

Fragonard, The Swing (Smarthistory)

Francois Boucher, Toilette of Venus, 1751
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this painting by François Boucher, the King’s mistress Madame Pompadour is portrayed as Venus, luxuriating in rich silks and pearls.  Rococo painters were like the paparazzi of their day, capturing the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and catering to their tastes.

Antoine Watteau, A Return from Cythera, 1717-1719

The French Royal Academy categorized paintings by genre:  there were history paintings (which included scenes from the bible), mythological scenes, and genres scenes (scenes of everyday life).  This painting by Watteau did not fit into any of the existing genres, so they invented a new one!  The new genre was called a fête galante, and it is similar to a bacchanal, only ladies and gentlemen of the aristocracy play the parts of the Olympian gods.

In this scene, we see a group of fashionable aristocrats who have spent the day on the Island of Cythera paying homage to Venus, the goddess of love. There is a wistful mood as the lovers prepare to depart.  Some have already made their way down to the ferry that will take them home, while others are still absorbed in their reverie as they whisper “sweet nothings” to one another.

Typical of Rococo painting, Watteau’s figures are diminutive and graceful rather than grand and heroic, and the handling of paint is shimmering and lushly colored, recalling the sensual pleasures of Rubenesque color that was frowned upon by academic doctrine.

Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera (Smarthistory)

The Enlightenment
The Rococo quickly went out of style with the rise of the enlightenment, and a new demand for “seriousness” in art.  Listen to this Smarthistory conversation:

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Meeting (Smarthistory)


Web Resources:

18th Century France:  the Rococo and Watteau, National Gallery of Art

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