At Large  March 3, 2023  Anna Claire Mauney

What is The Rococo?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera, c. 1718–1719. Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

Early eighteenth-century France saw the emergence of Rococo style—an offshoot of the Baroque movement. Also called late baroque, Rococo artwork, architecture, and decor maintained the exuberance and theatricality of the Baroque but diverged with its use of asymmetry, warm-toned pastels, chinoiserie, and excessive florals.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Bernard II van Risamburgh, Secretaire, c. 1737. Münchner Residenz, Germany.

After the death of King Louis the XIV, or the Sun King, the style dominated France. A reaction against the more codified, political nature of the previous court’s art, the new style quickly spread from elite circles to the bourgeoisie adjacents. Before long, it was also popular throughout Europe.

The word Rococo comes from a play on the term rocaille, an Italian Renaissance method of decoration. This style involved the application of pebbles, shells, and other natural objects via cement to outdoor leisure spaces such as grottos and fountains.

Paintings often incorporated iconography and mythology to achieve a sense of exuberant fantasy. Antoine Watteau popularized this strategy within his depiction of open-air festivities. This became a genre known as fête galante.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

François Boucher, Diana Leaving Her Bath, 1742. Louvre, France. 

Playful eroticism was another staple of Rococo paintings. François Boucher created mythological and pastoral scenes that were intimate and flirtatious rather than epic.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s paintings functioned almost like puzzles. The Swing, for example, appears to be a depiction of daily, bourgeoisie life until one notices the gentleman reclining in the lower-left corner, looking straight up the swinging lady’s skirts.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767-1768. Wallace Collection.

The decline of Rococo occurred around 1770, spurred by distaste for sexual subjects and the general sense of excess. Some critics deemed the work immoral and emerging artists turned to more noble subjects and styles rooted in antiquity.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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