1720 – 1760
How to identify Rococo art?
1. Light-hearted depiction of domestic life in the upper class home (e.g. Le Dejeuner, or The Breakfast, by Francois Boucher)
2. Elegantly dressed aristocrats at play, usually in pastoral landscapes (e.g. The Lesson of Love by Jean-Antoine Watteau)
3. Look for courting, beauty, romance, fun, playfulness and sexual symbols (e.g. The Stolen Kiss by Jean-Honore Fragonard)
4. Mythological themes (e.g. Diana after the Hunt by François Boucher)
5. Pastel colours, i.e. soft and light shades, are characteristic of the period (e.g. A Lady in a Garden taking Coffee with some Children by Nicolas Lancret)
6. Look for cherubs hovering around the painting – chubby, nude male babies with wings (e.g. The Toilette of Venus by François Boucher)
How Rococo art got its name?
Rococo is a portmanteau word combining both “rocaille” (French for “shell”) and “barocco”, Italian for Baroque, the art style preceding the Rococo period. Rococo art extensively feature shell-shaped curves and wave-like motifs, particularly in its sumptuous furniture design and interior décor.
What gave rise to Rococo art movement? and where?
The absolute monarch King Louis XIV died in 1715 and although he had been ruling France with unchallenged autocracy, as a micromanaging control freak for several decades, he also left behind his nation as the predominant superpower – an economic and military powerhouse. Louis XIV led his country victoriously through numerous wars and by the end of his reign France had long replaced Spain as the continental power, following Spain’s tragic defeat in the Franko-Spanish war as well as the Thirty Years’ War. Economically thriving, even the French peasant class had more privileges than peasants in other European countries. A case in point: forty percent of the farmland was owned by them.
Being a superpower, culturally France had an international status similar to USA in recent times. French culture had been heavily influencing other countries around the globe. It’s not surprising since Louis XIV turned France into a beacon of art, fashion and culture. French trends and fads were commonly followed around the world. Just like America introduced to the rest of the world Italian pizza, Japanese sushi, Cuban salsa dancing and Chinese kung fu martial art, France, as a cultural superpower, imported little known ideas then exported them to the rest of Europe during the 18th century. For example, they popularized the Panniers, a “side hoops” trend that originally appeared in Spain, which expanded out women’s skirts at the sides but leaving the front and back flat. Similarly, they started the necktie (la cravat) craze, after they saw it adorning the Croatian solider uniform. You might have noticed that the word “cravat” originates from the word Croat (French for Croatian). (350 years later, business men in mid-summer meetings are still choking on their ties, thanks to the French!) Now that you feel amazed and in awe at France’s enviable global position, as you should, it’s time to learn that the next King’s utter fiascoes brought an end to the French political and military domination. As if history is playing a cruel joke on France, after Louis XIV’s seventy-two prosperous years, being the longest reigning monarch of any French or European ruler of all time and one of the greatest French kings, ironically he was directly succeeded by the notorious Louis XV, considered one of the worst French kings ever, who had the second longest reign in French history (that is after the great Louis XIV). Read on to see how Louis XV’s legacy contrasted with his predecessor’s but also gave us the Rococo art.
Politics and Economy
In the early 1700s, New France (Nouvelle-France) was a very large part of French North America. In modern USA, it included French Louisiana, La Louisiane française, which was an extensive colony that included Alabama, Mississippi as well as Louisiana. Also, the French controlled the most developed colony in what later became Canada, making up most of today’s eastern Canada and they aspired to drive the British enemy out, so all of Canada would be French. However Louis XV viewed Canada as an insignificant colony, so the military and financial support he dispatched was always limited, and easily swallowed by a corrupt colonial government. He favoured concentrating his reinforcements on battling the British army in Germany and India. While Louis XV didn’t find Canada important enough, the British were increasing their military might to take over the French territories.
Eventually, France was involved in a brutal war, the Seven Years’ War, that ended in a humiliating defeat and in its aftermath, Louis XV finalized the Treaty of Paris (1763), signing over to other governments almost all French North American territories and in the process, they lost Canada, French Louisiana, and also most of India. The treaty’s cession of Quebec meant permanently losing all of Canada, and other territories around the globe, to the old adversary, Britain. Having lost New France in that 1763 treaty, the French had no territories left in North America except a group of tiny islands (Saint Pierre and Miquelon) off the eastern coast of Canada that they actually still control today. It’s worth noting that ceding French territories to the British cemented Britain’s rise as a great superpower in the following century and similarly other cessions aided the emergence of Prussia (the former kingdom of Germany) as a major power.
Meanwhile, in the separate and secretive Treaty of Fontainebleau (signed in 1762, revealed in 1764), Louis XV ceded Louisiana to Spain. He gave up Louisiana to his cousin, King Charles III of Spain, as a hush-hush “thank you” gift to reduce the pain after the Spanish defeat following their late entry into the Seven Years’ War, in support of France, through which, they lost Florida to Great Britain. Probably, this arrangement wouldn’t have made his predecessor Louis XIV royally joyful, in whose honour Louisiana was named in 1682. In brief, the king’s failed policy in Europe and elsewhere cost France her political clout in international affairs. Besides losing territories like those in Canada and Louisiana, which highlighted his weak diplomacy, also his extravagant spending brought the country near bankruptcy, with huge sums of money spent on unnecessary extravaganza besides war.
On the home front, France had the highest population of any country in Europe, more than 20 million people at the beginning of the 18th century. Population was rapidly increasing every year due to diminishing epidemics and lower than ever mortality rates. The constant growth of French population added pressure on the available food supplies. It was not a Feudalistic society anymore. That was long replaced by Capitalism. However much of the Feudalistic legacy lived on through the social structure of three classes (estates). The First Estate was the Clergy (100,000 people). They represented 0.5% of the French population and owned 10 percent of the land. They paid minimal taxes or no taxes at all. The clergy themselves raised taxes on the land they owned and they led more than comfortable lifestyles, most of whom were originally from noble families (particularly the high clergy like Bishops and those in abbots), which was another distressing fact of life for the common folk. The Second Estate was the aristocracy (400,000 people). They made about 2% of the French population and owned 30 percent of the land. The monarchy always gave the aristocracy special favours and exempted them from taxes. Meanwhile, they could tax peasants in addition to collecting rent from those of them who lived on their farmland. The nobility had exclusive rights to hunting and fishing that others, such as the peasants, were never granted. They had many other special privileges passed down over the centuries that made them very unpopular people in France. The Third Estate was everybody else, i.e. the common folk who were mainly the peasants but also included the labourers, merchants and artisans (manual workers). They are the working class who paid most of the taxes in France. While just under 3% of the French were clergy and nobility, the commoners represented 97% of the population. 90% of whom were peasants who lived at or below subsistence levels, earning only enough to feed their families. Even though they were not serfs as they were in the Feudalist age, and as mentioned above, up to 40% of the land was owned by them, they were still burdened by many types of taxes. In spite of bread being the main staple of the French diet, they couldn’t even own bread ovens which belonged only to members of the noble class. If you don’t belong to the aristocracy or clergy, you lived in very harsh conditions.
Taxes frustratingly kept rising through the mid 1700s, an issue considered among the principal reasons in bringing about the French Revolution. The monarch collected unbearable and oppressive taxes from the common folk while reluctant to tax the noble families. France was sliding into poverty while the monarchy was engaged in extremely excessive spending and the aristocrats were content with the absolutist rule that favoured them. Aristocracy as an elite social class, an exclusive club you had to be born into, was prevalent in most of Europe, but aristocrats of France, in particular, were reputed to be the snobs of the snobs. Their hard daily lives included dancing, hunting, drinking, gambling and a whole lot of gossiping. The king was aware of the crises brewing in his nation and the growing anti-monarchy sentiment and his terrible reputation hastened the decline of the prestige of the monarchy and inflamed the opposition. He earned the reputation of being lazy, indecisive and selfish – a ladies’ man who abandoned himself to pleasure and debauchery. Just like many of today’s politicians who ignore the harsh lives of the working class, unless they rise up and revolt, the king was more interested in his own pleasures than running the affairs of his nation. The apathy of the unpopular King caused a series of political and economic failures, and none of the misfortunes moved him into action as France was losing her global position. A combination of wrong decisions, bad luck, difficult crises and mismanagement ruined his reputation and his legacy forever. His reign is widely considered a failure. The reputation of the French monarchy was beyond repair and that ultimately instigated the anger of the people, who eventually rose up in the French revolution.
The people’s anger was not solely towards the king (the final one, King Louis XVI). The decadent era was also symbolised by another figure: King Louis XVI’s wife Marie Antoinette. It all came to a close when the merciless blade of the guillotine came down in the revolution, ending the lives of many aristocrats, besides King Louis XVI and his wife. Three decades after the Rococo period receded, the French Revolution shook France and shattered its class system. It became the great European revolution of the 18th century that shaped our modern political world. The French Revolution heralded a new era, with no monarchy, no aristocracy, closing the final chapter of the ancient regime (ancien régime) that lasted more than a thousand years. It caused a major cultural shift, not only in visual art but also in fashion and hairstyles. Even shoes changed radically. (A side benefit of the revolution: All traces of French men in wigs and four-inch high-heeled shoes with glittery buckles were gone.)
To understand how things went so wrong before the Revolution, let’s go back to the Rococo era king (Louix XV) and apply the old sexist French wisdom: cherchez la femme (“look for the woman”). Behind this not-exactly-great man, there is a mistress. For hundreds of years, in the European monarchy, being a mistress was a career opportunity; find a wealthy man, an aristocrat, or even better, try to seduce the King himself, that’s if you’re lucky enough to attend events like royal balls. If you so decide on this career, in exchange for keeping the wealthy man sensually satisfied at all times, in an exclusive affair on your part, your living expenses and accommodation will all be provided. If you’re a royal mistress, your accommodation could be a mansion with servants. In the case of Kings, you’ll be competing with other mistresses, but your hard work can lead you to become the official and favourite mistress, “maîtresse en titre.” (Thankfully these jobs have largely vanished because most women today prefer to get educated and earn their own money rather than be domestically kept as mistresses.) The practice of royalty keeping mistresses was an open secret and sometimes the influence of a mistress crossed the boundaries of the bedroom. For any French king, it had been a centuries-old tradition to have a bunch of mistresses and it was one way to show their potency and virility. You prove your manhood by the number of mistresses you kept. But Louis XV did not just keep old traditions, he was a notorious womanizer which was an obsession that occupied most of his time and left him too busy for his political responsibilities. He spent his time between mistresses and courtesans (exclusive upper class prostitutes for the nobility). Historically, Louis XV is not remembered by grand achievements but by the impressive number of mistresses he had, among whom are Madame du Barry and the notorious Madame de Pompadour.
Madame de Pompadour met Louis XV at a masked ball celebrating a wedding in 1745, then she became his latest royal mistress, but after enduring many sleepless nights of arduous work, she was promoted to become his “chief mistress,” earning the official title “maîtresse-en-titre.” Over the years, she turned into more than a mistress, becoming his advisor and confidante, in a role similar to a prime minister without the title. She engaged in a physical relationship with him for 5 years but during those few years, she developed full domination over the king, and although their relationship turned platonic, from 1750 till she died in 1764, they were still very close. Later she would even personally select and provide the young women for his own pleasure. In spite of her non-noble birth, she arrived at the top rank in the palace next to the married King, much to the chagrin of other jealous mistresses. The weak monarch let his mistress take control over him and she subsequently and indirectly reigned over the whole kingdom. His interests were not particularly in politics. He enjoyed hunting, feasting, watching concerts and theatrical performances and attending opulent balls. But above all women were still his utmost passion. The French were in need of a monarch who could be a victorious warmonger but all they got was a chronic whoremonger. He led a profligate, unrestrained life with extravagant spending, while the nation is close to bankruptcy.
Tucked away in a corner of Versailles was a high-class private bordello, called Le Parc aux Cerfs (“stag park” or “deer park”), that was full of young available women just to serve the King’s carnal desires. Their young age meant they are likely inexperienced and therefore disease-free. That harem was always full and the women were procured by his favourite mistress. Morals aside, how despicable is it to use the taxpayers’ money during abysmal economic conditions for maintaining a whole brothel encapsulated in his lavish mansion just for the King’s personal use and enjoyment?! Louis XV continued to have as many crises as sexual partners, and rumours of his lecherous behaviour were spreading. The public was aware that the King had been failing to take his responsibilities seriously and that Madame de Pompadour was taking charge of the government affairs. Her intervention was widely blamed for what resulted in diplomatic disasters and major colonial losses, nevertheless, it is the failed politician, Louis XV himself, who deserves most of the blame.
The empowered mistress took unprecedented authority by meddling into France’s foreign policy. One of the first political failures that resulted from her acting as a behind-the-scenes politician was the ill-fated alliance that led to France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The Seven Year’s War involved many nations, making it one of the largest pre-20th century worldwide wars, considered by many historians, and also by Winston Churchill, as the first world war. Through the territorial gains following that war, Britain became the leading colonial power. From that perspective, it’s not easy to miss the unintentional role a French mistress played in securing Britain’s path towards becoming a superpower.
She became so powerful that she removed from office those who she disliked or those who criticized her actions. She sponsored many Rococo artists and nourished in Louis XV the passion for art. Despite the political disasters and her fatal influence on French diplomacy, she maintained entertainment around the palace with planned events such as royal parties and theatrical plays. She was also well known in the fashionable world of Paris. Her sponsorship of art made Louis XV’s name associated with French art around the world, and France retained her predominance in art and culture. It is remarkable that the self-empowered mistress gained such significant political and cultural influence. Similarly to Louis XIV of the Baroque period who had commissioned many portraits of himself and embraced French art and fashion, she took a similar role and commissioned several portraits by one of her favourite Rococo artists, Francois Boucher. Like a Hollywood actress’ final say over her portrayal on a magazine cover, she had total control of how artists depicted her. Occasionally, the commissioned artist would start anew her portrait if she was not pleased by her half-painted image. She poses in her portraits not as a ferocious femme fatale but as an accomplished woman with great experience and undeniable importance.
Louis XIV’s great legacy is forever associated with French predominance, while Louis XV’s name, for most people, is mainly associated with furniture! The charming Louis XV furniture (aka Rococo furniture) was a style that emerged during his reign producing some of the most sought-after furniture of all time.
The prophetic quote “Après nous, le déluge” – “After us, the deluge [flood]” – was attributed to King Louis XV and sometimes Madame Pompadour. The deluge premonition became true and there was no aversion of the impending political, financial and social collapse. Chaos engulfed the country only 15 years after Louis XV’s death in the French revolution against the monarchy and aristocracy.
Art and Culture
After the death of Louis XIV (1715) and with a new king, Louis XV, there was a new zeitgeist and a fresh taste for art. The French had been setting the trends, and while Baroque art originated in Rome, Rococo art originated in France in the 1720s, then spread across Europe where they was a fascination with French art and culture. The French set the standards for what’s en vogue, in a total monopoly that made France the centre of fashion in the 18th century. But it went out of control in this very fashion-conscious society where they braved discomfort and sometimes pain pursuing absurdly flamboyant fashion. Déjà vu? Yes, because you still see painful fashion every day when you walk the streets of any major city. Consumption of luxury was booming and the nobility sought status symbols in their ludicrous and laughable styles. Despite all the efforts of critics and caricaturists of the Rococo era, ridiculous fashions prevailed. Rococo art had an aristocratic artistic taste, hence it was embraced by citizens of other countries who had been imitating French aristocrats. The growing upper middle-class (the rich of non-noble ancestry known as the bourgeoisie) also started imitating the French aristocracy (noble by birth) in fashion and lifestyle, whose appeal and influence was equivalent to today’s celebrities. Perhaps Rococo paintings were that era’s tabloid photographs meant to leave an impression on the gawkers, so they’d mutter to themselves, “aha, that’s how the rich live!”
People’s relationship with extreme fashion has not changed, but in our modern time-starved society we do not have as much time available, as was the case for French aristocrats in the 1700s. If you are a modern wealthy woman, you can very quickly adorn yourself with high-end branded apparel like Louis Vuitton, Givenchy or Christian Dior; you effortlessly slap on a dress or jeans and slip into casual yet expensive shoes – a little makeup, a few accessories and call it an outfit. Even if today’s women are not comfortable, they can easily pretend to be comfortable in their own styles of choice. Back in the 1700s, fashion was a much more complicated process. French aristocrats did not work, and men and women equally took part in the absurd trends of the day. Fashion was not for everybody, only the wealthy. For those living in opulence and luxury, plenty of time and money could be spent, so they’d stay “à la mode”. Women would happily dedicate many hours every day to their appearance, some went as far as changing their dresses four or five times a day. Dresses were getting ridiculously wide and hairstyles were growing outrageously tall. A typical woman could look up to 3 times larger than a man. Some added to their elaborate hairstyles pearls, feathers and even tiny model ships and some wore horse-hair wigs. In the department of fashion, like everything else, being competitive is only human nature, even if it meant taking on a comical look, that’s why French women’s skirts kept on getting wider. Panniers caused inconvenience for most women in public places, so much so that armless chairs had to be around for those women in giant bell-shaped dresses. Can you imagine a trip to the toilet while trapped in such a massive dress?!
The royal mistress’ patronage of the arts had never been seen before. Her well-known patronage of Rococo art made her synonymous with that art style. Later at the French Revolution, she was seen as a mere icon of Rococo frivolity and a symbol of the degenerate culture, spending money that’s not hers, the taxpayers’ money on her ravenous shopping appetite for clothes, furniture, and art. However, it’s unfair to single out only Madame de Pompadour, since all the privileged elite, those portrayed in Rococo paintings, led lives mainly funded by the backbreaking taxes collected from downtrodden peasants. Such was the ugly reality you never see in the beautiful Rococo paintings – the tragic dark side behind the light-hearted leisurely outings.
The taste of aristocrats dictated the artistic style of Rococo: As life evolved in France, more elegant homes were built. A demand arose to decorate the walls and interiors of spacious mansions and châteaux. Serious Baroque art of days past could not be fit for decorating the intimate and casual homes. House owners competed in decorating their houses, and that included commissioning paintings representing themselves flaunting their wealth, in their garments for example. The market also expanded for paintings featuring pastoral fairylands and courtship scenes.
The pre-revolutionary art of Rococo, with its shallow subject matter, offers a unique glimpse at life during the last several decades of the French upper class. It does not reflect the political and economic reality of the times, but you get to witness when life was grand and time was aplenty. It was an art movement that was not preoccupied with the working class, and you won’t find them represented in the paintings.
Rococo art was far from political, as it never carried any serious message; heck, it doesn’t even have a message. Just like critics of cheesy bubblegum pop music feel nostalgic towards older music, most probably, Rococo art critics reminisced about the good old days of great art, such as the Baroque art of Louis XIV’s era or Renaissance art. Ironically, the frivolity of the Rococo style is symptomatic of the indifference of the royalty and aristocracy who were largely silent as their nation slid downwards. It’s also ironic that while the French political dominance was vanishing before their eyes, their dominance became confined mostly in the sphere of art and culture. Rococo art was never characterized as revolutionary or great. Some of the criticism was aimed at the subject matter and how it disregarded the domestic and international circumstances, be it the fiscal fiascos and the suffering of the peasants, or the overseas political failures. Leading their luxurious lives, they wouldn’t let such issues ruin the general mood! Wrath against the aristocracy boiled under the surface and by the time the party was over (read: the French Revolution), special privileges were withdrawn from all nobility, and equality was preached among all citizens.
There is no question that the Rococo style is a true art movement, nevertheless it’s ostensible that it’s a style created to be mere eye candy, to simply please the spectators. It exemplified the French high society’s taste at the time, summed up in the words of Emilie du Châtelet, 1706-1749, aristocratic French scientist, mathematician and mistress of the famous writer Voltaire: “We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but seek pleasant sensations and feelings.”
Rococo art had no place for patriotism or piety. No place for morality, saints or heroes. Paintings were neither didactic nor devotional. Instead here is what you’re likely to find in Rococo paintings: outdoor scenes, picnics and pastoral settings, graceful lovers and game-playing, naughty behaviour with a sense of humour, a sensuous mood and veiled eroticism. You’ll find graceful lovers in amorous encounters and provocative poses, but you won’t find much that’s thought-provoking or intellectually stimulating. You won’t find paintings that will challenge you, only those that are meant to delight you – beautiful people surrounded by beautiful scenery. Often described as frivolous because it served no purpose beyond pleasing the eyes and its main raison d’être [“reason for existence”] was only decoration.
However, when you view Rococo paintings and judge the wealthy by their arrogant, lush and indulgent lifestyles in their own age of decadence, be sure to also spot the innocence of happy parents and children and the grace of elegant lovers.
In Rococo art, some culture critics saw very early “disturbing” signs of women’s sexuality spiralling out of control, particularly among some rebellious women in the aristocracy! Bear in mind that women’s slightly erotic portrayal was probably exacerbated by male painters catering to the pleasure of male aristocracy, hence women were depicted as lust objects, tempting sirens and libidinous goddesses.
During an era where France was the epitome of flamboyance, and when everything was elaborate from furniture to hairstyles, those paintings captured the ideal embodiment of the Rococo spirit where the upper classes were preoccupied with their own amusement while the common folk lived in misery and the nation kept on losing territories in places like Europe and North America. The Rococo movement illustrates all of the problems in France as they edged closer towards revolution. That art style never came back to life and the artists who were well-known Rococo painters couldn’t make it in post-Revolutionary France, since Rococo was forever a symbol of decadence. The everlasting distaste for that art style never faded. You can imagine the peasants in the violent riots during the French Revolution ransacking castles and châteaux, destroying everything in their paths including the Rococo furniture and paintings.
Rebels of a New Generation
In comparison to the preceding art style, Rococo art reflected lack of depth and its portrayal of an upper class pursuing personal amusement was in itself a reaction against the formality of the Baroque style. While Baroque art was serious, Rococo was playful. Baroque art depicted heroism, martyrs and biblical stories, but Rococo painters showed lovey-dovey themes and aristocracy at play. Larger-than-life religious or political themes were replaced with light-hearted themes revolving around fun, lovers and naughty behaviour. Baroque used dark colours, Rococo used soft and bright colours in a very optimistic “life is beautiful” ambiance. Also, unlike Baroque, Rococo art was not intellectually deep or provocative. Even the size of paintings went through a drastic change, Baroque paintings with propaganda aims (for the Church or the State) had to be large and easily visible from afar, but Rococo paintings were much smaller in order to make them ideal for decoration. Being purely decorative was the reason why Rococo art did not earn much respect from art scholars.
Neither the Church nor governments played any role in the rise of this art movement. It was a sign that French society was less devoted to religion. While some churches were built in and decorated in the Rococo style, generally the religious element was nonexistent in Rococo paintings.
Critics called Rococo art modish, meaning a fad that emerges then disappears. They condemned the art style for being shallow and tasteless. Some critics went as far to label it licentious art and hence the backlash grew against it. With strong criticism from intellectuals like Voltaire, around 1760s, the movement started to decline in France and slowly throughout Europe.