Gersaint’s Signboard, 1720
Art,  English,  History


Introduction video credit: A person holding a white feather video of Cottonbro from Pexels

The text below is the excerpt of the book Rococo (ASIN: ‎1646994612), written by Victoria Charles and Klaus Carl, published by Parkstone International.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, in a barely noticeable transition, Baroque gave way to Rococo, also known as the late Baroque period. The unstoppable victory parade of the Age of Enlightenment, which began with the Reformation and the Renaissance, continued its unwavering march until the end of the 17th century in England, inching inexorably towards its climax, and throughout the 17th century formed the intellectual and cultural life of the entire 18th century. With this, the educated and prosperous bourgeoisie began to discuss works of art which had hitherto been largely left up to the nobility and the royal courts.

If up until that point the clientele for architecture or paintings was drawn predominantly from the church and to a lesser extent from the nobility, and the artists were regarded rather as artisans organized into guilds, they now became individuals with independent professions. At the same time the artist was no longer obligated to create portraits or works based on mythology in accordance with never-changing, prescribed themes and commissions.

The Toilet of Venus, 1751, Rococo
François Boucher, The Toilet of Venus, 1751. Oil on canvas, 108.3 x 85.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

With regard to the works of architecture and sculpture, as the concepts of the Baroque period range from 1600 to 1720, the word “Rococo” was introduced to discuss the years between 1720 and about 1780. The term “Rococo” perhaps comes from the word rocaille (“mussel”), which emerged in French emigrant circles. This was followed by a transitional period from around the end of the 18th century, as a kind of counter-movement towards the greater simplicity of neoclassicism.

Of course this arrangement is not entirely appropriate. Since throughout the 17th century there had already been a turn towards classicism, particularly in architecture. The distinctions made are therefore, like the use of the term “Renaissance” for northern European painting of the 15th and of the first half of the 16th century, not always valid and thus do not always apply universally.

Particularly in the Netherlands, painting was the absolute antithesis of what the inventors of the name Baroque understood by it. They considered the works of architecture and sculpture created since the end of the 16th century in Italy and their presence in some countries north of the Alps as a group detached from the High Renaissance. Within works such as these, they found features which indicated a deviation from the rules of the classical age and a pointless, arbitrary exaggeration of the fullness of form.

Spanish Concert, 1754, Rococo
Carle van Loo (Charles-André van Loo), Spanish Concert, 1754. Oil on canvas, 164 x 129 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

The term Baroque, invented to characterise this art, at the same time contained an unfavourable criticism of the artistic endeavours throughout the 17th century. Even after the movement, the term Baroque had a negative connotation and was used in the art world to describe all that was despicable and reprehensible. In the 17th century, art lacked deep roots in the broad population. Thus it remained elitist, a courtly art which was accessible only to the nobility and the sophisticated members of society. As a result of the logic of the age, the art at the end of the 18th century collapsed and was swept away by the storms of revolution.

Not until much later, around the end of the 19th century, was the conceptual confusion of the 17th century revisited with a fresh perspective and assessment of the historical developments and a better overview of the socio-political situation. There had already been exaggeration even to the point of tastelessness prior to and during the 17th century, but simply no more so than in earlier periods of world history. Generally speaking, so-called Baroque art was in all spheres merely a reflection of the spirit of the age.

Young Girl Kissing a Cat, Rococo
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl Kissing a Cat. Oil on canvas, 42 x 33 cm. Museum Langmatt-Stiftung Langmatt Sidney und Jenny Brown, Baden (Switzerland).

The age of Baroque predominantly coincided with the reign of Louis XIV. Afterwards, in the Regency (Régence) and the first half of the reign of Louis XV (1710-1774), the hitherto strong, powerful forms changed into light, playful and gracefully sinuous lines, bringing to the fore the ornate, mussel-like forms. Asymmetry was raised to the status of law. In interior decoration, all deep shadows and strong colours were avoided; in addition to an abundance of gold, light colours were most popular.

Only the return to the straight and narrow, which was at the same time associated with a stronger inclination towards classical forms and nature, led art into the era that saw the days of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) and the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793): the age of Early Classicism, also known as the Pigtail Style or Rococo.

Royal Palace, Main Stairs, 1751-1780, Rococo
Luigi Vanvitelli, Royal Palace, Main Stairs, 1751-1780. Reggia di Caserta, Caserta.

It has become the absolute norm to label these artistic expressions as purely decorative. The characteristic features of ornamentation were not rediscovered in architecture. Although painting and decorative art are both rooted in cultural history, when examined from an artistic standpoint, they have totally different origins. Architecture in particular developed quite differently in some countries, so that here the term Rococo coincides in terms neither of space nor time or style with the artistic life of the first half of the 18th century…

One of the famous artworks of Rococo art:

The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, 1717
Antoine Watteau, The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, 1717. Oil on canvas, 129 x 194 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Vestal Presenting a Young Woman at the Altar of Pan, c. 1770-1775
Clodion (Claude Michel), Vestal Presenting a Young Woman at the Altar of Pan, c. 1770-1775. Terracotta, height: 43.2 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Assumption of the Virgin, 1722-1723
Egid Quirin Asam and Cosmas Damian Asam, Assumption of the Virgin, 1722-1723. Marble, stucco and gildings. Kirche Mariä Himmelfahrt, Rohr.

See more on Rococo art here:

Victoria and Albert Museum

British Museum

Harvard Art Museum

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