Rococo is an art style originating in France in the early 18th Century, with the name Rococo originating from the French rocaille which described the elaborate ornamentation of pebbles and shells typical of grottos. The style features light and elegant images, ornamentation, and curved natural forms. Rococo can describe a style in interior design, decorative arts, architecture, sculpture, and painting. Importantly, the Rococo style began as French nobles moved from Versailles to their Parisian mansions following the death of Louis XIV, which marked a movement of the upper class away from the heavy Baroque design that the deceased king had been fond of. Rococo decorators used pastel colors, gold, mirrors, and exuberant decoration with the intent of impressing viewers and emphasising the theatrical.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is known as the “father of Rococo painting.” Born near the Flemish border, Watteau was influenced by genre scenes of everyday life. and created his own genre, fêtes galantes, which featured scenes of courtship parties featuring elegantly dressed figures in outdoor spaces, talking happily amongst one another and listening to music. Because of Watteau’s background studying under decorators for theatre productions such as the commedia dell'arte, his work often had a theatrical aspect, with costumed characters in the backdrop, Arcadian scenery and artificial light.
Th outdoor scenes popular in Rococo were tinged with erotic themes and whimsical hedonism. From the gentle and graceful early-1700s scenes by Watteau, the genre culminated in playful and sensuous nude paintings by François Boucher. Boucher combined the aristocratic elegance of Watteau’s work with erotic treatment of the nude from 1730-60, which is considered the “mature” Rococo period. Boucher’s reputation as a Rococo artist was boosted due to his association with Madame de Pompadour, “the godmother of Rococo” and King Louis XV’s official first mistress from 1745-51. Boucher received royal patronage from Pompadour, and became known as a representation of the taste of a generation.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), though not recognized in his lifetime, created bright and cheerful Rococo scenery meant for amusement and delight. His work also featured scenes of outdoor amorous encounters and nude women in a pastel palette. By the time Fragonard painted his works, the Enlightenment was well underway in France, as well as a sense of revolutionary fervour. Many artists and art critics moved on to Neoclassicism, which was considered a “nobler art,” as it was less frivolous and erotic than Rococo.
While today Rococo is most commonly recognised as a French art movement, the movement did spread across Europe, especially in northern Italy, Austria, southern Germany, Central Europe and Russia. The Italian Rococo style was noted for great landscape painters, and much like the French style, portraiture. French and Italian portraits both featured nobles and royalty as allegorical heroes. English Rococo, or as they called it “French style,” was much more restrained.
The Rococo movement lives on in contemporary art and culture, and continues to be referenced in works by contemporary artists, pop culture, and modern fashion.
While Rococo has had the negative connotations of being tasteless, feeble, and ornate, the style has ebbed and flowed through art history from the 1700s to now, with its influence seen in various mediums across the world.