A style of 18th century French art and interior design, Rococo style rooms were designed as total works of art with elegant and ornate furniture, small sculptures, ornamental mirrors, and tapestry complementing architecture, reliefs, and wall paintings. It was largely supplanted by the Neoclassic style.
The word Rococo is seen as a combination of the French rocaille, or shell, and the Italian barocco, or Baroque style. Due to Rococo love of shell-like curves and focus on decorative arts, some critics used the term to derogatively imply that the style was frivolous or merely fashion; interestingly, when the term was first used in English in about 1836, it was a colloquialism meaning "old-fashioned". However, since the mid 19th century, the term has been accepted by art historians. While there is still some debate about the historical significance of the style to art in general, Rococo is now widely recognized as a major period in the development of European art.
Rococo developed first in the decorative arts and interior design. Louis XV's succession brought a change in the court artists and general artistic fashion. By the end of the old king's reign, rich Baroque designs were giving way to lighter elements with more curves and natural patterns. These elements are obvious in the architectural designs of Nicolas Pineau. During the Régence, court life moved away from Versailles and this artistic change became well established, first in the royal palace and then throughout French high society. The delicacy and playfulness of Rococo designs is often seen as perfectly in tune with the excesses of Louis XV's regime.
The 1730s represented the height of Rococo development in France. The style had spread beyond architecture and furniture to painting and sculpture, exemplified by the works of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. Rococo still maintained the Baroque taste for complex forms and intricate patterns, but by this point, it had begun to integrate a variety of diverse characteristics, including a taste for Oriental designs and asymmetric compositions.
The Rococo style spread with French artists and engraved publications. It was readily received in the Catholic parts of Germany, Bohemia, and Austria, where it was merged with the lively German Baroque traditions. German Rococo was applied with enthusiasm to churches and palaces, particularly in the south, while Frederician Rococo developed in the Kingdom of Prussia. Architects often draped their interiors in clouds of fluffy white stucco. In Italy, the late Baroque styles of Borromini and Guarini set the tone for Rococo in Turin, Venice, Naples and Sicily, while the arts in Tuscany and Rome remained more wedded to Baroque.
Rococo in England was always thought of as the "French taste." The architectural stylings never caught on, though silverwork, porcelain, and silks were strongly influenced by the continental style. Thomas Chippendale transformed English furniture design through his adaptation and refinement of the style. William Hogarth helped develop a theoretical foundation for Rococo beauty. Though not intentionally referencing the movement, he argued in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) that the undulating lines and S-curves prominent in Rococo were the basis for grace and beauty in art or nature (unlike the straight line or the circle in Classicism). The development of Rococo in England is considered to have been connected with the revival of interest in Gothic architecture early in the 18th century.
The beginning of the end for Rococo came in the early 1760s as figures like Voltaire and Jacques-François Blondel began to voice their criticism of the superficiality and degeneracy of the art. Blondel decried the "ridiculous jumble of shells, dragons, reeds, palm-trees and plants" in contemporary interiors . By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassical artists like Jacques Louis David. In Germany, late 18th century Rococo was riduculed as Zopf und Perücke ("pigtail and periwig"), and this phase is sometimes referred to as Zopfstil. Rococo remained popular in the provinces and in Italy, until the second phase of neoclassicism, " Empire style," arrived with Napoleonic governments and swept Rococo away.
There was a renewed interest in the Rococo style between 1820 and 1870. The English were among the first to revive the "Louis XIV style" as it was miscalled at first, and paid inflated prices for second-hand Rococo luxury goods that could scarcely be sold in Paris. But prominent artists like Delacroix and patrons like Empress Eugénie also rediscovered the value of grace and playfulness in art and design.
Rococo in different artistic modes
Furniture and decorative objects
The lighthearted themes and intricate designs of Rococo smell presented themselves best on a smaller scale than the imposing Baroque architecture and sculpture. It is not surprising, then, that French Rococo art was at home indoors. Metalwork, porcelain figures,frills and especially furniture rose to new pre-eminence as the French upper classes sought to outfit their homes in the now fashionable style.
Rococo style took pleasure in asymmetry, a taste that was new to European style. This practice of leaving elements unbalanced for effect is called contraste.
In a full-blown Rococo design, like the Table d'appartement (ca. 1730), by German designer J. A. Meissonnier, working in Paris (illustration, below), any reference to tectonic form is gone: even the marble slab top is shaped. Apron, legs, stretcher have all been seamlessly integrated into a flow of opposed c-scrolls and "rocaille." The knot (noeud) of the stretcher shows the asymmetrical "contraste" that was a Rococo innovation.
For small plastic figures of gypsum, clay, biscuit, porcelain ( Sèvres, Meissen), Rococo is not unsuitable; in wood, iron, and royal metal, it has created some valuable works. However, confessionals, pulpits, altars, and even facades lead ever more into the territory of the architectonic, which does not easily combine with the curves of Rococo, the light and the petty, with forms whose whence and wherefore baffle inquiry.
Dynasties of Parisian ébénistes, some of them German-born, developed a style of surfaces curved in three dimensions (bombé), where matched veneers ( marquetry temporarily being in eclipse) or vernis martin japanning was effortlessly complemented by gilt-bronze ("ormolu") mounts: Antoine Gaudreau, Charles Cressent, Jean-Pierre Latz, François Oeben, Bernard II van Risenbergh are the outstanding names.
French designers like François de Cuvilliés, Nicholas Pineau and Bartolomeo Rastrelli exported Parisian styles in person to Munich and Saint Petersburg, while the German Juste-Aurèle Meissonier found his career at Paris. The guiding spirits of the Parisian rococo were a small group of marchands-merciers, the forerunners of modern decorators, led by Simon-Philippenis Poirier.
In France the style remained somewhat more reserved, since the ornaments were mostly of wood, or, after the fashion of wood-carving, less robust and naturalistic and less exuberant in the mixture of natural with artificial forms of all kinds (e.g. plant motives, stalactitic representations, grotesques, masks, implements of various professions, badges, paintings, precious stones).
English Rococo tended to be more restrained. Thomas Chippendale's furniture designs kept the curves and feel, but stopped short of the French heights of whimsy. The most successful exponent of English Rococo was probably Thomas Johnson, a gifted carver and furniture designer working in London in the mid 1700s.
Solitude Palace in Stuttgart and Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum, the Bavarian church of Wies and Sanssouci in Potsdam are examples of how Rococo made its way into European architecture.
In those Continental contexts where Rococo is fully in control, sportive, fantastic, and sculptured forms are expressed with abstract ornament using flaming, leafy or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps and flourishes and broken curves; intimate Rococo interiors suppress architectonic divisions of architrave, frieze and cornice for the picturesque, the curious, and the whimsical, expressed in plastic materials like carved wood and above all stucco (as in the work of the Wessobrunner School). Walls, ceiling, furniture, and works of metal and porcelain present a unified ensemble. The Rococo palette is softer and paler than the rich primary colors and dark tonalities favored in Baroque tastes.
A few anti-architectural hints rapidly evolved into full-blown Rococo at the end of the 1720s and began to affect interiors and decorative arts throughout Europe. The richest forms of German Rococo are in Catholic Germany (illustration, above).
Rococo plasterwork by immigrant Italian-Swiss artists like Bagutti and Artari is a feature of houses by James Gibbs, and the Franchini brothers working in Ireland equalled anything that was attempted in England.
Inaugurated in some rooms in Versailles, it unfolds its magnificence in several Parisian buildings (especially the Hôtel Soubise). In Germany, French and German artists ( Cuvilliés, Neumann, Knobelsdorff, etc.) effected the dignified equipment of the Amalienburg near Munich, and the castles of Würzburg, Potsdam, Charlottenburg, Brühl, Bruchsal, Solitude (Stuttgart), and Schönbrunn.
In England, one of Hogarth's set of paintings forming a melodramatic morality tale titled Marriage à la Mode, engraved in 1745, shows the parade rooms of a stylish London house, in which the only rococo is in plasterwork of the salon's ceiling. Palladian architecture is in control. Here, on the Kentian mantel, the crowd of Chinese vases and mandarins are satirically rendered as hideous little monstrosities, and the Rococo wall clock is a jumble of leafy branches.
Though Rococo originated in the purely decorative arts, the style showed clearly in painting. These painters used delicate colors and curving forms, decorating their canvases with cherubs and myths of love. Portraiture was also popular among Rococo painters. Some works show a sort of naughtiness or impurity in the behaviour of their subjects, showing the historical trend of departing away from the Baroque's church/state orientation. Landscapes were pastoral and often depicted the leisurely outings of aristocratic couples.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) is generally considered the first great Rococo painter. He had a great influence on later painters, including François Boucher (1703–1770) and Jean-Honouré Fragonard (1732–1806), two masters of the late period. Even Thomas Gainsborough's (1727–1788) delicate touch and sensitivity are reflective of the Rococo spirit.
Sculpture was another area that Rococo artists branched into. Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) is widely considered one of the best representatives of French Rococo. In general, this style was best expressed through delicate porcelain sculpture rather than imposing marble statues. Falconet himself was director of a famous porcelain factory at Sèvres. The themes of love and gaiety were reflected in sculpture, as were elements of nature, curving lines and asymmetry.
The sculptor Bouchardon represented Cupid engaged in carving his darts of love from the club of Hercules; this serves as an excellent symbol of the Rococo style—the demigod is transformed into the soft child, the bone-shattering club becomes the heart-scathing arrows, just as marble is so freely replaced by stucco. In this connection, the French sculptors, Robert le Lorrain, Michel Clodion, and Pigalle may be mentioned in passing.
The Galante Style was the equivalent of Rococo in music history, too, between Baroque and Classical, and it is not easy to define in words. The rococo music style itself developed out of baroque music, particularly in France. It can be characterized as intimate music with extremely refined decoration forms. Exemplars include Jean Philippe Rameau and Louis-Claude Daquin.
Boucher's painting (above) provides a glimpse of the society which Rococo reflected. "Courtly" would be pretentious in this upper bourgeois circle, yet the man's gesture is gallant. The stylish but cozy interior, the informal decorous intimacy of people's manners, the curious and delightful details everywhere one turns one's eye, the luxury of sipping chocolate: all are "galante."
Rococo "worldliness" and the Roman Catholic Church
A critical view of the unsuitable nature of Rococo in ecclesiastical contexts was taken up by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
For the church the Rococo style may be, generally speaking, compared with worldly church music. Its lack of simplicity, earnestness, and repose is evident, while its obtrusive artificiality, unnaturalness, and triviality have a distracting effect. Its softness and prettiness likewise do not become the house of God. However, shorn of its most grievous outgrowths, it may have been less distracting during its proper epoch, since it then harmonized with the spirit of the age.
As a development of Baroque, it will be found a congruous decoration for baroque churches.
In general it makes a vast difference whether the style is used with moderation in the finer and more ingenious form of the French masters, or is carried to extremes with the consistency of the German. The French artists seem ever to have regarded the beauty of the whole composition as the chief object, while the German laid most stress on the bold vigour of the lines; thus, the lack of symmetry was never so exaggerated in the works of the former.
In the church Rococo may at times have the charm of prettiness and may please by its ingenious technic, provided the objects be small and subordinate: a credence table with cruets and plate, a vase, a choir desk, lamps, pens, key and lock, railings or balustrade, do not too boldly challenge the eye, and fulfill all the requirements of mere beauty of form.
Rococo is indeed really empty, solely a pleasing play of the fancy. In the sacristy (for presses etc.) and ante chambers it is more suitable than in the church itself—at least so far as its employment in conspicuous places is concerned.
The Rococo style accords very ill with the solemn office of the monstrance, the tabernacle, and the altar, and even of the pulpit. The naturalism of certain Belgian pulpits, in spite or perhaps on account of their artistic character, has the same effect as have outspoken Rococo creations.
The purpose of the confessional and the baptistery would also seem to demand more earnest forms.
In the case of the larger objects, the sculpture of Rococo forms either seems pretty, or, if this prettiness be avoided, resembles Baroque. The phantasies of this style agree ill with the lofty and broad walls of the church. However, everything must be decided according to the object and circumstances; the stalls in the cathedral of Mainz elicit not only our approval but also our admiration, while the celebrated privileged altar of Vierzehnheiligen repels us both by its forms and its plastic decoration.
There are certain Rococo chalices (like that at the monastery of Einsiedeln) which are, as one might say, decked out in choice festive array; there are others, which are more or less misshapen owing to their bulging curves or figures. Chandeliers and lamps may also be disfigured by obtrusive shellwork or want of all symmetry, or may amid great decorativeness be kept within reasonable limits.
The material and technique are also of consequence in Rococo. Woven materials, wood carvings, and works in plaster of Paris are evidently less obtrusive than works in other materials, when they employ the sportive Rococo. Iron (especially in railings) and bronze lose their coldness and hardness, when animated by the Rococo style; in the case of the latter, gilding may be used with advantage. Gilding and painting belong to the regular means through which this style, under certain circumstances, enchants the eye and fancy. All things considered, we may say of the Rococo style—as has not unreasonably been said of the Baroque and of the Renaissance—that it is very apt to introduce a worldly spirit into the church, even if we overlook the figural accessories, which are frequently in no way conducive to sentiments of devotion, and are incompatible with the sobriety and greatness of the architecture and with the seriousness of sacred functions.