Baroque vs. Rococo: Similarities and Differences, Explained

Salon de la princesse, Hôtel de Soubise, Paris. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Extravagance. Luxury. Grandeur. These are just a few of the words that may run through your mind when you think of the Baroque art and Rococo art: two styles of art and architecture in Europe.

Though Rococo evolved from Baroque (and their definitions can be loosely defined), the two periods are indeed separate and distinct, with their own strong cultural influences and meanings. Similar characteristics and overlapping time periods, however, are perhaps why Baroque art and Rococo art are often confused.

If the distinction between Rococo vs. Baroque period art is a bit fuzzy for you, fear not. Explore an overview of the Rococo and Baroque art definitions, and of some of the trailblazing artists and architects of each period who created some of the instantly recognizable works we know today.

What is Baroque Art?

Baroque art emerged around the year 1600, about 70 years after the end of the Early Renaissance in France and the High Renaissance in Italy. The period is said to have lasted about 150 years, during which time emerged renowned artists and architects like Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francisco de Zurbarán.

The term “Baroque” is thought to have emerged from the Italian word barocco, which was used by Medieval philosophers to refer to an “obstacle in schematic logic.” Barocco later became a term for any contorted idea or complex thought process.

Wies Church, Germany. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Baroque Art Characteristics

Compared to the more classicist motifs and passive space in Renaissance works, Baroque art was perhaps “contorted” in that it was shockingly different. Baroque paintings were illusionistic (sharing physical space with the viewer, and providing multiple, changing views), while sculptures and architecture were adorned with illustrations. Together, Baroque works created a decorative unity in the churches and other spaces in which they were commonly seen.

Chiaroscuro, the use of intense light and dark contrast in fine art painting, became widely used in Baroque period art to depict depth, three-dimensionality, and a sense of drama. Baroque art characteristics included radiant colors, sources of hidden light, and experiments with contrasting surface textures.

Baroque art definition:

  • Active dates: c. 1600-1750
  • Stemmed from Italian word for “contorted idea”
  • Arose mainly as a means to promote the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation
  • Emphasizes faith in church and power in state
  • Dramatic contrasts of lights and darks
  • Emotional, often religious depictions
  • Feelings of grandeur, awe, movement and tension
  • Hidden sources of light
  • Various contrasting textures
  • All encompassing works (illusionistic)
  • Materials: bronzes, gildings, plaster, marble, stucco
  • Focal point in architecture: entrance axis, pavilion

Baroque Architecture

The more typical forms of Baroque architecture, which developed in Italy and can be seen throughout other Roman Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, northern Belgium, Austria and Poland, typically includes a main axis or viewpoint, such as an altar. Entrance axes or central pavilions are the objects of immediate focus. This form of Baroque architecture included vibrant materials like bronze and gilding, plaster, marble and stucco, used for architectural elements like twisted columns and overarching cupolas.

Baroque buildings often expand to include the public squares that face them, essentially dwarfing their environments. Such theatrical, awe-inspiring structures and scenes covering ceilings and walls increasingly became ways to spread faith in the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation, as well as to further elevate the state. Baroque churches emphasized devout worship; Baroque palaces commanded higher power and order.

Elsewhere, in Protestant areas like England, the Netherlands, and other northern European countries, Baroque architecture was quieter and more refined. In Protestant countries and France, architecture was geometric and precise. The French Baroque style was separate, and is what the French specifically call “Classicism.” Think: the Palace of Versailles.

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Baroque Artists & Architects

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

  • Italian painter
  • Known for: dramatic use of lighting in Baroque paintings

Caravaggio, “Saint Jerome Writing,” c. 1605-6. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)

  • Italian sculptor and architect
  • Known for: creating the Baroque style of sculpture

Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, 1623-34, bronze, Vatican City. Photo by sailko via Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709)

  • Italian artist
  • Known for: grand illusionistic Baroque vault frescos

Baroque facade of the Church of the Gesù by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Rome, 1580. Photo by Alessio Damato via Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

  • Flemish artist
  • Known for: influence on Flemish Baroque tradition

Peter Paul Rubens, “Descent from the Cross,” 1617-18. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

  • Spanish painter
  • Known for: Baroque portraits of the Spanish royal family & notable figures

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656-67. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664)

  • Spanish painter
  • Known for: skilled use of light and shadow in religious Baroque paintings

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Luke as a painter, before Christ on the Cross,”, 1630-39. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Emergence of Rococo Art

At the turn of the 18th century came the period of Enlightenment (1700-1780). This was a celebration of reason, whereby “the goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.”

Favoring political philosophy over religious propaganda, enlightened Europeans influenced the arrival of a new kid on the block: Rococo. The term “Rococo” likely stemmed from the French word rocaille, which means “pebbles” and refers to the stones and shells that were used to decorate interiors of caves. Shells and similar forms eventually became the primary Rococo motif.

Rococo arose in France in the early 1700s, which had already shown signs of breaking from Baroque with its own French Baroque style. Rococo was not, of course, associated with the church, but rather with French King Louis XV. The movement later spread to other European countries throughout the 18th century.

Salon de la princesse, Hôtel de Soubise, Paris. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Rococo Art Characteristics

Though Rococo emerged from Baroque art, Rococo artists turned away from Baroque’s dramatic symbolism of the church’s power. Instead, they honed in on elegantly elevating the power and class of French aristocrats. Rococo represented “secular high fashion.”

The Rococo art movement, which primarily came about through interior decoration, saw pastels replacing Baroque’s vivid light and shadow; light became present and scattered, not hidden. Rococo paintings often show jovial scenes of society’s elite, whether at home or out frolicking in open green pastures. Symbols of play, romance, beauty, sex and mythology are often apparent in artworks of the period.

Rococo Definition

  • Active dates: c. 1715-1789
  • Stemmed from French word for shells and pebbles
  • Often characterized by shell motifs
  • Emerged during the Enlightenment
  • Emphasizes goals of knowledge, freedom, happiness
  • Pastel, light, soft colors
  • Ethereal, delicate, graceful scenes of elite
  • Feelings of playfulness, happiness, romance
  • Scattered light
  • Typically non-religious
  • Symbols of sex, beauty, courtship, mythology
  • Materials: bronzes, gildings, marble, carved wood, stucco
  • Asymmetrical, curved forms and shapes

Rococo Architecture

Rococo architecture largely involved palaces and manors of monarchs and aristocrats. Churches and palaces, while still integrating sculpture, painting and surrounding architecture, were brightened inside to give off more ethereal essences. Theatrical, dark interiors were replaced by graceful and subtle spaces. Rococo-style decorative arts – candelabras, canapés and commodes, to name a few – were often seen in salons where the upper class entertained their guests.

Materials used in Rococo decorative art and architecture include bronze, gildings, carved wood, stucco, marble and porcelain.

Rococo Artists & Architects

Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

  • French painter
  • Known for: founding the French Rococo style

Jean Antoine Watteau, “The Feast of Love,” 1718-19. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Germain Boffrand (1667-1754)

  • French architect
  • Known for: Rococo interiors

Rococo-style wall elevation in the bedroom of the Prince de Rohan at the Hôtel de Soubise by Germain Boffrand, 1735–36. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Francois Boucher (1703-1770)

  • French painter, draughtsman and etcher
  • Known for: idyllic, voluptuous paintings

Francois Boucher, “The Secret Message,” 1767. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

François de Cuvilliés (1695-1768)

  • Belgian decorative designer & architect
  • Known for: Bringing the Rococo style to Munich & central Europe

Schloss Augustusburg by François de Cuvilliés, 1729-40, Brühl, Germany. Photo by Wandernder Weltreisender via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

  • French painter and printmaker
  • Known for: hedonism & exuberance in late Rococo style

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “Landscape with Shepherds and Flock of Sheep,” 1763-65. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)

  • Italian painter and printmaker
  • Known for: prolific decorative Rococo paintings

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Apollo Pursuing Daphne,” c. 1755-60. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Though Rococo art emerged about 100 years after Baroque art took off (during a time when Baroque art was less popular, but still present), characteristics of the two movements can often intertwine; however, there are noticeable differences in meanings, techniques, styles and symbols that can help you tell the two apart, if you know what to look for.

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