Rococo art—which encompasses Rococo painting, architecture, decorative art and sculpture—was a movement that immediately followed Baroque art in the early 18th century. The word Rococo itself stems from the French word rocaille or “pebbles,” which refers to stones and shells that eventually became a central motif within the Rococo style.
The movement took root following the death of King Louis XIV, who himself favored the drama of Baroque style. In contrast, Rococo style celebrated softer elements and spread widely through the migration of thousands of courtiers—French nobility who had previously lived near the king at the Palace of Versailles—to elite private homes.
A Brief History of Rococo Painting
Rococo art emerged in the early 18th century following the death of King Louis XIV. The movement was an artful reaction to the opulence and extravagance of Baroque art, which was the favored style of the king. In contrast to the Baroque style that celebrated exuberance, tension, and drama, Rococo introduced colors and movement that have been described as airy, ornamental, and frivolous.
When King Louis XIV died in 1715, Philippe d’Orléans governed the land as prince regent until King Louis XV became of age. During this eight-year period known as Régence, a significant physical and ideological shift occurred: the center of French art and culture moved from the halls of the Palace of Versailles to the private homes of the upper class. French courtiers had enormous political power and wealth, and they created a culture of luxury and excess that greatly contrasted with the ideology of the French people.
Instead of surrounding themselves with precious metals and rich colors, the French aristocracy now lived in more intimate interiors, designed with opulence to impress and entertain guests. They found expression in Rococo-style ceilings and moldings that were embellished with delicate curves and floral ornamentation. Dynamic Baroque-style themes of drama and power were thus replaced with softer pastel colors and floral elements, reflecting the excess and frivolity of the period.
In turn, mythological scenes became favored over the propaganda-imbued art of the previous century. This style soon extended beyond architecture to other art forms such as furniture, decorative art, sculpture, and eventually, painting.
Characteristics of Rococo Painting
For the French, the Régence represented a period of shifting power. Though the artists of the movement maintained the Baroque fascination with the complex form of the human body, the composition of paintings shifted to mythological scenes of love and nature. Three key characteristics of Rococo painting include:
- Mythology: In contrast to the religious themes that were popular in Baroque painting, the mythological scenes in Rococo paintings illustrated nation-wide opposition to the power of the church.
- Color Palette: Perhaps the most striking difference between Rococo paintings and Baroque paintings is the stark contrast in color palette. Rococo artists utilized pastel colors like blues, pinks, and yellows to give their works a light and romantic feel.
- Fete Galante: Pioneering artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher popularized a new genre called Fête galante. This new genre featured subject matter that included noblemen and women dressed in elegant attire, flirtatiously frolicking in natural settings. This juxtaposition of reality and mythology allowed viewers to imagine and entertain fantasy.
Types of Rococo Art
The Rococo movement was one of the most influential periods of art history. As the most from the French court moved from the Palace in Versailles to their Parisian estates, the physical and ideological separation from the Church gave artists new found freedom.
At the heart of Rococo art is its link to design. As lavish parties in the homes of French elite became commonplace, a new need emerged for elaborate home decor decor that matched the caliber of the event. Aristocrats hired skilled artists such as Pierre Le Pautre, Nicolas Pineau, and designer Germain Boffrand. Engravers, designers and architects alike were commissioned to completely overhaul the existing interior of wealthy estates, adorning the walls and ceilings with lavish embellishments such as floral ornamentation, trimmings of shells and rocks, and intricate engravings.
Rococo sculpture made use of delicate materials such as porcelain and showcased the same playful themes that are present in different disciplines from the movement. Artist Etienne-Maurice Falconet depicted scenes of love and nature in his works: his most famous piece, Pygmalion and Galatee, features a man professing his love to a woman while a cherub kisses her hand.
Notable Rococo Paintings
1. Jean-Antoine Watteau, “Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera” (1717)
Jean-Antoine Watteau is credited with adopting Rococo style in painting. Watteau himself introduced brilliant colors and dynamic scenes depicting love and nature. His most famous work was the Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717), which depicts a couple embarking for the Isle of Cythera, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This scene is one of Watteau’s signature fête galante pieces that present members of high society fraternizing in the wild.
2. François Lemoyne, “Hercules and Omphale” (1724)
According to Greek mythology, after killing Iphitos Hercules was sentenced to three years of servitude by the oracle Delphes, where she admired Hercules’ strength and desired him as a lover. Though this scene was illustrated by several Rococo artists, including Boucher, François Lemoyne’s Hercules and Omphale is widely acclaimed as an outstanding representation of this tale.
3. François Boucher, “The Triumph of Venus” (1740)
As a young child in Paris, François Boucher found inspiration in the Rococo paintings of Watteau. The marriage of mythological scenes with eroticism and love fascinated the young artist. In 1740 Boucher created one of the best-known examples of Rococo painting called The Triumph of Venus. In this painting the goddess Venus emerges from the sea surrounded by naiads, nymphs, and other mythical beings. In classical Rococo style, this piece celebrates love and sensuality in an airy and aloof manner.
4. Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, “Madame de Pompadour” (1755)
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour was known for his detailed portraits, and often worked in pastels, his preferred medium. One of his most celebrated works is Madame de Pompadour (1755). This full-length portrait depicts the likeness of Marquise de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV. In fact, she was the muse of several Rococo painters, each capturing different elements of her beauty and intellect. In de La Tour’s depiction, she sits at a desk that features books by Voltaire and Montesquieu, a globe, an encyclopedia, and other scholarly items, showcasing her intelligence and appreciation for the arts.
5. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “The Swing” (1767)
As a student of Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard developed his mentor’s affinity for bright colors, erotic subject matter, and mythological scenery, as seen in his 1767 painting, The Swing. This piece depicts a woman being pushed on a swing by her spouse, but as she swings forward, a young man hiding in the brush catches a glimpse up her skirt.
Emerging in response to the death of King Louis XIV, Rococo painting enabled a liberated form of self-expression that explored subject matter that was previously considered unbecoming. This cultural shift paved the way for a softer, more whimsical—and even daring—expression that reflected 18th century ideological changes.