An early to late 18th century movement, born in France, Rococo centralised around opulence and extravagance. Not just affecting art, furniture, architecture, theatre and music all have the Rococo period instilled within their history. Its beginnings are off the back of the Baroque movement, which was a response to the Catholic values of the Council of Trent during the Reformation. The origins of the name seem to be from the French rocaille, a popular form of garden or interior ornamentation using shells and pebbles, and coquille, meaning shell. It might also interweave the Baroque etymology, barocco, meaning an irregularly shaped pearl. From these definitions, we can see that the style was centralised around decorative elements and a fanciful, irregular style.
When Louis XIV ascended the throne in 1654, the general artistic fashion began to change, due to a shift in court artists. By the end of the king's long reign, rich Baroque designs were giving way to lighter elements with more curves and natural patterns. Louis XV continued what his father had started, and when he was coronated in 1722, the Rococo style was in full blow, paralleling the excesses of Louis’ reign. Francois Boucher and Antoine Watteau can be seen as pioneers of the Rococo style, with Boucher’s Le Dejeuner of 1739 exemplifying the typical French rocaille interior. William Hogarth helped to spread the movement beyond France, when in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) he argued that undulating lines and S-curves were the basis for grace and beauty in art and nature. With this argument, he sidelines Classicism with its straight lines, circles and symmetry.
The development of unblemished glass increased the popularity of mirrors, and the increasing prominence of the French bourgeoisie (upper class) led to furniture evolving as a symbol of status and comfort. These developments meant that the primary focus of 18th Century French Rococo was on silverware, interior design and furniture. There was a distant focus on asymmetry, and the practice of leaving elements unbalanced for this effect is called contraste. The Solitude Palace in Stuttgart and the Oranienbaum, west of St Petersburg are great examples of the interior design of the Rococo. They are characterised by abstract ornament using flaming, leafy or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps and flourishes and broken curves. All the Classical divisions between different elements of a building were demolished — the architraves, friezes and cornices are blended together by frilly curlicues. Wall paintings were blended, in a belcomposto manner, into the architecture using stucco, a very popular, ‘aristocratic’ medium.
Another major difference between the Baroque and the Rococo was their different intentions. The Baroque’s origins meant that it was more serious, placing an emphasis on religion, and was often characterized by Christian themes. Rococo was an 18th-century, more secular, adaptation of the Baroque which was characterized by more light-hearted and jocular themes. Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing is a perfect example of a jocular, Rococo work. This work, completed in 1767, depicts an elegant young woman on a swing in a garden. She playfully flings her shoe in the air, the plethora of folds on her salmon pink dress flow with the wind that resists her movement. She is framed by an area of light blue sky, peeking through a dense and wild, unkempt forest. Looking at the scene more closely, a man dressed in light blue finery reclining to her lower right becomes visible. He points up to the woods behind. An erotic atmosphere is generated as the viewer begins to understand he is peeking directly up the folds of her lavish skirt, and her shoe is being flung towards a statuette of a putti, who has his finger in front of his lips in a sign of silence. A dog is blocked from the woman by a small metal barrier like those separating paths from plants, and we understand that the dog, symbolising fidelity, is being prevented from approaching the woman. Here Fragonard suggests that the woman is frivolously committing adultery.
Fragonard is known for painting genre scenes conveying an atmosphere of intimacy and veiled eroticism, and this work perfectly illustrates this. We know from the provenance of this work that another painter turned down the commission due to its frivolous nature, and the commission, by Gabriel François Doyen, was passed onto Fragonard. Doyen had asked for a portrait of his mistress seated on a swing being pushed by a bishop. Fragonard painted a layman, who can be seen in the far right of the canvas, as a concession to the otherwise indecent scene. Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire, still jumped on this work, demanding a more serious art showing the true nobility of men. Along with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire, in 1804, this was the effective end of the Rococo, and focus was steered towards the sensibility and austerity of Neo-Classicism.
First Year Art Historian at Cambridge University and Intern at Private Art Education.