Rococo Art and Its Greatest Artists

Rococo art began in the 17th century in France with a fashion for decorating fanciful gardens and “grottoes” with shells and pebbles . Called “rocaille" (from "roc", which means stone, and "coquille" which means "shell" - although there are other ideas to be found out there!), the word had evolved by the late 18th century into “rococo”, as a pejorative term for what was considered Baroque gone bad.


Today the term “Rococo” is a completely neutral word for the French “rocaille” style when it goes abroad; therefore, what is called “rocaille” in France is called “Rococo” or “late Baroque” (Spätbarock) in Central Europe.

"The Swing", Jean-Honoré Fragonard

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Rococo art is all about decorating. Painters had to take that into account when they created their work - their paintings were intended as sheer decoration of handsome homes. For this reason, the large, grand dimensions of the Classical were scaled down to more modest size; the majesty of Classicism was also into the grace and delicacy that was the charm of Rococo.

Beginning in France under Louis XIV (who died in 1715), Rococo endured under two more French rulers (Philippe d’Orléans and Louis XV) to reach its final phase, called the “Pompadour style”, in reference to the King's favorite. This was when it spread to Italy; the Italians then disseminated it to the courts of Central Europe; Tiepolo, for example, worked in Würzburg, in Northern Bavaria.

"Winged Griffon on Rocaille Bracket", design by Alexis Peyrotte, 1745

Note the soft "S" curves, typical of Rococo.

It was also a style that was commissioned less by monarchies and the Church, and more by wealthy private individuals, who themselves became the new patrons of the arts. Intellectually, Rococo art was linked to the lively, witty intelligence displayed in the salons of the Enlightenment, as opposed to the rational, moral rigor of Classicism or the heavy drama of the Baroque.

As an art intended to be decorative, it is only natural that Rococo produce paintings that fit into spaces on the ceiling, over doors, above fireplaces, in panels of walls; delicate, gay, it was made with delightful colors,  the palette influenced by the fashion of the period for pastel, especially pinks and blues.

"The Stolen Kiss", Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Whereas Baroque or Classical works depicted serious allegories, Rococo preferred frivolity or sometimes even rather frank eroticism: nymphs and satyrs, mythological stagings with Pan or Venis, or bucolic settings with the standard shepherds and shepherdesses. Landscapes themselves came to be embellished with ruins, real or imagined, and tiny, pretty figures peopled them, dressed in the ribbons, clues and flowers of the time.

This was also the period of chinoiseries, with the exoticism of the Far East inspiring especially Boucher.

The principal idea behind Rococo art is lightness - of spirit, of intellect; even the painter's brushstrokes are almost invisible (with the exception of Watteau and Fragonard). The figures are ideally perfect and young, pretty rather than beautiful. The heavy architecture of Classicism is gone, as well as the dramatic gestures. With Rococo there are no more important messages to deliver; it's all about the superficial, the decorative and lightness - pretty people doing pretty things in pretty settings - with exceptions like Willliam Hogarth's satirical series "Marriage à la Mode".  Below, the final tragic scene resulting from the marriage between the young Viscount Squanderland and a rich merchant's daughter, who has an affair with the lawyer Silvertongue.

 "The Suicide of the Countess", from William Hogarth's satirical "Marriage à la Mode"

As an art intended to be decorative, it is only natural that Rococo produce paintings that fit into spaces on the ceiling, over doors, above fireplaces, in panels of walls; delicate, gay, it was made with delightful colors,  the palette influenced by the fashion of the period for pastel, especially pinks and blues.

Whereas Baroque or Classical works depicted serious allegories, Rococo preferred frivolity or sometimes even rather frank eroticism: nymphs and satyrs, mythological stagings with Pan or Venis, or bucolic settings with the standard shepherds and shepherdesses. Landscapes themselves came to be embellished with ruins, real or imagined, and tiny, pretty figures peopled them, dressed in the ribbons, clues and flowers of the time.

This was also the period of chinoiseries, with the exoticism of the Far East inspiring especially Boucher.

The principal idea behind Rococo art is lightness - of spirit, of intellect; even the painter's brushstrokes are almost invisible (with the exception of Watteau and Fragonard). The figures are ideally perfect and young, pretty rather than beautiful. The heavy architecture of Classicism is gone, as well as the dramatic gestures. With Rococo there are no more important messages to deliver; it's all about the superficial, the decorative and lightness - pretty people doing pretty things in pretty settings.

"Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Graham", Thomas Gainsborough

Greatest Artists of Rococo Art

52.  Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). This French painter was the 1st great artists of the new fashion of Rococo.

53.  The Italian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) made Venice a major center for Rococo; he significantly contributed to the spread of the style by his work in Central Europe.

54.  In England, William Hogarth (1697-1764) offered a unique and satirical version of Rococo, and published his book, The Analysis of Beauty, in 1743.

55.  Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) made charming portraits of his subjects standing in picturesque landscapes.

56.  Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) was a French painter whose works are among the most emblematic of French Rocaille.

Click here to view works by Rococo artists on the Wiki Commons website.

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