Think of a curvy, asymmetrical painting marked by pastel colors and, chances are, it can be attributed to a rococo artist. Although it was incredibly influential during the early 1700s, Rococo has since been largely forgotten by the public, with the concept mainly adopted by interior designers with a penchant for pastel colors or architects who favor ornate scrolls. The term may be infrequently used in daily life, but the unique art style known as Rococo continues to make its mark today.
Rococo Art Definition
Often referred to as Late Baroque, rococo is a cheery style of artwork involving the heavy use of frilly ornamentation, along with sweeping curves, asymmetry, pastel colors and lighthearted subjects. The term can also be used to describe furniture, architecture and even garden design of the early 1700s. Common adjectives used to describe rococo artwork are whimsical and mischievous.
Rococo Versus Baroque
For those unfamiliar with the concept of rococo, it may be more helpful to think of this type of artwork as a conscious contrast to the preceding Baroque style, which was decidedly political and stodgy. Artists living in Paris during the late 1600s and early 1700s quickly tired of the serious paintings of the Palace of Versailles, which were artistically strait jacketed by a fervent devotion to symmetry and order. Sick of the strict Baroque style, Rococo artists wanted to capture wit, emotion, even whimsy in their paintings, sculptures and tapestries.
Those unfamiliar with rococo almost immediately note the use of light colors when comparing Late Baroque paintings to their predecessors from Versailles. Cheerful and airy, the rococo palette is heavily dominated by pastel colors. A variety of shades of pink and blue are common, with occasional bursts of orange, yellow and even green adding depth to rococo images. Darker blues and grays would often be used in the background of the paintings so as to force the viewer to focus on the lighter colored subjects. On occasion, however, a rococo background is every bit as bright and cheery as the rest of the painting.
Curves And General Lack Of Symmetry
Rococo artists were not fond of boxy shapes, instead favoring sweep curves and asymmetry. Their goal was to create a sense of flow in their paintings, thereby forcing the viewer to take in the entire work. Artists also sought to break free from the shackles of Baroque style, which enforced strict adherence to symmetrical properties. They achieved these lofty goals, in part, by taking advantage of such rococo art characteristics as the C curve and the S curve.
One of the most common ornaments seen in prominent rococo paintings was the C curve, which is somewhat reminiscent of a scallop shell. However, unlike this relatively symmetrical shell, which was already prominent in the most famous artwork of the 1600s, the C curve featured a stark sense of asymmetry. One end of this curve was always notably smaller than the other. The curve had a distinctly rhythmic feel and, when multiple versions were included in the same painting or work of architecture, there existed an appealing flow from one curve to the next. S curves were similarly popular, with the inherent undulation of this ornament evoking a sense of movement.
Famous Rococo Artists
Although rococo is typically described as a reaction to the overbearing nature of Baroque style, many of the finest artists of the early to mid 1700s actually toyed with both types of art. This was particularly true of Jean Antoine Watteau, who incorporated elements of Baroque style into his then controversial rococo paintings. His most famous masterpieces include The Embarkation For Cythera and number of rococo’s most famous The Feast Of Love.
Francois Boucher was also an influential painter of the rococo period, with notable works including The Toilet Of Venus, Autumn Pastoral and The Breakfast. Boucher famously believed that nature was badly lit and far too green and, as such, he preferred to incorporate the pastel pinks and blues of the rococo world into his paintings. Boucher’s work is often used as a contrast to Watteau’s paintings, for, while Watteau was surprisingly refined for a rococo artist, Boucher was, at times, shockingly vulgar.
The later period of rococo was marked by the arrival of Jean-Honore Fragonard, who, like Boucher, enjoyed shocking viewers with barely veiled depictions of eroticism. He was responsible for such controversial works of art as The Stolen Kiss and The Bathers. However, some of Fragonard’s paintings were surprisingly subdued, even somber. This range of work proved that, like many rococo artists, Fragonard was capable of portraying a wide array of emotions. He simply chose to stick to lust and whimsy because they were the most controversial pictorial emotions of the day.
Frivolity And Impurity: Early And Modern Sources Of Criticism
A standard rococo art definition is apt to focus on curves and light colors, but it would be folly to ignore the unique subjects of these paintings. Although portraits were every bit as popular during the Late Baroque period as they were in the earlier Baroque years, their subjects were not nearly as respectable. Flirty, even impure behavior was often captured in rococo images, with overt depictions of lust proving especially common. During the height of rococo, these allegedly sinful paintings were decried by a variety of critics in the Catholic Church and in the established world of Baroque art. These skeptics regarded rococo as being firmly attached to what was then thought of as the sin of worldliness.
In later years, Rococo paintings continued to receive a great deal of criticism, although the modern reasons for this badmouthing rarely involved objections to rococo’s sometimes lewd depictions of its subjects. Rather, many critics of the 19th and 20th centuries regarded rococo artwork as shallow and meaningless. Today, however, the style has experienced something of a revival, with fans admiring the whimsy and hints of satire present in these soft and visually appealing paintings.