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Rococo movement enlivens the façade of the Cathedral, Càdiz

The Rococo style developed as a relief from formalities of Late Baroque interiors. It probably received its name among young assistants in the atelier of the neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, who used the word whimsically to designate the old shellwork style (style rocaille) of the ancien régime , which had been dowdy in France since about 1775, though in Spain it continued to bloom (illustration, right).

To sketch the career of Rococo briefly, it began as a French style of interior decoration during the Régence that followed Louis XIV's death, 1715 - 1723: the "Régence style." Versailles was temporarily in eclipse, and French power and fashion centered around the court of the Regent, Philippe d'Orléans, at the Palais-Royal Paris. A Late Baroque designer for the Court, who was influential in starting this transitional "freeing-up" phase was Jean Bérain (1638 - 1711). An early departure of the new style was the fashion for "Bizarre pattern" woven silks during the first decade of the century, where the large repeated medallion elements of Baroque silks were replaced by abstract and Orientalizing patterns with a diagonal movement.

The Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren (Bavaria): architectural spaces flow together and swarm with life
The Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren (Bavaria): architectural spaces flow together and swarm with life

A few anti-architectural hints rapidly evolved into full-blown Rococo at the end of the 1720s and began to affect interiors and decorative arts throughout Europe. The richest forms of German Rococo are in Catholic Germany (illustration, above left).

The beginning of the end of Rococo occurred in the early 1760s, when a handful of French students were experimenting with classical styles at the French Academy in Rome, a style taken up in avant-garde salons in Paris from the mid-1760s, as the Gout Grec ("Greek taste"), but which made no appearance at Court until the new king Louis XVI and his fashion-loving Queen came to the throne in 1771. By 1780, Rococo was passé in metropolitan French circles. It remained popular in the provinces ("French provincial") and in Italy, until the second, archaeological phase of neoclassicism, "Empire style" arrived with Napoleonic governments and swept the Rococo away.

Rococo in England was always thought of as the "French taste" and was largely confined to silver, ceramics and furnishings, though rococo plasterwork by immigrant Italian-Swiss artists like Bagutti and Artari is a feature of houses by James Gibbs, and the Franchini brothers working in Ireland equalled anything that was attempted in England. But about 1830, the English were among the first to revive the "Louis Fourteenth style" as it was miscalled at first, and paid inflated prices for second-hand Rococo luxury goods that could scarcely be sold in Paris.

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Francois Boucher, Le Dejeuner, 1739, Louvre:

As its effect was less pronounced on the exterior face of architecture than on the disposing and scale and decoration of interiors, French Rococo was at home indoors (illustration, left). The mood of Boucher's picture of 1739, and details in it, epitomize several aspects of Rococo:

Galante. The Galante style was the equivalent of Rococo in music history, too, between Baroque and Classical, and it is not easy to define in words. "Courtly" would be pretentious in this upper bourgeois circle, yet the man's gesture is gallant. The stylish but cozy interior, the informal decorous intimacy of people's manners, the curious and delightful details everywhere one turned one's eye, the luxury of sipping chocolate: all are galante.

Contraste. Rococo adopted a pleasure in asymmetry, a taste that was new to European style. The gilt-brass wall-lights balance one another, but each is elaborately asymmetrical, composed of abstract leaf and rocaille forms. The wall clock on its bracket, a well-known design by Charles Cressent is in a gilt-brass case filled with contraste in its details. Its theme: "Love conquers Time," with a Cupid atop the clockcase and Time with his scythe, collapsed below.

Chinoiserie. Rococo taste enjoyed the exotic character of Chinese arts, and imitated them in wares produced in France. In the etagère (case of shelves) to the left of the chimneypiece are decorative tea things above a seated mandarin; they might have been imported, or they might have been European chinoiserie. (Wider aspects of fanciful European views of the East are discussed at the entry Orient.)

Design for a table by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, Paris ca 1730
Design for a table by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, Paris ca 1730

In a full-blown Rococo design, like the Table d'appartement ca 1730, by the German designer J.-A. Meissonnier, working in Paris (illustration, right), any reference to tectonic form has been blown away: even the marble slab top is shaped. Apron, legs, stretcher have all been seamlessly integrated into a flow of opposed c-scrolls and rocaille. The "knot" (noeud) of the stretcher shows the asymmetrical contraste that was a Rococo innovation.

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Anti-Rococo: William Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode, London, 1745 (National Gallery, London)

In England, one of Hogarth's set of paintings forming a melodramatic morality tale titled "Marriage à la Mode", engraved in 1745, shows the parade rooms of a stylish London house, in which the only rococo is in plasterwork of the Saloon's ceiling. Palladian architecture is in control. Here, on the Kentian mantel, the crowd of Chinese vases and mandarins are satirically rendered as hideous little monstrosities, and the rococo wall clock is a jumble of leafy branches.

The Rococo style was readily received in the Catholic parts of Germany and in Bohemia and Austria, where it was even further exaggerated; it remained in favor until the 1780s, maybe even longer. In Italy tendencies in the Late Baroque of Borromini and Guarini set the tone for Rococo in Turin, Venice, Naples and Sicily, while arts in Tuscany and Rome remained more wedded to the Baroque.

In those Continental contexts where Rococo is fully in control, sportive, fantastic, and sculptured forms are expressed with abstract ornament using flaming, leafy or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps and flourishes and broken curves; intimate Rococo interiors suppress architectonic divisions of architrave, frieze and cornice for the picturesque, the curious, and the whimsical, expressed in plastic materials like carved wood and above all stucco. Walls, ceiling, furniture, and works of metal and porcelain present a unified ensemble. The Rococo palette is softer and paler than the rich primary colors and dark tonalities favored in Baroque tastes.

The sculptor Bouchardon represented Cupid engaged in carving his darts of love from the club of Hercules; this serves as an excellent symbol of the Rococo style— the demigod is transformed into the soft child, the bone-shattering club becomes the heart-scathing arrows, just as marble is so freely replaced by stucco. In this connection, the French sculptors, Robert le Lorrain, Michel Clodion, and Pigalle may be mentioned in passing.

For small plastic figures of gypsum, clay, biscuit, porcelain (Sèvres, Meissen), the gay Rococo is not unsuitable; in wood, iron, and royal metal, it has created some valuable works. However, confessionals, pulpits, altars, and even facades lead ever more into the territory of the architectonic, which does not easily combine with the curves of Rococo, the light and the petty, with forms whose whence and wherefore baffle inquiry.

Solitude Palace (Stuttgart, Germany) - a masterpiece of south-german secular Rococo architecture
Solitude Palace (Stuttgart, Germany) - a masterpiece of south-german secular Rococo architecture

Even as mere decoration on the walls of the interiors the new forms could maintain their ground only for a few decades. In France the sway of the Rococo practically ceases with Oppenord (died 1742) and Meissonier (died 1750). Inaugurated in some rooms in the Palace of Versailles, it unfolds its magnificence in several Parisian buildings (especially the Hôtel Soubise). In Germany, French and German artists (Cuvilliés, Neumann, Knobelsdorff, etc.) effected the dignified equipment of the Amalienburg near Munich, and the castles of Würzburg, Potsdam, Charlottenburg, Brühl, Bruchsal, Solitude (Stuttgart), Schönbrunn, etc.

In France the style remained somewhat more reserved, since the ornaments were mostly of wood, or, after the fashion of wood-carving, less robust and naturalistic and less exuberant in the mixture of natural with artificial forms of all kinds (e.g. plant motives, stalactitic representations, grotesques, masks, implements of various professions, badges, paintings, precious stones). As elements of the beautiful France retained, to a greater extent than Germany, the unity of the whole scheme of decoration and the symmetry of its parts.

This style needs not only decorators, goldsmiths, and other technicians, but also painters. The French painters of this period reflect most truly the moral depression dating from the time of Louis XIV, even the most deliberated among them confining themselves to social portraits of high society and depicting "gallant festivals", with their informal frivolous, theatrically or modishly garbed society. The "beautiful sensuality" is effected by masterly technique, especially in the colouring, and to a great extent by quite immoral licenses or mythological nudities as in loose or indelicate romances. As for Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), the very titles of his works--e.g. Conversation, Breakfast in the Open Air, Rural Pleasures, Italian or French Comedians, Embarkment for the Island of Cythera— indicate the spirit and tendency of his art. Add thereto the figures in fashionable costume slim in head, throat, and feet, in unaffected pose, represented amid enchanting, rural scenery, painted in the finest colours, and we have a picture of the high society of the period which beheld Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. François Boucher (1703-1770) is the most celebrated painter of ripe Rococo.


Rococo "worldliness" and the Roman Catholic Church

A critical view of the unsuitable nature of Rococo in ecclesiastical contexts was taken up by the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"For the church Rococo may be, generally speaking, compared with worldly church music. Its lack of simplicity, earnestness, and repose is evident, while its obtrusive artificiality, unnaturalness, and triviality have a distracting effect. Its softness and prettiness likewise do not become the house of God. However, shorn of its most grievous outgrowths, it may have been less distracting during its proper epoch, since it then harmonized with the spirit of the age.
A development of Baroque, it will be found a congruous decoration for baroque churches.
In general it makes a vast difference whether the style is used with moderation in the finer and more ingenious form of the French masters, or is carried to extremes with the consistency of the German. The French artists seem ever to have regarded the beauty of the whole composition as the chief object, while the German laid most stress on the bold vigour of the lines; thus, the lack of symmetry was never so exaggerated in the works of the former.
In the church Rococo may at times have the charm of prettiness and may please by its ingenious technic, provided the objects be small and subordinate a credence table with cruets and plate, a vase, a choir desk, lamps, key and lock, railings or balustrade, do not too boldly challenge the eye, and fulfill all the requirements of mere beauty of form.
Rococo is indeed really empty, solely a pleasing play of the fancy.

In the sacristy (for presses etc.) and ante chambers it is more suitable than in the church itself— at least so far as its employment in conspicuous places is concerned.

The Rococo style accords very ill with the solemn office of the monstrance, the tabernacle, and the altar, and even of the pulpit. The naturalism of certain Belgian pulpits, in spite or perhaps on account of their artistic character, has the same effect as have outspoken Rococo creations.
The purpose of the confessional and the baptistery would also seem to demand more earnest forms.
In the case of the larger objects, the sculpture of Rococo forms either seems pretty, or, if this prettiness be avoided, resembles Baroque. The phantasies of this style agree ill with the lofty and broad walls of the church. However, everything must be decided according to the object and circumstances; the stalls in the cathedral of Mainz elicit not only our approval but also our admiration, while the celebrated privileged altar of Vierzehnheiligen repels us both by its forms and its plastic decoration.
There are certain Rococo chalices (like that at the monastery of Einsiedeln) which are, as one might say, decked out in choice festive array; there are others, which are more or less misshapen owing to their bulging curves or figures. Chandeliers and lamps may also be disfigured by obtrusive shellwork or want of all symmetry, or may amid great decorativeness be kept within reasonable limits.
The material and technic are also of consequence in Rococo. Woven materials, wood carvings, and works in plaster of Paris are evidently less obtrusive than works in other materials, when they employ the sportive Rococo. Iron (especially in railings) and bronze lose their coldness and hardness, when animated by the Rococo style; in the case of the latter, gilding may be used with advantage. Gilding and painting belong to the regular means through which this style, under certain circumstances, enchants the eye and fancy. All things considered, we may say of the Rococo style— as has not unreasonably been said of the Baroque and of the Renaissance— that it is very apt to introduce a worldly spirit into the church, even if we overlook the figural accessories, which are frequently in no way conducive to sentiments of devotion, and are incompatible with the sobriety and greatness of the architecture and with the seriousness of sacred functions."

Rococo furniture style

Rococo is a style of architecture or decoration that originated in France in the early 1700s. It is characterized by elaborate but light and graceful ornamentation. However the term did not come into general use until the 1800s when it was used to describe excessively ornate furniture and carving. Later it came to mean the style of Louis XV without necessairly losing its former meaning.

The word Rococo is probably derived from the French word, rocaille meaning "rock-work" and was originally used to describe the artificial grottos at Versailles.

Originally rococo work was confined to two dimensions. Quite early on it became influenced by Chinese decorative motifs and themes and then developed into a three dimensional style of elegant complexity.

Dynasties of Parisian ébénistes, some of them German-born, developed a style of surfaces curved in three dimensions (bombé), where matched veneers (marquetry temporarily being in eclipse) or vernis martin japanning was effortlessly completed by gilt-bronze ("ormolu") mounts: Antoine Gaudreau, Charles Cressent, Jean-Pierre Latz, François Oeben, Bernard II van Risenbergh are the outstanding names.

French designers like François Cuvilliés and Nicholas Pineau exported Parisian styles in person to Munich and Saint Petersburg, while the German Juste-Aurèle Meissonier found his career at Paris. The guiding spirits of the Parisian rococo were a small group of marchands-merciers, the forerunners of modern decorators, led by Simon-Philippe Poirier.

English rococo tended to be more restrained for example Chippendale's designs for ribbon backed chairs. The most successful exponent of English Rococo was probably Thomas Johnson a gifted carver and furniture designer working in London in the mid 1700s.

The revival of the rococo style in England began about 1830 and contributed to the volumptuous curves of mid-Victorian style. In Paris at the same time, brilliant pastiches of 18th century Rococo styles culminated in the neo-Rococo furniture of Beurdeley and Linke.

See also

Cultural movement - Wies

Example of rococo architectonics is the Murcia cathedral.

External link


  • Examples (

Further reading

  • Fiske Kimball, 1943. Creation of the Rococo (Reprinted as The Creation of the Rococo Decorative Style, 1980).
  • Arno Schönberger and Halldor Soehner, 1960. The Age of Rococo Published in the US as The Rococo Age: Art and Civilization of the 18th Century (Originally published in German, 1959).
  • Michael Levey, 1980. Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice, (Revised edition).
  • Pal Kelemen, 1967. Baroque and Rococo in Latin America, (2nd edition).

da:Rokoko de:Rokoko fr:Rococo nl:Rococo ja:ロココ pl:Rokoko pt:Rococó ru:Рококо sv:Rokoko zh:洛可可


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