Rococo refers to a style of art which emerged in early eighteenth century France under the reign of Louis XV. It is characterised by elaborate ornamentation, which includes scrolls, flora and animal forms. As a style it was not just associated with painting and sculpture, but also interior design, architecture, furniture, fabric and tableware.

Jean-Antoine Watteau Fêtes Vénitiennes 1718 - 1719

A decorative and elaborate art movement originating in eighteenth century Paris, characterised by curvaceous lines and the illustration of light-hearted, romantic and whimsical scenes. In France the style was led by painters Francois Boucher, Jean-Honore Fragonard and Jean-Antoine Watteau, and the sculptor Clodion, later pioneered in England by painters William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, who celebrated the luxuries of aristocratic life.

Origins of the term

The term ‘rococo’ is derived from the French word ‘rocaille,’ meaning ‘rock work’, often used in reference to the shell work in garden grottoes; it became a descriptive word in reference to the whiplash curls and serpentine rolls of the rococo style. Following the death of Louis XIV, members of the French court left Versailles and established a new, aristocratic society in Paris. They led fashion and interior decor away from the King’s grand, Baroque style towards softer, graceful curves and elegance. Their preference was for Mannerist relief designs featuring stucco, gilding, curls and rolls, which began to appear on furniture, cornicing and picture frames.

Parisian High Society

The leisure pursuits of wealthy, Parisian aristocrats were a source of great fascination for artists of the rococo era, whose indulgence and excess stood in marked contrast to the rest of ordinary French life. They painted both real and imaginary figures with a light touch, emphasising curves and sensuality, situating female figures amongst lush, overgrown vegetation.

Jean-Antoine Watteau was fascinated by the elite classes, capturing portraits and group studies which hinted at scandalous love affairs simmering under the surface, as seen in his indulgent Fetes Venitiennes, 1718-19, capturing himself as a musician while the leading actress Charlotte Desmares, known mistress of the Duc D’Orleans, is portrayed dancing with Flemish painter Nicolas Vleughels amidst a hazy and imaginary romantic landscape. The work is a typical example of the fashionable fete galante (courtship party) category of painting which Watteau pioneered, illustrating graceful, aristocratic groups in social settings. Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing, 1767, is more direct, capturing a lady swinging just high enough to allow her lover down below to catch a glimpse up her skirt, in a display of playful flirtation. Though more discreet, Francois Boucher’s paintings also typified the decorative and amorous language of the Rococo era; In A Pastoral Scene (L’Aimable Pastorale), 1762, a young couple is set amidst a rural scene of curling branches and leaves while they gaze longingly into one another’s eyes.

Rococo in Britain

The Rococo style was introduced into Britain by French painter Philip Mercier, who became painter to the Prince and Princess of Wales. Although less flamboyant and scandalous, the French rococo undoubtedly influenced the lavish high society portraits of Thomas Gainsborough, including The Honourable Mrs Graham, 1775-77, which emphasises his sitter’s refined, elegant beauty with sinuous curves, indulgent fabric and refined details. Sir Joshua Reynolds also revealed the influence of Watteau in his society portraits, painting with the same light, breezy touch, as seen in The Ladies Waldegrave, 1780, which places three sisters together against a rich, heavy curtain as the white, cold air seems to filter in from the garden beyond.

Legacy

As the century drew to a close, the decorative and playful language of Rococo was replaced with the more retrained, ordered language of Neo-classicism. The style developed somewhat negative connotations, with many in the nineteenth century associating the term with that which is 'old fashioned' or 'tastelessly florid and feebly pretentious.' By the later nineteenth century various French artists rediscovered Fragonard’s delicate, sensitively handled landscapes and appropriated his language, including the French Impressionists Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Rococo language has also been re-invented by various contemporary artists since, who have absorbed the fanciful decoration of the era into their practice as a form of postmodern pastiche, including Lisa Yuskavage, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.