Renowned for the lighthearted nature of its fine and decorative art, the Rococo style flourished in 18th-century France. Artists working in this frivolous aesthetic built upon the flamboyance of the Baroque period, adapting its awe-inspiring aesthetic to produce equally extravagant yet distinctively playful works of art.
The Rococo movement is predominantly associated with two types of art: painting and decorative pieces. Here, we unravel this unique style in order to understand its significance in the history of art.
What was the Rococo period?
The Rococo style was fashionable from 1730 to 1770. While it started in France, it eventually spread to other parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Bavaria, and Russia.
The term Rococo is derived from rocaille, a special method of decorating fountains and grottoes that dates back to the Italian Renaissance. Using this technique, artisans would mix seashells, pebbles, and other organic materials with cement, culminating in a naturalistic, under-the-sea-inspired medium.
Artists working in the Rococo style shared this Renaissance fascination with water, as evident in both the fluidity of forms and use of marine motifs in their work.
The whimsical nature of rocaille influenced paintings from the period, manifesting as frivolous iconography, an attention to ornate detail, and an abundance of pastel tones.
Playful Subject Matter
Many Rococo paintings feature refined yet jovial subject matter—an approach that was popularized by French painter Antoine Watteau. As the father of the fête galante—a genre of painting that favors garden parties, festivals, and other outdoor events as subject matter—Watteau produced whimsical scenes of people socializing in pastoral landscapes. Often featuring fluttering Cupids, Greek goddesses, and other mythological figures, these depictions blend fantasy with reality.
In addition to these open air settings, many Rococo paintings take place in opulent interiors. Like fête galante paintings, these pieces often feature amusing iconography and mythological influences.
Attention to Detail
Rococo paintings showcase an exquisite attention to detail. Inspired by Renaissance artists, French painter François Boucher is renowned for his interest in emphasizing the intricacies of a scene. His detail-oriented approach to painting materializes as impossibly ornate costumes and “elaborately decorative” skies (The Getty Museum).
Pastel Color Palette
While Baroque paintings are associated with deep colors and emotive shadows, Rococo works are characterized by an airy pastel palette. Jean-Honoré Fragonard captures the alluring light-heartedness of this color scheme in his most famous painting, The Swing. Set in swirls of light green foliage, The Swing stars a woman dressed in a pale pink dress playing on a swing and flirtatiously flinging off her shoe.
Rococo Decorative Arts
In addition to painting, artists also produced decorative art objects in the Rococo style. These pieces exhibit interests in asymmetry and a theatrical approach to portraying nature.
Rococo decorative arts often incorporate intricate, asymmetrical forms. These serpentine silhouettes are inherently naturalistic yet undoubtedly exaggerated, and are found in a range of objects, including intricate tables and eye-catching candelabra.
Most of these organic yet ornate designs are inspired by nature—especially seashells, waves, and other sea-related motifs. In addition to this rocaille focus, however, many Rococo artists also employed leaf motifs in their work, including gilded, vine-like wall and ceiling embellishments and ornaments featuring stylized acanthus fronds.
Along with Impressionism, Rococo is considered one of the most influential French art movements. It is celebrated for both its light-and-airy paintings and its fanciful decorative arts, which, together, showcase the elegant yet ebullient tastes of 18th-century France.