Rococo emerged in the final years of reigning of the Louis XIV (1643 ‑ 1715), but, unlike all proceeding styles of French architecture, it wasn’t a court art. Major part of rococo buildings were private houses of French aristocracy: wealthy city mansions (they used to call them “hotels” in Paris) and country villas.
Usually, a high fence separated a mansion from a street, hiding the life of its owners. Its structure didn’t preserve distinguishing for classicism integrity of exterior and interior space, architects gave up logical lucidity and rational subordination of parts to the whole structure. If facades of hotels maintained traces of severity, then proportions and inner planning greatly changed. Rooms were often curvilinear: they weren’t situated in enfilade (on axis, one after another), like it was in the 17th cent., but were asymmetrically composed together. Usually, there was a gala hall in the center – so-called salon. Rooms were much smaller, then in classicism, with lower ceilings, but with huge windows, nearly from the floor. Interiors were trimmed with sculpted and carved decorations, painting and extreme number of mirrors.
A sample of rococo aristocratic dwelling of nobility is the hotel de Soubise, designed for Prince de Soubise by Pierre-Alexis Delamair in 1705 – 1709. It’s remarkable for its oval salon, without any straight line and lavish furnishing.
The demand of luxury led to shaping out a whole cast of masters, famous for their taste, fantasy and witness: woodcutters, jewellers, carpenters, casters, weavers and others, who made enormous contributions in shaping of rococo interior design. Their professions were often passed across the generations. Famous masters of applied arts were Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier and Gilles Marie Oppenordt.
But rococo wasn’t all about private building, In the 18th cent. one of the most beautiful city ensembles of France was erected – the ensemble of three squares, The Place Stanislas in Nancy (on the east of the country), was commissioned in 1759s to Emmanuel Héré.
Rococo painting was predominantly decorative, with subtle play of colors, rather pale though (as some canvases of Nicolas Lancret demonstrates us). It’s closely connected with the interior of a hotel and was popular both in easel and mural forms. In plafonds, over-door panels (so-called dessus de porte) and tapestries landscapes, mythological episodes and fashionable and that time gallant themes were most common. The latter depicted the private life of aristocracy, whether pastoral genre often showed a noble model as a shepherd, on antique manner. Eroticism was an essential part of rococo mentality. And sensuous nudes of François Boucher corresponded to the tastes of elite. Another painter mesmerized with his amorous scenes was Jean-Honoré Fragonard, as gallant flirtation and seduction were his main topic.
Roughly saying, human image wasn’t a key stone of art anymore, turning into staffage, ornamental detail. The form, that was kind of quintessence of rococo sentimental and feminine character was oval. It comes as no surprise that it was the shape often chosen for canvases. Painters of rococo mastered in exquisite coloring, expressing lightness with emphatically light palette, preference of faded hues. Their liberate manner of applying paints derived from Venetian school and such great masters as Rubens and Veronese, as the turn of the century witnessed the victory of Rubenisits over the severe Poussinists. One of the initiators of rococo was Jean-Antoine Watteau. Elaborating their techniques, rococo artists strengthened the role of realistic tendencies, as portrait, still life and genre painting (that reached its high-point in the art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin) also flourished.
French sculpture of the 18th cent. was defined by a bit eclectic features. The language of their plasticity largely depended on the format: if in monumental sculpture artists with caution of the “Grand manner” of the previous century, in small-scale works the signs of rococo became obvious. During the whole century, various hybrid forms from “slimmed-down baroque” or “rococo classicism” were produced. An artist, who successfully worked in all this various stylistics was Étienne Maurice Falconet.
Like in painting, mythological and allegorical subjects were especially wide-spread, as they allowed sculptors to depict naked body, primary female or childish. This theme prevailed in small statuettes. A renown master in this field was Jean Baptiste Pigalle. Their artistic rendering aspired for lightness of form and exility. Even figures of royal family lost their former grandeur and solemnity, getting more dynamic and humane. Search for gracefulness of the movements was the core issue for sculptors. Modeling tended to be smoother, with the accent on superfine chiaroscuro transitions. In elaboration of the surface picturesqueness competes with plasticity.
Sculptural portrait of this period received a significant development, but in the first half of the century not a large number of high-level pieces of this genre could be mentioned. In the court portraits main attention is paid to their formal delicacy and facial features lost their acuteness.
A special role in the history of French rococo engraving was played by book illustration. It lasted only for several decades, during which amazing results were achieved. Connoisseurs considered it a piece of art, and it turned into a sample of elegance and finesse, so typical for the epoch. Apart from illustrations themselves, book was ornamented with vignettes, framings and colophons. All compositions, executed by brilliant draughtsmen, were engraved mainly in the etching technique. Sometimes the success of the book was guaranteed not so much by its text, as by its artistic appearance. The animation with printing was so deep, that even such historical persons as Philippe II, Duke of Orleans and marquise de Pompadour tried their hands in it One of the brightest etchers of the 1800s was Gabriel de Saint-Aubin.
The second half f the 18th cent. is a period of experiments in engraving, as masters were seeking for methods that would allow them to reproduce not only paintings, but drawings in sanguine, charcoal, ink or watercolors. That was connected with a growing interest of French society in graphic art as totally self-sufficient one. Drawings, aquatints, pastels used to appear in salons in large quantities. The first master, who used color printing was Jean-Francois Janinet.
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