Rococo is a style in the art of Western Europe in the first and second thirds of 18th cent. that was transitional between baroque and neoclassicism. Dainty and devoid of deep ideology, it emerged in France in the epoch of crisis of absolutism. After the death of Louis XIV, the cultural center shifted from royal court to aristocracy, from Versailles to Paris. “Grand manner” of Classicism, which had been propagated during previous 50 years, was too serious for the insouciant atmosphere prevailing among the elite and a new vision was required.
The origin of the term is usually connected with French “rocaille” – a seashell. Not accidently it was a popular decorative motif. The word acquired new implied sense, defining a nature’s caprice, a whim of fantasy, something unusual and pretentious. A shell (scallop in particular) is a feminine symbol: it’s enough to remember a masterpiece by Sandro Botticelli “Birth of Venus”. And the fact that the 18th cent. in France itself was called “Time of Cupid and Venus” isn’t casual.
Some specialists consider rococo to be the stage of Late Baroque art, but the 18th cent. style, with its intimacy and carelessness, is absolutely opposite to monumentality of baroque. So, it should be researched singly.
The kinship of rococo with the Enlightenment is revealed by the accentuation on sensuality and sensitiveness, ability for delicate perception of artistically changed reality. Such hedonism reflected concentration on sensual-material aspects of life. At the same time, rococo and the Enlightenment can be perceived as contradictory phenomenons, as the “loveliness” of art, aimed at noble circles, received much criticism from great minds of their time. Through various public sources (mostly of written character – like essays and novels), philosophers attacked this art, destined for boudoir, like Denis Diderot once said, and tries to popularize revitalized humanistic ideals. They referred to middle-class, encouraging them to exert more influence on contemporary tastes.
Some typical features of rococo were the absence of formulated aesthetical theory and the elite character of art. Unlike proceeding Renaissance and baroque style, it didn’t have a religious component, though it was used in trimming of temples.
Rococo contained in itself contradictory traits, being private and public, aristocratic and accessible at the same time. They all were united by a great sense of humor and easy-goingness that separated the nobility from politics and church. Art was fully dedicated to depicting a pure joy of life for pleasing a viewer. All didacticism of Classicism and grand-scale of Baroque were moved aside. Rococo took some of their peculiarities, but radically transformed them: baroque love to dynamism and lavish decoration were brought to extreme, but at the same time, on much smaller scale; classicistic triad of red, blue and yellow was replaced with their pale, tender analogies – pink, sky-blue, soft yellow.
The art of rococo paid man attention to the mundane world, so there’s no surprise the 18th cent. witnessed flourishing of interiors and furnishing, and genre scenes of private life were extremely wide-spread. The original aim at sensuality led to interest in a certain flirting behavior and self-representation (defiant models of clothing, frivolous subjects, etc). Rococo wanted to adorn life, make it more artistic, turning it into an everyday festival. From this derived the element of game, tendency for elaborate interpretation of utilitarian objects and make ordinary existence comfortable and beautiful. Therefore, it’s absolutely natural that the central category for rococo is elegance.
Pleasure – that’s one of the key notions in the lexicon of Rococo. The cult of beautiful nudity, deriving from antiquity, in the 18th cent. acquired somewhat different from Renaissance and baroque perceptions of this theme: some pieces of the artists were under the risk to appear on the verge of vulgarity. Nevertheless, they rarely crossed it. The idea of “art of being pleasing” imbued the whole epoch, called the “Gallant age”. The refined manners and leisure-spending were fully reflected in a new genre, introduced by Jean-Antoine Watteau – Fete galantes (translated from French as “courtship party”) showing men and women disporting themselves, mainly in park settings.
Aesthetics of rococo is the aesthetic of nuances and hints. In the image of a person it became harder to distinguish veracious representation of a model from reticence of some parts of her individuality, a true face from social mask. The intriguing duality was a typical feature of the 18th cent. portraits. At the same time, they are disposed to interact with a viewer and evoke his reaction. Rococo masters were unsurpassed in depicting subtle gestures, semi-tones in facial expressions and look. Even keeping a certain distance from a model, an artists alluded on the possibility to overcome it.
Another, already mentioned, characteristic feature of rococo is tendency towards chamber scale: architecture concentrated mostly on private building (salons, cabinets, boudoirs); sculpture – on small figurines. One would often hear the word “bagatelle” in those days in France – it’s totally devoid of utility trifle thing, that filled the every-day life of a person.
For the 18th cent. the determinant category was taste. It gradually ousted the category of style, like the latter, in due time, had ousted “manner”.
An important aspect of rococo style is a place of woman within it. Women played a remarkable role in the 18th cent. society and became a significant subject in art and participants of cultural process as artists and art patrons.
Female body was a source of inspiration for visual language of rococo, as well as for its range of subjects. This way, predominance of curved lined reflects “feminization” of forms: architecture, sculpture, painting – everything was distinguished by fluently flowing masses, avoiding sharp gradients. For instance, English artist and theoretician William Hogarth considered S-shaped line not less than a “denominator of beauty”. Nude women were often applied in mythological (especially about love affairs of Greek gods) genre or as allegories of seasons. Apart of that, painters made amorous pastoral and boudoir scenes that were of great demand.
Rococo gave us a number of bright names of women artists. The majority of them were amateurs, who started mastering this profession at home, since women weren’t allowed to enter arts schools, because male anatomy was studied there. Mainly they specialized in portrait painting, though still life and miniature painting were still popular. Oil and pastel were most common medias, used for portraits.
Some of female artists managed to make themselves a successful career, working with those in power. For instance, the name of Italian Rosalba Carriera gain international recognition as a fruitful and accomplished author and was invited to work all over Europe. In France Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, a daughter of a painter, was the official portrait artist for Marie Antoinette. Her patroness lobbied Academy to admit her. However, very soon, in 1780s Adelaide Labille-Guiard, famous for her miniature portraits in pastel, obtained the right for women to enter the Parisian Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Women worked not only in portraiture, but also in Grand genre of history painting. Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman was a painter, renowned for her mythological and allegorical compositions. She was one of two female founding members of the British Royal Academy.
Not rarely wealthy and aristocrat women took up patronage over some artists. They had different motives: some, like Jeanne-Baptiste d’Albert de Luynes, established their art collections for the sake of love for art, others, like Jeanne Bécu, others – because of the social prestige.
Curiosity was an essential part of rococo mentality. It spurred passion with all exotic things. Chinoiserie (literary translated from French as “chinese-esque”) was a sub-movement in rococo art notable for applying medieval Chinese motifs in painting, architecture, landscape gardening, decorative arts and costumes. Its roots go back to the 17th cent., when there was a true Chinese porcelain boom among European aristocrats. That stimulated western masters to start searching for the way to produce analogical porcelain themselves (the first European porcelain manufacture was opened in 1710 in Meissen, Germany). In parallel with it, they were carried away with studying and replicating Chinese artistic manner. Their knowledge about eastern culture were limited, so they had to make up, using their own ideas.
Artists, who worked in this movement, created exquisite and unserious pastoral pictures. The heroes of such “Chinese” scenes were usually emperors, their concubines, dancers and warriors. For sure, they had practically no resemblance with the Chinese reality and rather demonstrated European stereotype ideas about this country. With the rise of interest to tea-drinking, special “tea houses” were erected in palace complexes: tea pavilion in the San-Souci in Potsdam is brightest one. Simultaneously with chinoiserie paintings numerous tapestries and folding screens in this style were executed. In composition and coloring they were similar to canvases on analogical themes. Decorators employed Chinese ornaments also in producing of wall-papers. Such imported typical eastern accessories as fans and sun umbrellas became indispensable both for aristocrats and bourgeoisie in the 18th cent.
Another episodic outbursts of infatuation with oriental theme would happen in succeeding 19th and 20th cent., but it was never as “epidemic” as it was in rococo period.
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