The Rococo art movement—or late Baroque as it’s sometimes known—took place during the 18th century. This movement began in Paris, France, during the early part of the 18th century.
Jean-Antoine Watteau is most closely associated with Rococo painting in France. He was very interested in gaining acceptance to the Academy of the Arts in France as well as painting themes that would appeal to his buyers, so to satisfy both, he developed a style called fête galante, which means “amorous festival.” Watteau was Flemish, and fell into the category of painters titled “Rubenistes,” after Peter Paul Rubens, who felt that color was the most important aspect of a painting. Watteau's influence helped in establishing the style of the Rococo as the most dominant style of painting in 18th century France.
The painting below, considered his masterpiece, was what he submitted to the Academy for consideration. The mythical island of Cythera was a place of eternal love and youth, and this particular group of individuals has made a pilgrimage to the island.
This painting recalls earlier French landscape paintings, but here the emphasis is very much on the people within it. They’re portrayed rather elegantly and delicately. Notice how even the men appear to move effortlessly on their feet. Watteau emphasizes color and gesture, and the influence of his Flemish roots can be seen in the fantastic rendering of material textures, such as the silk dress of the young woman in the front and the way sunlight reflects off of it, shown in this closeup:
There were actually two versions of this painting. The second one looks very similar to the first, except it has significantly more cupids flying around overhead. Watteau’s work has a hint of melancholy in it regarding the fading of happiness and youth that is present in other paintings, such as Poussin’s '“Et in Arcadia Ergo.”
François Boucher was another well-known Rococo artist, due in part to the early death of Watteau, as well as the patronage of Madame Pompadour, the famous mistress of King Louis XV. She commissioned the painting below, titled “The Toilet of Venus.”
The soft figures of Venus and her little blond-haired and chubby Cupid seem almost luminescent against the heavy fabrics and gilded furniture where she relaxes. The depiction of figures from classical mythology at ease or play was a frequent theme in Boucher’s work, which often explored playful and erotic scenes.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a student of Boucher’s, and continued many of the themes seen in Watteau’s earlier work. Many feel that this next painting is synonymous with the Rococo period; thematically and stylistically, this painting truly defines the Rococo ideal. Fragonard uses bright pink pastels to draw our eye immediately to the figure of the young woman swinging, the operation of which is being carried out by what’s supposed to be an old bishop, hidden in the shadows to the right.
Can you see the woman’s lover, stretched out in the lower left-hand corner, on the ground surrounded by a bush? The young man is actually the patron of the painting and gestures adoringly at the young woman, who casually flicks off her shoe in the direction of the statue of a cupid, who is in a hushing gesture with his finger to his lips. Oh, to be young and rich and French! (That is, until the Revolution.)
The portrait was another area that remained important as a form of painting during the Rococo. A number of very talented portraitists emerged during this time, including women such as the artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Below you will see a famous painting by LeBrun, a portrait of Marie Antoinette, which was commissioned by the young queen of Louis XVI.
Although it’s clearly depicting an aristocrat, or at least someone of means, the elaborate and decadent image that was typically associated with French royalty is absent here. It’s a far more reserved depiction of the queen appearing to tend to flowers, and it was quite controversial at the time among her critics, who felt it was improper to depict a queen in this fashion.
Another Rococo painter of note from outside of France was the artist Thomas Gainsborough of England. He favored landscapes, which shows in his work; as you can see in the portrait below, the surrounding landscape seems to almost hold an equal amount of importance as the subject.
As a portraitist, he was known as a grand manner portrait painter who sought to elevate the person being depicted through a sense of elegance and refinement. As you can see in the next example, the soft appearance and feathery brushwork is indicative of the Rococo style.
In today’s lesson about Rococo art, you learned how to identify and define today’s key terms. You also learned how to describe design elements of the Rococo and identify examples of Rococo art by exploring works by Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Lastly, you learned about Rococo portrait paintings of the period, exploring artwork by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Thomas Gainsborough.}}
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Ian McConnell.