The Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren (Bavaria): architectural spaces flow
together and swarm with life
The Rococo style of art emerged in France in the early 18th century as a
continuation of the Baroque style, but in contrast to the heavier themes and
darker colors of the Baroque, the Rococo was characterized by an opulence,
grace, playfulness, and lightness. Rococo motifs focused on the carefree
aristocratic life and on lighthearted romance rather than heroic battles or
religious figures; they also revolve heavily around nature and exterior
settings. In the mid-late 18th century, rococo was surpassed by the
The word Rococo was apparently a combination of the French rocaille, or
shell, and the Italian barocco, or Baroque style. Due to Rococo love of
shell-like curves and focus on decorative arts, some critics used the term
to derogatively imply that the style was frivolous or merely fashion;
interestingly, when the term was first used in English in about 1836, it was
a colloquialism meaning "old-fashioned". However, since the mid 19th
century, the term has been accepted by art historians. While there is still
some debate about the art historical significance of the style, rococo is
now widely recognized as a major period in the development of European art.
Anti-Rococo: William Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode, London, 1745 (National
Rococo developed first in the decorative arts and interior design. Louis
XV's succession brought a change in the court artists and general
artistic fashion. By the end of the old king's reign, rich Baroque
designs were giving way to lighter elements with more curves and natural
patterns. These elements are evident in the architectural designs of
Nicolas Pineau. During the Régence, court life moved away from
Versailles and this artistic change became well established, first in
the royal palace and then throughout French high society. The delicacy
and playfulness of Rococo designs is often seen as a reaction to the
excesses of Louis XIV's regime.
The 1730s represented the height of Rococo development in France. The
style had spread beyond architecture and furniture to painting and
sculpture, exemplified by the works of Antoine Watteau and François
Boucher. Rococo still maintained the Baroque taste for complex forms and
intricate patterns. By this point, it had begun to integrate a variety
of diverse characteristics, including a taste for Oriental designs and
The Rococo style spread with French artists and engraved publications. It
was readily received in the Catholic parts of Germany, Bohemia, and
Austria, where it was merged with the lively German Baroque traditions.
Particularly in the south, German Rococo was applied with enthusiasm to
churches and palaces. Architects often draped their interiors in clouds
of fluffy white stucco. In Italy, the late Baroque styles of Borromini
and Guarini set the tone for Rococo in Turin, Venice, Naples and Sicily,
while the arts in Tuscany and Rome remained more wedded to Baroque.
Le Dejeuner by Francois Boucher, demonstrates elements of Rococo. (1739,
Rococo in England was always thought of as the "French taste." The
architectural stylings never caught on, though silverwork, porcelain,
and silks were strongly influenced by the continental style. Thomas
Chippendale transformed English furniture design through his adaptation
and refinement of the style. William Hogarth helped develop a
theoretical foundation for Rococo beauty. Though not intentionally
referencing the movement, he argued in his Analysis of Beauty (1753)
that the undulating lines and S-curves prominent in Rococo were the
basis for grace and beauty in art or nature (unlike the straight line or
the circle in Classicism). The development of Rococo in England is
considered to had been connected with the revival of interest in Gothic
architecture early in the 18th century.
The beginning of the end for Rococo came in the early 1760s as figures
like Voltaire and Jacques-François Blondel began to voice their
criticism of the superficiality and degeneracy of the art. Blondel
decried the "ridiculous jumble of shells, dragons, reeds, palm-trees and
plants" in contemporary interiors. By 1780, Rococo had passed out of
fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassical
artists like Jacques Louis David. It remained popular in the provinces
and in Italy, until the second phase of neoclassicism, "Empire style,"
arrived with Napoleonic governments and swept Rococo away.
There was a renewed interest in the Rococo style between 1820 and 1870.
The English were among the first to revive the "Louis XIV style" as it
was miscalled at first, and paid inflated prices for second-hand Rococo
luxury goods that could scarcely be sold in Paris. But prominent artists
like Delacroix and patrons like Empress Eugénie also rediscovered the
value of grace and playfulness in art and design.
Rococo in different artistic modes
Furniture and decorative objects
The lighthearted themes and intricate designs of Rococo presented
themselves best on a smaller scale than the imposing Baroque
architecture and sculpture. It is not surprising, then, that French
Rococo art was at home indoors. Metalwork, porcelain figures, and
especially furniture rose to new pre-eminence as the French upper
classes sought to outfit their homes in the now fashionable style.
Rococo style took pleasure in asymmetry, a taste that was new to European
style. This practice of leaving elements unbalanced for effect is called
contraste. This wall clock on its bracket, a well-known design by
Charles Cressent is in a gilt-brass case filled with "contraste" in its
details. Its theme: "Love conquers Time," with a Cupid atop the
clockcase and Time with his scythe, collapsed below.
Rococo taste enjoyed the exotic character of Chinese arts, and imitated
them in wares produced in France. In the etagère (case of shelves) to
the left of the chimneypiece are decorative tea things above a seated
mandarin; they might have been imported, or they might have been
European chinoiserie. (Wider aspects of fanciful European views of the
East are discussed at the entry Orient.)
In a full-blown Rococo design, like the Table d'appartement (ca. 1730), by
German designer J. A. Meissonnier, working in Paris (illustration,
below), any reference to tectonic form is gone: even the marble slab top
is shaped. Apron, legs, stretcher have all been seamlessly integrated
into a flow of opposed c-scrolls and "rocaille." The knot (noeud) of the
stretcher shows the asymmetrical "contraste" that was a Rococo
Design for a table by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, Paris ca 1730
For small plastic figures of gypsum, clay, biscuit, porcelain (Sèvres,
Meissen), the gay Rococo is not unsuitable; in wood, iron, and royal
metal, it has created some valuable works. However, confessionals,
pulpits, altars, and even facades lead ever more into the territory of
the architectonic, which does not easily combine with the curves of
Rococo, the light and the petty, with forms whose whence and wherefore
Dynasties of Parisian ébénistes, some of them German-born, developed a
style of surfaces curved in three dimensions (bombé), where matched
veneers (marquetry temporarily being in eclipse) or vernis martin
japanning was effortlessly completed by gilt-bronze ("ormolu") mounts:
Antoine Gaudreau, Charles Cressent, Jean-Pierre Latz, François Oeben,
Bernard II van Risenbergh are the outstanding names.
French designers like François Cuvilliés and Nicholas Pineau exported
Parisian styles in person to Munich and Saint Petersburg, while the
German Juste-Aurèle Meissonier found his career at Paris. The guiding
spirits of the Parisian rococo were a small group of marchands-merciers,
the forerunners of modern decorators, led by Simon-Philippenis Poirier.
In France the style remained somewhat more reserved, since the ornaments
were mostly of wood, or, after the fashion of wood-carving, less robust
and naturalistic and less exuberant in the mixture of natural with
artificial forms of all kinds (e.g. plant motives, stalactitic
representations, grotesques, masks, implements of various professions,
badges, paintings, precious stones).
English Rococo tended to be more restrained. Thomas Chippendale's
furniture designs kept the curves and feel, but stopped short of the
French heights of whimsy. The most successful exponent of English Rococo
was probably Thomas Johnson a gifted carver and furniture designer
working in London in the mid 1700s.
A Rococo interior: Amber Room of the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo.
Solitude Palace in Stuttgart and Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum, the
Bavarian church of Wies and Sanssouci in Potsdam are examples of how
Rococo made its way into European architecture.
In those Continental contexts where Rococo is fully in control, sportive,
fantastic, and sculptured forms are expressed with abstract ornament
using flaming, leafy or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps and
flourishes and broken curves; intimate Rococo interiors suppress
architectonic divisions of architrave, frieze and cornice for the
picturesque, the curious, and the whimsical, expressed in plastic
materials like carved wood and above all stucco. Walls, ceiling,
furniture, and works of metal and porcelain present a unified ensemble.
The Rococo palette is softer and paler than the rich primary colors and
dark tonalities favored in Baroque tastes.
A few anti-architectural hints rapidly evolved into full-blown Rococo at
the end of the 1720s and began to affect interiors and decorative arts
throughout Europe. The richest forms of German Rococo are in Catholic
Germany (illustration, above).
Rococo movement enlivens the façade of the Cathedral, Càdiz
Rococo plasterwork by immigrant Italian-Swiss artists like Bagutti and
Artari is a feature of houses by James Gibbs, and the Franchini brothers
working in Ireland equalled anything that was attempted in England.
Inaugurated in some rooms in of Versailles, it unfolds its magnificence in
several Parisian buildings (especially the Hôtel Soubise). In Germany,
French and German artists (Cuvilliés, Neumann, Knobelsdorff, etc.)
effected the dignified equipment of the Amalienburg near Munich, and the
castles of Würzburg, Potsdam, Charlottenburg, Brühl, Bruchsal, Solitude
(Stuttgart), and Schönbrunn.
In England, one of Hogarth's set of paintings forming a melodramatic
morality tale titled Marriage à la Mode, engraved in 1745, shows the
parade rooms of a stylish London house, in which the only rococo is in
plasterwork of the salon's ceiling. Palladian architecture is in
control. Here, on the Kentian mantel, the crowd of Chinese vases and
mandarins are satirically rendered as hideous little monstrosities, and
the Rococo wall clock is a jumble of leafy branches.
Pilgrimage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau, captures the frivolity and
sensuousness of Rococo painting. (1721, Louvre)
Though Rococo originated in the purely decorative arts, the style showed
clearly in painting. These painters used delicate colors and curving
forms, decorating their canvases with cherubs and myths of love.
Portraiture was also popular among Rococo painters. Some works show a
sort of naughtiness or impurity in the behavior of their subjects,
showing the historical trend of departing away from the Baroque's
church/state orientation. Landscapes were pastoral and often depicted
the leisurely outings of aristocratic couples.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) is generally considered the first great
Rococo painter. He had a great influence on later painters, including
François Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), two
masters of the late period. Even Thomas Gainsborough's (1727–1788)
delicate touch and sensitivity are reflective of the Rococo spirit.
Sculpture was another area that Rococo artists branched into.
Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) is widely considered one of the
best representatives of French Rococo. In general, this style was best
expressed through delicate porcelain sculpture rather than imposing
marble statues. Falconet himself was director of a famous porcelain
factory at Sèvres. The themes of love and gaiety were reflected in
sculpture, as were elements of nature, curving lines and asymmetry.
The sculptor Bouchardon represented Cupid engaged in carving his darts of
love from the club of Hercules; this serves as an excellent symbol of
the Rococo style — the demigod is transformed into the soft child, the
bone-shattering club becomes the heart-scathing arrows, just as marble
is so freely replaced by stucco. In this connection, the French
sculptors, Robert le Lorrain, Michel Clodion, and Pigalle may be
mentioned in passing.
The Galante Style was the equivalent of Rococo in music history, too,
between Baroque and Classical, and it is not easy to define in words.
The rococo music style itself developed out of baroque music, particular
in France. It can be characterized as intimate music with extremely
refined decoration forms. Exemplars include Jean Philippe Rameau and
Boucher's painting (above) provides a glimpse of the society which Rococo
reflected. "Courtly" would be pretentious in this upper bourgeois
circle, yet the man's gesture is gallant. The stylish but cozy interior,
the informal decorous intimacy of people's manners, the curious and
delightful details everywhere one turns one's eye, the luxury of sipping
chocolate: all are "galante."
Rococo "worldliness" and the Roman Catholic Church
A critical view of the unsuitable nature of Rococo in ecclesiastical
contexts was taken up by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
"For the church the Rococo style may be, generally speaking, compared with
worldly church music. Its lack of simplicity, earnestness, and repose is
evident, while its obtrusive artificiality, unnaturalness, and
triviality have a distracting effect. Its softness and prettiness
likewise do not become the house of God. However, shorn of its most
grievous outgrowths, it may have been less distracting during its proper
epoch, since it then harmonized with the spirit of the age.
As a development of Baroque, it will be found a congruous decoration for
In general it makes a vast difference whether the style is used with
moderation in the finer and more ingenious form of the French masters,
or is carried to extremes with the consistency of the German. The French
artists seem ever to have regarded the beauty of the whole composition
as the chief object, while the German laid most stress on the bold
vigour of the lines; thus, the lack of symmetry was never so exaggerated
in the works of the former.
In the church Rococo may at times have the charm of prettiness and may
please by its ingenious technic, provided the objects be small and
subordinate a credence table with cruets and plate, a vase, a choir
desk, lamps, key and lock, railings or balustrade, do not too boldly
challenge the eye, and fulfill all the requirements of mere beauty of
Rococo is indeed really empty, solely a pleasing play of the fancy. In the
sacristy (for presses etc.) and ante chambers it is more suitable than
in the church itself— at least so far as its employment in conspicuous
places is concerned.
The Rococo style accords very ill with the solemn office of the
monstrance, the tabernacle, and the altar, and even of the pulpit. The
naturalism of certain Belgian pulpits, in spite or perhaps on account of
their artistic character, has the same effect as have outspoken Rococo
The purpose of the confessional and the baptistery would also seem to
demand more earnest forms.
In the case of the larger objects, the sculpture of Rococo forms either
seems pretty, or, if this prettiness be avoided, resembles Baroque. The
phantasies of this style agree ill with the lofty and broad walls of the
church. However, everything must be decided according to the object and
circumstances; the stalls in the cathedral of Mainz elicit not only our
approval but also our admiration, while the celebrated privileged altar
of Vierzehnheiligen repels us both by its forms and its plastic
There are certain Rococo chalices (like that at the monastery of
Einsiedeln) which are, as one might say, decked out in choice festive
array; there are others, which are more or less misshapen owing to their
bulging curves or figures. Chandeliers and lamps may also be disfigured
by obtrusive shellwork or want of all symmetry, or may amid great
decorativeness be kept within reasonable limits.
The material and technique are also of consequence in Rococo. Woven
materials, wood carvings, and works in plaster of Paris are evidently
less obtrusive than works in other materials, when they employ the
sportive Rococo. Iron (especially in railings) and bronze lose their
coldness and hardness, when animated by the Rococo style; in the case of
the latter, gilding may be used with advantage. Gilding and painting
belong to the regular means through which this style, under certain
circumstances, enchants the eye and fancy. All things considered, we may
say of the Rococo style— as has not unreasonably been said of the
Baroque and of the Renaissance— that it is very apt to introduce a
worldly spirit into the church, even if we overlook the figural
accessories, which are frequently in no way conducive to sentiments of
devotion, and are incompatible with the sobriety and greatness of the
architecture and with the seriousness of sacred functions."