When in doubt, throw in a cherub for good measure.

Rococo style originated in France during the reign of Louis the 15th. Louis’ father was Louis the 14th, nicknamed the sun king, who built a little Chateau called Versailles. So, Louis Jr. had a big aesthetic legacy to live up to. How does a young ruler out do a 67,000 square foot palatial juggernaut? Louis the 15th wanted a lighter, more delicate style in contrast to his father’s love of dark, dramatic Italian style baroque. The end result was a gold-gilt craze that swept Europe called Rococo.

Interior of Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, in the Rococo Style.

Stylistically, Rococo reflected a focus on personal life and leisure by the French elite. Scenes of parties, gardens, and the aristocratic pastimes were splashed across canvases. Rococo style embodied the wealth and luxury of the nobilty of France and was soon mimicked in Austira, Germany and Russia. It can be readily seen in architecture, as monarchs across Europe erected palaces in the new, elaborate French style.

In terms of Rococo painters there is the big three: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. These gentlemen painters followed the King’s lead in ditching the dark, often religious style of the Italian Baroque. As their wealthy patron’s desired, they produced scenes of high class engaged in leisurely activities on country estates.

The French Comedians by Antonie Watteau (1720). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Watteau, the pioneer of the group, was known as the painter of the Fête Galante, basically aristocratic parties. He specialized in theatrical, fantastical scenes, like his masterpiece The Embarkation of Cythera (1717). The painting isn’t exactly realistic. Cythera is the island where Venus, the goddess love, was born and probably couldn’t be accessed by a bunch of French nobles in hoop skirts on a sunny afternoon. And so far as science indicates, cherubs were not busy flying around 18th century France.

Embarkation of Cythera by Antoine Watteau (1717) Louvre.

But, realism be damned. Watteau was a hit and inspired many other painters including Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher doubles down the mythical island and cherub stuff, with plenty of scenes of Greek goddesses and small blond kids with wings. Fragonard was a favorite court painter of one the King’s mistress Madame du Barry, and specialized in romantic, playful subjects. His piece The Swing epitomizes Rococo painting.

The Swing by Jean Honore Fragonard 1767

The days of petticoats and picnics in the jardins of Versailles couldn’t last forever. Louis the 15th son’s, Louis the 16th, followed his father’s suit and put governance on hold for a life of luxury and leisure. It didn’t work out so well. Revolutions, guillotines, reign of terror and all that. The political upheaval necessitated an artistic one. By the late 1700s, the fluffy, dreamy brushwork of Rococo was replaced by licked surface Neoclassicism.


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