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Rococo was a light, playful and very decorative style of art that developed out of the Baroque around 1700 in France. The term is derived from the French word "rocaille", an elegant shell with capricious but natural forms used for the decoration of fountains and grottoes.

Rococo was the period and style of painting in which of all periods most use was made of flowing and inter-flowing curved lines and forms.

Rococo introduced for the first time in painting very loose, round forms and compositions. Compositions could be based on strong structure, but needed not to be so. Figures and decorative elements were intertwined in the heydays of Rococo in chaotic, nervous and very dynamic scenes.

In painting mainly pastel, light colours and tones were used.

Rococo was primarily a style of interior decoration characterised by charm, elegance, and playfulness. It was the art of the lavish decorations of Venetian and German palaces and churches of the eighteenth century. All themes were handled in this way, but preference was given in France for instance to scenes of light morality, with daring scenes of lust, often based on themes of classical antiquity. Rococo brought overloaded compositions of profusion of figures and of decorative elements such as chains of flowers, and Greek columns. Usually many small angels or putti, shepherds or other bucolic elements were showed in the pictures. Devotional themes were also painted in this style.

Volume was created by chiaroscuro on the figures. Space and depth was not a main theme of Rococo, also because many scenes remained of an intimate nature. Some artists however applied Rococo to epic scenes of antiquity, of battles and conquests, and then aerial and linear perspective were used fully.

Painters of the Rococo period and style were, among others: François Boucher, Antoine Watteau, Jean Honoré Fragonard, Jacopo Amigoni, and Giambattista Tiepolo.

Baroque art had been in place for over a hundred years, but society had evolved at the end of the seventeenth century. The Royal Courts of Europe reached a decadent refinement. Rococo modified Baroque to become more playful, lighter, less emotional and more decorative, so that palace halls, palace ceilings and churches could be decorated with images that were non-committing, overloaded with detail and with sweet figures of all sorts. Voluptuous, sensual scenes were added to the pictures of the Court of France, but also in Italy and in Germany. This was not necessarily new, since painters before had practised a more sensual art, but the genre had not been so overtly accepted before.
The passage from Baroque to Rococo was an evolution in forms and composition, but foremost in society, and in an attitude to art. Rococo did add new style elements such as the images of putti and gentler colours, but in the end this art did not last because its foundations in society faltered with the spirit of the Courts of France.

Venus and Amor

François Boucher (1703-1770). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie. Berlin. Painted in 1742.

Venus and Amor rest in a sunny open space near a pond of a dense forest. Venus lies there on red silk, and on her richly decorated robe. She has thrown off her garments, and is barely covered by a flimsy white shirt. She looks affectionately at Amor, who is cuddled comfortably with his head in her lap. Amor has put down his arrows and bow, and plays with white doves that he holds at the end of a blue ribbon. Amor is totally nude, Venus almost, and the few pieces of shirt only accentuate her generous forms. They lie near an oyster-shaped spring; the water flows gently out of the shell, into a clear pond. Venus cools one of her feet in the water. Close to the pond are green flowers and grasses; Venus and Amor are hidden by gentle brown foliage behind. Venus was born in the foam of the oceans, so the pond, the oyster-spring and the sea-pearls in her hair remind us of where she came from.
This is a really sensual scene, but refined and delicate, Venus hides some and shows all. She apparently likes to be naked, to warm her skin in the sun and play with innocent, nude boys.

François Boucher’s ladies are sensual females, not skinny girls. They are young and mature French courtesan ladies who apparently liked chocolates, other delicate food and good laughs. They do not worry. They like to flirt and to love, and they certainly are not shy. They show their nakedness in intimacy, but then freely and without reserve. They may seem objects to be savoured by men, but that is not even hinted at, and they certainly are the queens of the pictures. These ladies are very conscious of themselves, of their bodies and their good looks. They like their skins, like to hold it against the rays of the sun. They want to charm and seduce the male viewers, so that these serve them with delicate courteousness. These ladies are very much aware of their importance, and of the power they hold over men. They are naked, but know no embarrassment. They use their nudity as a tool of gentle dominance. The ladies are definitely self-confident.

François Boucher epitomises the gallant French period of the eighteenth century when Philippe d’Orléans was regent, and afterwards Louis XV the King of France. Boucher was the main painter of the French Court in the middle of the century. Paintings like Venus and Amor were subjects that Boucher took up over and over again, because they were so popular with French aristocracy. His mythological themes may be reference to his neo-classical masters, but they are used as a pretext to show sensuous young women in forests or in lonely corners.

Boucher was born in Paris in 1703. He was a pupil first of his father Nicolas Boucher, then of the Baroque painter François Lemoyne, but he was much influenced by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Boucher however did not seek the delicate poetry of Watteau. He preferred the directness of the nude, as was permitted and even wished in the times of Louis XV. He did know how to paint, though. He was a young genius, and received already a first price of the Parisian Académie at twenty years old. He studied at the "Académie de France" in Rome for more than three years: from 1727 to 1730.

François Boucher left France just twenty, on the grand Italian tour, to study Tiepolo and Correggio. In Rome he saw Nicolas Poussin’s works on classical themes, but Michelangelo’s style and even less the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio did not seduce him. His paintings radiate with light.
After his return, he became a member of the Academy of Paris in 1734. He was appointed to its director in 1765, and he was then the First Painter of the King. Boucher came early into the favours of Louis XV. Louis commissioned paintings to him since 1735.
The King’s official mistress Madame de Pompadour admired Boucher, and also commissioned him paintings. As most of the King’s painters, Boucher designed cartons for the Royal tapestry factories, mainly the factories of Beauvais in the north of France. He was an inspector of the Parisian Manufacture des Gobelins from 1755 to 1765. He died in Paris in 1770.
Boucher was not altogether happy before his death. Denis Diderot, who dedicated his life to the first French Encyclopédie, considered him a pernicious old man, who perverted young artists. The new virility and austerity of Jacques-Louis David’s new classical way of painting would follow the gallant François Boucher. David was just twenty-two in 1770, but had understood the new message his time demanded.

Louis XV was then the new Sun King of France. He had brought prosperity to France, victories at battlefields, a flourishing industry. Later defeats like the battle of Rossbach, fought in 1757 against the armies of Frederic II of Prussia, did change this image, but only gradually. Louis XV was at the height of his power a vain man and weary of the early successes of his generals in the Polish and Austrian Succession wars. He was restless, nervous, shy and pious in his younger years. He seemed always to think that he was not intelligent and strong enough to face his formidable tasks as King of France. He doubted his own capabilities. He became melancholic, weary of the endless feasts at the court. He liked to hunt, though, and could remain in the open, in forests for days. He must have liked François Boucher’s forest scenes of naked women. Because, although the King in the beginning liked his wife, the daughter of the former King of Poland, Maria Leczinska, and though the children she had given him, from 1732 on he detached from her. He started to look for other interesting women.

Louis XV’s first mistress was Louise de Mailly-Nesle, who remained the secret favourite of the King until 1738 G12 . Her sister Pauline seduced the King from then on. Louis married her out, but she died in pregnancy. Who could better console him than the youngest sister Nesle, Marie-Anne Marquise de la Tournelle. Marie-Anne, the most ambitious of the Nesle sisters, who banned her sister and rival Louise from court. But Louis XV fell ill in 1744 in the town of Metz and repented. He broke the engagement that had now become a scandal even at the court. Only to call her back soon, of course.

Carle Van Loo has made a painting of the three sisters Nesle, which hangs now in the most famous Loire castle of Chenonceau. The Nesle sisters are women as Boucher would have liked them: young, well in flesh, plaited hair, small mouths, all thighs and legs. The three Nesle sisters are painted as the Three Graces Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia, who have also been called respectively Beauty, Voluptuousness and Chastity. Beautiful and voluptuous they certainly were. But Chastity? Well …

In 1745 Louis XV met a lady called Jeanne Antoinette Poisson G12 , married to a Le Normant D’Etioles. Louis XV met her on a masquerade ball, fell in love and soon Madame Poisson or Madame Fish was made the Marquise de Pompadour. She knew well how to divert the King, organised theatre representations for him. In order to divert the King, no expenses and no extravagances were spared. It was Madame de Pompadour who spoke the words "Après nous le déluge", after us the deluge. She helped Louis in his political decisions. Due to her, the Duke of Choiseul became Prime Minister, which turned out to be a lucky choice.
Madame de Pompadour brought art again to the palace of Versailles. She much favoured art, literature, sculpture and painting. The Encyclopédistes like Diderot could work, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Buffon, Voltaire were encouraged, but not invited to the French court. These key figures of the Enlightenment did not condone the lack of morals, the many feasts and the frivolous life of the court. Madame the Pompadour favoured especially François Boucher, but also the other painters of the mid century: Jean-Marc Nattier, Carle Van Loo, François Lemoyne, Quentin la Tour. Madame de Pompadour, Boucher’s major Maecenas, died of tuberculosis in 1764, aged forty-one. She, like her art, was short-lived.

François Boucher could paint other subjects besides young, naked girls. He made several portraits of Madame de Pompadour. One of the most representative portraits is in the Wallace Collection of London. This private Collection holds one of the largest series of paintings by Boucher, as assembled by Richard the fourth Marquess of Hertford, who particularly fancied the refined taste, elegance and ostentatious luxury of the Ancien Régime U9 . This Marquess lived for a long time in lavish apartments of the Rue Laffitte of Paris, and he owned the Château of Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. Lord Hertford possessed a large collection of works of art of the Rococo period, of over 30 pictures of François Boucher, over 25 by Greuze. He owned works by Fragonard, and over 40 paintings by Watteau and Watteau's pupils Lancret and Pater. He was known in French society circles and became a friend of Emperor Napoleon III. The Marquess had not married, but he had an illegitimate son, also called Richard, by a Mrs Agnes Jackson, née Wallace. This son changed his name from Jackson to his mother’s maiden name of Wallace. By this name the Wallace Collection is now one of the richest in the world of paintings, made in the French Rococo style. It took an English Lord of the nineteenth century to admire and collect the diffident art of Louis XV’s period.

François Boucher’s picture of Madame de Pompadour epitomises the French Rococo style. She is painted in an overabundance of curls, flowers and foliage. Behind her stands a sculpture of "Love and Friendship", which she had commissioned, from the sculptor Pigalle. It symbolised her Platonic later relationship with King Louis. Madame de Pompadour is depicted as a magnificent young lady, ravishingly beautiful, with the small cherry-red lips of desire. She smiles amiably, and her arm rests nonchalantly on the sculpture thus emphasising its meaning.

While Madame de Pompadour was ill, Louis XV continued to need women like the delicious Louise O’Murphy. He fell deeper and deeper however, especially after also his wife Marie Leczinska had died in 1768. Prostitutes and young ladies, who would serve anyone who could pay them, were discreetly called to a pavilion of Versailles, the "Petit Trianon". Two courtiers decided to take opportunity of the sexual foibles of the King. The Duke of Richelieu and his friend the Count Jean du Barry found it a splendid idea to present to the King a new young lady, Jeanne Bécu, who had already enjoyed the favour of too many nobles to name, but who was barely twenty and a renowned Parisian beauty. The King immediately took a fancy for the beautiful Jeanne, so the two conspirators quickly wedded her to the brother of du Barry who was completely indebted and all too eager to comply for a handsome amount of money. Madame du Barry replaced Madame de Pompadour. The court hated her. The very young wife of the Dauphin, Marie-Antoinette of Austria, could not stand her. The better people blamed her for the licentiousness that continued in Versailles. Madame du Barry started to interfere in politics. Richelieu was an opposer to the Duke de Choiseul and hoped to use du Barry to influence the King against the Duke. When Madame du Barry felt attacked by the very able Prime Minister and Duke de Choiseul, she simply told the King to ban the Minister from court.

Madame du Barry remained the favourite of the King, till his death in 1774. Then, as wanted by Marie-Antoinette, she would first be banned to a cloister, and then to her castle of Louveciennes, where she continued to have lovers. Imprisoned by the Revolution in 1793, an ardent supporter of the aristocrats wanting to overthrow the Revolution, she died on the guillotine the same year. Madame du Barry led an eventful life, yet she is described as a charming, generous lady, a protector of Voltaire and also of other artists.

The Lock

Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Musée du Louvre. Paris. Painted in 1778.

One of the painters to whom Madame du Barry commissioned works was Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Fragonard made a series of paintings for her, called "Progrès de l’amour dans le coeur des jeunes filles", on the progress of love in the hearts of young girls. A whole programme! Fragonard decorated also for Madame du Barry the pavilion of her castle at Louveciennes.

The painter-protégé of Madame du Barry, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, had of course been a pupil of François Boucher, after shortly having worked in the studio of the more austere Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Fragonard was born in 1732 in Grasse, the town of Provence perfumes in the south of France. He followed the traditional career: in 1753 he was a student of the Royal Academy of Young Protected Artists where he worked under the Carle Van Loo who had painted the Nesle sisters. From 1756 to 1761 he lived in the French Academy in Rome. He mainly painted landscapes. He visited Naples, Florence, Venice, and as so many others came under the influence of Tiepolo. Fragonard returned to France and the Court, but continued to travel: to Holland in 1772, to Italy in 1773-1774. He worked on mythological subjects and portraits, but he is most known for the frivolous idylls he painted for the Court of Louis XV, Madame du Barry and Louis XVI. The names of his paintings say it all: "Le verrou", the lock, "La chemise enlevée", the shirt taken off, "Les baigneuses", the bathers, "Le feu au poudre", fire to the powder, "Jeune fille et son chien", young girl and her dog.

This last painting is one of the most sensuous Fragonard dared to paint. It was so "osé", that even his contemporaries dared not publicly show it. A young girl lies on a bed and plays with her white dog. But her shirt has been pulled up; she holds her legs high, she holds the dog on her knees. But the dog has a small intent head, and the dog’s fluffy tail caresses between the girl’s naked legs.

In his later years Fragonard became less sensuous. He had married, and had read the books of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Enlightenment had reached even the King’s painter. The Revolutionaries of 1789 considered Fragonard an utterly decadent painter, so he was not allowed to work anymore. His rich supporters had disappeared. He was ruined. But Jacques-Louis David, who had been his student, protected him, and could at last obtain for Fragonard the post of Conservator of the Louvre Museum to earn his living. Fragonard died in 1806.

We have chosen "Le Verrou", or the lock, as the example painting for Jean Honoré Fragonard.
The painting is made in soft brown, yellow colours, in all harmony of analogous colours. A strip of bright light falls obliquely in a room where a young man holds a woman in his arms, and closes a high lock on a door. The strip of light enhances the long oblique line of the entwined man and woman, and the outstretched gesture to the lock. The woman seems to want to stop the closing of the door, but of course she succumbs all too willingly.
Fragonard has splendidly made one dynamic movement of the ardent lovers. Her leg continues the line of arm and shoulders of the man. The woman passionately curbs her back, supported by the left arm of the youth. Her head is held apart, but kisses will come and are awaited. The bed beckons the couple, with its heavy red curtains of passion, half-open with deep cushions and linens. We feel that the lovers will disappear in the softness soon. But on the table in the left corner lies the apple of sin and ruin.

"Le Verrou" was painted in 1778. One year later would mean the end of the Ancien Régime, of the traditional Monarchy of France. The French Revolution wiped it all away.

For France in the eighteenth century was a country with many contrasts, contradictions and conflicts. On one side lived the Court of Versailles and its frivolous, libertine courtiers. These aristocrats dedicated their time to courtly love and pursuance of young ladies who were admired, but who were also not much more than objects of desire. The Courtiers lived as best they could, using up the state taxes also as best they could, spending the money on spectacles, feasts, castles and jewels. These Monarch and courtiers thought it was their absolute right to dispose of the funds of the nation. Next to them however stood a Parliament that became more self-assured and could only with ever more difficulty be restrained from taking control of the state. Parliament went as far at one time as ruling away the Jesuit order. General displeasure augmented. Already in 1757 an attempt on the life of Louis XV was made. The King received a knife wound, but recovered quickly.

And then there were the Philosophers of the Enlightenment. These intellectuals of France were called Philosophers, after the name given to the natural sciences in the Encyclopaedia that some of them were assembling. They proposed a new set of values. They wanted reason to prevail, freed from all its restraints like religion, tradition, monarchism, and intolerance of the churches. French monarchy was based on all these values of tradition and religion. However tolerant the French court remained to these ideas, the King and his nobles could not but see that the ideas of the Philosophers were directly in opposition to theirs. But since the court danced, it did not crush the ideas. As long as they held power by the money and the army, the Court felt secure.

The Philosophers believed that man was born with fundamental, inalienable rights which they called the "Rights of Man": the right for freedom, the right for property, for free speech. The State did not have the right to control the morals and also not the religious convictions of its people. The State had to ensure that these laws were respected.
Such ideas originated in England in the seventeenth century, when John Locke wrote an "Essay concerning human understanding", which laid the groundwork for empirical science. Slowly, man became again the centre of thinking, and every man had the right to think and more importantly, to express what he thought. Empirical investigation into the forces of nature, physics and chemistry started. Hence also the later idea of bringing all knowledge of mankind together in one immense work: the Encyclopédie. Denis Diderot would dedicate his life to this work.

The Count of Montesquieu continued this line of thinking in France, first by ridiculing Court life in his "Lettres Persanes", and then by writing "L’Esprit des Lois", the true spirit of laws. Voltaire and Rousseau brought the ideas to a culmination. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the book that would be the final blow to monarchism. In "Le contrat social", he stated that a committee of chosen men would govern his ideal world.

And next to the philosophers of the Enlightenment stood women who held salons where the writers and artists could meet. These were the intelligent women who supported, encouraged and drew to publicity the new ideas. They were saying to the world that women could also be ladies of wit and determination, quite different from the Court mistresses. Madame de Tercin received Montesquieu, Fontenelle and Helvetius. Madame Geoffrin in particular cultivated Rousseau. Madame du Denant did the same with d’Alembert, who went also to Madame de l’Espinand’s salon, which was also frequented by Diderot.

Thus, the France of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, of François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard and the France of the flamboyant, luxurious palaces was at the same time the France of the Age of Reason. The contradiction could not last; it was too blatant.
Diderot died in 1774, Rousseau and Voltaire in 1778 the year before the Revolution. In these last years before the Revolution, the French convention would start to control the taxes, thus the money the court traditionally managed. Parliament began to assemble its own armed bands, and to control the nation’s army, so that it became incapable to act for the King. The King was left without a Court, without an army that could be commanded, soon without power. Then, the King lost his head.

What to say then of the King’s monarchical century court art epitomised by Boucher and Fragonard? Of course, the Philosophers were right. They made sure that not just the very few King and Courtiers could claim all rights. They gave each man his dignity and his place in the universe. And that also to each woman. They looked at disgust at the Courtiers humiliating themselves while serving the mistresses. Every man and woman would have the same rights as King and courtiers. Every man and woman should choose his representatives in his or her state’s government. The philosophers wanted art to reflect stricter morals.

But art is art. Artists deliver works as commissioned to them. One could hardly decorate Versailles or Bellevue with scenes of scientific experiments or with the portraits of the austere Philosophers. The Rights of Man surely include the right to enjoy us. One of the unalienable rights the Philosophers have given us is the right to like works of art, whatever the motives that led to their creation, for art’s sake.

The paintings of Boucher and Fragonard are splendid works of art. They were painted by very gifted artisans and by very intelligent, subtle people. These painters were no irresponsible men. They painted to live, and had the occasion to paint, as they liked. They must have liked the light gallant Court style; they must have found the Royal Court to be a paradise on earth, and Courtly life, or the superficial part they could see of it, a possible ideal for mankind. And these men worked hard as Members and Directors of the Academy. They reflected on their paintings and subjects as much as any other painter in any century.
The structure of the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard are as sophisticated as paintings of Jacques-Louis David. And they are nice to look at. The colours are harmonious; the scenes lovely, the ladies are a joy for the heart. We can finally enjoy the sweetness of life and the lighter emotions called by these paintings, without referring continuously to the stains of France’s Ancien Régime.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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