Rococo Art Style
History, Characteristics of 18th Century Decorative Arts Movement.

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A Young Girl Reading (c.1776)
National Gallery of Art,
Washington DC.
By Jean-Honore Fragonard.

Rococo Art Style (18th Century)


Rococo in France
Rococo in Italy
Rococo in England
Rococo in Germany

For a brief introduction to the architectural aspects of this art style, see: Rococo Architecture.

Rococo Nymphenburg Porcelain group
(1756) Bavarian National Museum.
By Franz Anton Bustelli.


Centred in France and emerging as a reaction to the Baroque grandeur of King Louis XIV's royal court at the Palace of Versailles, the Rococo movement or style of French painting was associated particularly with Madame Pompadour, the mistress of the new King Louis XV, and the Parisian homes of the French aristocracy. It is a whimsical and elaborately decorative style of art, whose name derives from the French word 'rocaille' meaning, rock-work after the forms of sea shells.

In the world of Rococo, all art forms, including fine art painting, architecture, sculpture, interior design, furniture, fabrics, porcelain and other "objets d'art" are subsumed within an ideal of elegant prettiness.

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)
Louvre, Paris.
By Jean-Antoine Watteau.

For details of colour pigments
used by Rococo painters, see:
Eighteenth Century Colour palette.

For information about the major
movements in painting and
sculpture, see: History of Art.

For the Top 300 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
For the Top 100 works of sculpture
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For biographies and paintings
of the greatest artists in Europe
from the Renaissance to 1800,
see: Old Masters: Top 100.

Rococo art is exemplified in works by famous painters like Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) especially his 'fete galante' outdoor courtship parties; Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) with his pictures of love and seduction; Francois Boucher (1703-70) with his lavish paintings of opulent self-indulgence; the Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) known for his fantastically decorative Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1750-3); and the sculpture of Claude Michel Clodion (1738-1814), sculptor of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, best known for his terracotta sculpture of nymphs and satyrs. In Britain, Rococo painting achieved its zenith in the female portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Rococo was eventually replaced by Neoclassical art, which was the signature visual style of Napoleon in France and of the American revolution.

For the greatest view paintings:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the finest still lifes, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraits
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the top historical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For a discussion about beauty
in the visual arts, see:
Art Definition and Meaning.

For chronological details see:
History of Art Timeline.

Rococo: Origins

Rococo is the frivolous, wayward child of noble, grand Baroque. The parent was born in Italy, the child in France. The Baroque (barocco, a rough pearl) developed in the early 17th-century and spread rapidly throughout Europe. At first predominantly a sculptural and architectural style, its greatest exponent and genius was Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) who, like Michelangelo before him, was first and foremost a sculptor, but turned naturally to painting, theatrical decorations and architecture while serving several Popes in the remodelling of Rome. His "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" and the small church of S. Andrea al Quirinale in Rome both reveal the tendencies which lead on to the rococo style: a brilliant use of light and shade on expensive and elaborate materials, such as coloured marbles and bronze.

The seventeenth century was an age of grandeur, of strong religious sentiments expressed clearly and forcibly in striking visual forms in the paintings of Caravaggio and Cortona, the sculptures of Bernini and the architecture of Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Its most important manifestations were Italian, and it was really the swan song of Italy as a creative power, for already at the death of Pope Urban VIII, Bernini's patron, the new star was making its appearance - France, which was to continue her meteoric rise throughout the century and dominate fashionable and artistic Europe in the succeeding century. See also: Rococo Artists.

The Rococo Style in France - Characteristics

In 1651 the young Louis XIV came of age and by the 1660s any dissensions in France had been totally suppressed, so that Louis could devote his attentions to the building and decoration of his palace at Versailles. Here, the Italian baroque style was adopted and modified by Louis' all-powerful artist, designer and interior decorator, Charles Lebrun, to glorify not the saints of the Catholic Church, but the King of France: "Le Roi Soleil". Louis' absolute rule involved not only visual proof of his supremacy, but an elaborate court etiquette as stiff and unnatural as the gardens laid out by Le Notre around the Palace. This extreme formality was felt in such apartments as the famous Hall of Mirrors and the multicoloured Ambassadors' Staircase, and it is against this background that the Rococo is set; France was demonstrating that already she was arbiter of taste and eager for novelty.

French Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

The Rococo is rightly associated with the 18th-century in France, but even within the last years of the previous century, indications of the new style appear, as in the work of the court architect, Jules-Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708), at the Trianon at Versailles, and at Marly, another royal residence. In these two buildings Mansart broke away from the stultifying use of marble and bronze, turning rather to wooden panelling and paler colours. The very scale of the Trianon indicates a desire to escape from the grandiose palace, a feeling which occasioned a number of highly significant works in the 18th-century. [Note also the influence of the earlier Fontainebleau School (1530-1610) on the evolution of the Rococo style, in particular its playful stucco carvings and other Rococo-like motifs.]

Louis XIV appears to have much encouraged this reaction, as illustrated by his famous injunction to Mansart concerning the decoration of the room of the very young Duchesse de Bourgogne in the Chateau de la Menagerie: "You must spread everywhere the feeling of youthfulness". This was in 1699, and the King still had another sixteen years to live, years which were to determine the course of art and decoration for at least the next generation, not only in France but as far afield as Sicily and Austria.

If the Rococo was specifically a French creation, many factors from further afield influenced and fostered the style, as, for example, the graphic works of such seventeenth-century Italian artists as Stefano delia Bella, who spent a long time in Paris. In his designs delicate, feathery lines enfold forms which are often purely decorative in intent, as much rococo art was to be.

Many engraved books from the last decades of the seventeenth century reveal the rococo style in embryonic form. The tight scroll-work so characteristic of Flemish and German renaissance decoration, and even of the Fontainebleau School, was liberated, making it less severe and symmetrical, and fantastic elements were introduced, unknown in the originals. This is seen in France in the furniture of Andre-Charles Boulle and in Venice in the furniture of Andrea Brustolon, where curving, intricate baroque forms began to be modified around the turn of the century.

One of the first appearances of the new style in a highly important setting is in the bedroom of Louis XIV at Versailles. This was redecorated about 1701 mainly in white and gold, relying entirely for its effect on the crisp contrasts of finely sculptured pilasters against rich areas of gilded carving, and, set above the chimney-pieces, large mirrors with rounded tops. Large areas of Venetian mirror-glass were, of course, important decorative features as early as the creation of the Galerie des Glaces, and also of the Mirror Room in the Grand Trianon: they have often been mistakenly identified solely with the advent of the rococo style, in which, indeed, they were to play an important part. The design of Louis' bedroom, however, still bears witness to a strong preference for the Classical Orders, with pilaster decoration in the typically academic seventeenth-century tradition.

One of the problems of any examination of rococo decoration is that we are uncertain as to how much of it originated from the small army of draughtsmen, whose leading figures such as Mansart kept behind the scenes, and how much from the great architects themselves. Thus, while a building or an interior passes as the work of Mansart or De Cotte, the novel details in it may just as well have sprung from a 'ghost' designer with a certain sense of fantasy and an originality which the Royal Architect passed off as his own.

These draughtsmen were in all probability familiar with books of decorative patterns - derived from the era of Renaissance art - illustrating the famous grotesques of Raphael in the Villa Madama and the Vatican Loggia. Grotesques, descended from the stucco reliefs and paintings in Roman tombs (or grottoes, hence 'grotesques'), played an important part in French decoration as early as the 1650s and later appeared in some of Lebrun's own decorations, such as those in the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre. They consisted of curving plant-and-scroll forms, often originating in an urn or pot and winding upwards in a regular pattern, inhabited by playful monkeys, insects and other creatures who provide a slight asymmetrical touch. The lightness of this type of decoration was borne in mind by Pierre Lepautre when he decorated the King's suite of rooms at Marly in 1699.

Lepautre's interiors at Marly are, tragically, known to us only from drawings. They show that he dispensed with the heavy, rectangular frames around doors and mirrors, replacing them with miniature curving decorations integrated into the corners of mouldings, which themselves were finer and more elegant in effect than ever before. In place of the traditional painted and gilded ceiling, Lepautre simply articulated the great white plaster expanse with a delicate gilded rosette at the centre - this was to be imitated on both ceilings and panelling throughout the rococo period.

The rococo style developed most strongly during the Regency of the Duc d'Orleans (1715-23), whose town residence was the Palais Royale. Here, licence was the rule, and the tone of rococo society was set: a society which demanded constant novelty, wit and elegance - precisely the qualities of the rococo style. Society opened its doors to people whom Louis XIV would never have accepted: the newly rich and increasingly important intellectuals. During the Regency much of the aristocracy, which had found itself confined to Versailles during Louis XIV's reign, returned to Paris and commissioned new town houses, as in the Place Vendome, where the transitional style can still be clearly seen.

Their interiors did not call for the elaborate ceiling-paintings of the previous century, and in their place a new school of painters emerged who specialized in the gently curving trumeaux (over-doors) and small-scale painted panels which form a great part of the output of (eg) Francois Boucher (1703-70). Also in constant employment from this period until the Revolution were the scupteurs, who executed the often minutely detailed carving on the boiseries, the decorated panel-framings.

It was in about 1720 that the transitional style began to give way to a clear rococo style. The term 'rococo' probably derives from the French 'rocaille', which originally referred to a type of sculptured decoration in garden design. Certainly the leading designers of the rococo style, Gilles-Marie Oppenordt, Nicolas Pineau and Juste-Aurele Meissonnier, were very much aware of it. The grotesques of the seventeenth century were now transformed into arabesques under Claude Audran, Watteau's teacher, full of a new fantasy and delicacy.

The main steps forward were made in interior decoration and painting, while little of importance happened to the appearance of the exterior, except that a certain light sophistication replaced the heaviness of the Louis XIV style, and, instead of relying on the Classical Orders, architects such as Jean Courtonne and Germain Boffrand produced buildings whose main effect lay in the subtle treatment of stonework and the skilful disposition of delicate sculpture against sophisticated rustication. In Paris, two of the best examples are the famous Hotel de Matignon of 1722-23 and the Hotel de Torcy of 1714.

In interior decoration a steady progression towards extreme elaboration is seen during the Regency, as demonstrated by the Palais Royale and Hotel d'Assy, culminating in such triumphantly sophisticated rooms as the Salon Ovale of the Hotel de Soubise in Paris (1738-39) by Boffrand, whose influence on German rococo architecture was to be considerable.

A tendency to replace the huge series of very formal apartments favoured in the Louis XIV period with smaller, more intimate rooms is also seen, as in the Petites Appartements in Versailles, where form follows function more closely. Sadly these, together with many of the greatest rococo rooms, have disappeared without trace. Apart from Paris, much fine architecture and decoration in the full-blown rococo style was effected at Nancy, where the dethroned King of Poland lived.

NOTE: For other important art and design trends similar to Rococo, see Art Movements and Schools (from about 100 BCE).

French Rococo Painting

Paradoxically, the rococo style was heralded in painting, much earlier than in the other arts, by a Flemish painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). He moved to Paris in about 1702 and began working as a theatrical scene-painter, before studying with the Keeper of the Luxembourg Palace, Claude Audran, an artist who painted in a decorative, late baroque style. It was the Rubens' Life of Marie de Medicis' series in the Luxembourg Palace which most impressed Watteau and through him was to influence the course of French rococo painting. He studied these together with the great Venetian painters and, in the words of Michael Levey, although he had "no public career, no great commissions from Church or Crown; seldom executed large-scale pictures: had no interest in painting historical subjects", he became the greatest French artist of the first half of the century.

Watteau's pictures - See: Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg, Berlin - with their combination of Rubens' colour and his own delicate eroticism, were always more than a little melancholy. The lyrical quality of his painting, with its suggestion of sophisticated amorality, was precisely that sought by French society in the Regency years: Watteau was not only catering for a taste but also creating one. For more about nudity in Rococo painting, see: Female Nudes in Art History.

The other two major painters of the French rococo period, Francois Boucher (1703-70) (noted also as the director of the Gobelins tapestry factory) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), both purveyed an entirely different variety of the style from that of Watteau and are often thought to have vulgarized where Watteau had refined. Whereas Watteau achieved an all-enveloping aura of aristocratic distancing, Boucher and Fragonard produced a more intimate and obvious effect.

Significantly, Boucher's career opened as an engraver of Watteau's pictures, and from then on assumed the pattern of traditional success. Winning the Prix de Rome, he worked in Italy from 1727 to 1731. In 1734 he became an Academician, and with the help of his friend and Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, he became the most sought-after painter in France for every type of picture, but in particular for his vivid mythological painting of classical subjects. In these, often rendered in a somewhat unsubtly erotic vein, Boucher, like Watteau, revealed a strong debt to Rubens and Venetian art, especially to Paolo Veronese, his finest predecessor in painting brilliantly clothed and displayed mythologies. Boucher became Director of the Academy in 1765, and altogether made a highly important contribution to the rococo movement through his many paintings and his designs for tapestries and other decorations.

In the unreality of most of his later forms one recalls Sir Joshua Reynolds' sense of outrage at discovering Boucher had forsaken models. By comparison with the unreal world of Watteau, Boucher's settings are even less real, while the contrast with Thomas Gainsborough, who composed his landscapes with pieces of mirror, twigs and moss, is still more extreme. Miniature trees surround rustic buildings, which appear to have been made in icing-sugar, and water looks as if it were made of glass. There is no real light and shade, perhaps so as not to contrast too strongly with the surrounding pale and shallow rococo boiserie decoration into which it was set.

While there were a number of great individual artists, there were also families of painters who followed an almost unchanging stylistic tradition. Among these are the Coypels, who executed the chapel ceiling at Versailles, the Van Loos and the De Troys, all of whom painted consistently amusing pictures for the upper classes and for the rising middle classes, who appear for the first time in the rococo period as important patrons and to some extent account for the increased demand for portraiture. Some of the most delicious evocations of the sophistication of society are found in the portraits of Nattier, Drouais, Roslin and, of course, Boucher himself, whose delicate likenesses of Madame de Pompadour are among the finest portraits of any woman in that century. See also the Rococo portraits by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), the court portraitist to the French Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Alongside portraiture, many other specialized branches of painting arose, such as the still life, where Jean Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and Francois Desportes (1661-1743) were foremost.

In these 'lesser' fields one man is outstanding: Jean Chardin (1699-1779). His delightfully simple and deeply sincere genre subjects and his still life paintings have a quality which seem at first glance closer in feeling to Dutch Realism - with an added dash of French precision and sensibility - than to the prevailing rococo style. A masterpiece could be born from a tiny picture of a Delft vase with a few flowers or from a simple two-figure study. It is their very delicacy and refinement that links them to the rococo. Another outstanding Rococo genre painter was the 'moralistic' Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).

French Rococo Furniture and Decorative Arts

The same delicacy characterizes French Furniture and a good deal of the French Decorative Art of the period. Between about 1715 and 1770 French designers created furniture which remains unparalleled in its beauty of line and detail, minute finish and costly materials expertly used. Also in this period most of the furniture types with which we are familiar today came into being: such pieces as the writing-table (bureau plat), the secretaire (of many different types, notably the drop-front and cylinder type) and the sofa in many guises (canapes, lits de repos).

The heavy pieces of the later 17th-century inlaid with brass and tortoise-shell in the manner of Boulle were replaced from the Regency onwards by smaller, lighter pieces, a development that coincided with the decrease in the size of rooms and the lessening formality. The chest-of-drawers (commode) was lifted off the floor on delicate curving legs, and bombe fronts were covered with sinuous ormolu which often flowed over the entire piece and in which much of the finest decoration of the Rococo is found. In this rococo craft, superb uses were made of inlaid woods of all types, often imported from the Orient, contributing both to the high cost of the piece and to the craze for the exotic which invaded French society and led to the use (often entirely misplaced) of terms such as "a la polonaise", "a la grecque" and "a la chinoise". In furniture the major manifestation of this interest in the Orient was in the use of imported or imitation lacquer, many good pieces of Oriental lacquer suffering badly in the process of dissection and reshaping.

The display of luxury in rococo craftwork was not, of course, confined to furniture, and the stark appearance of many rococo ensembles today is misleading. The frivolities and trimmings - frills, ribbons, elaborate hangings on beds, doors and windows, festoons of fringes, gimps and baubles - often only associated with the Victorians, added to the atmosphere of luxury and comfort, a quality little known in seventeenth-century French interiors.

In spite of the extreme rigour of the Guild system, possibly even thanks to it, French furniture achieved, in the eighteenth century, such a state of perfection that it was sought after through-out Europe. The Guild regulations encouraged specialization and incited the sons of master craftsmen to continue in their fathers' trade by the prospect of economic advantages. The result was exceptional professional skill, and the rise of veritable dynasties of joiners and cabinet-makers, handing down the secrets of their craft from father to son.

Thus, the menuisier practised only the creation of the actual form of the furniture; the ebeniste created the elaborate layers of inlay and surface decoration and yet another craftsman was responsible for fitting the gilt-bronze decoration over the prepared framework; no guild was permitted to intrude on the territory of another. As with the other arts, great names arose in each field: Foliot, Lelarge, Sene, Cressent, and an increasing number of Germans: Oeben, Riesener, Weisweiler. They rose to positions of great influence and a signed piece by one of these craftsmen was as sought after as any painting by Boucher or Fragonard.

The Rococo was a style in which the feminine element predominated, demonstrated in furniture in the supple and often sensuous curves, fragile appearance, and even terminology: duchesse (duchess) and sultane (sultana). Flowers decorated much of the wall-panelling and furniture of the period, and many rococo boiseries contain elaborate trompe d'oeils of garlands and sprays of flowers inhabited by tiny birds and animals, the direct descendants of the grotesque. The small scale of much of the furniture, particularly pieces designed for writing, almost precludes its use by a man, although, paradoxically, one of the finest creations of the period, Louis XV's own desk executed by Oeben and Riesener between 1760 and 1769 is large and surprisingly masculine.

Porcelain was sometimes incorporated into French furniture design, usually in the form of painted plaques or discs set in bronze frames. Much of it is from the factory of Sevres. Louis XV had himself provided funds to back a porcelain enterprize at Vincennes, near Paris, specifically to imitate Meissen porcelain, which moved in 1756 to Sevres. Although not the first factory in France to produce porcelain (Rouen and Saint-Cloud were both operating in the last years of the seventeenth century), Vincennes-Sevres was certainly the most successful in its production of hard-paste porcelain, counting important painters such as Boucher among its designers.

The value attached to Sevres porcelain is attested to by the number of individual pieces or sets such as that made for the Empress Maria Theresa in 1758 sent by Louis XV as diplomatic gifts. Other famous sets include the services made for Catherine the Great and Madame du Barry. The colours perfected at Sevres are not so different from those found in Boucher's paintings - greeny blues and a wonderful pink known as rose Pompadour. The types of objects manufactured ranged from wall-sconces to ink-wells and pot-pourri vases, of which some of the finest examples are in the Wallace Art Collection, London.

For more about Rococo porcelain and Rococo sculpture, read about two important French sculptors Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785) and Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791).

The rococo style in France represented her greatest artistic contribution before the rise of Impressionism in the nineteenth century and embraced all the arts to an extent found nowhere else in Europe apart from Germany. The amazing quality of French Rococo is due to the maintenance of the highest standards throughout. It has the added appeal of patronage by such figures as Madame de Pompadour, with whom the style is identified, and it stood at the end of a long tradition of the finest French craftsmanship.

The Rococo Style in Italy - Characteristics

A large part of the story of the Rococo in Italy is that of painting in Venice - especially painting by the great genius Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) - since the important products of the style in its most original form are found there. With the exception of some buildings by Juvarra and Bernardo Yittone, Italian architecture of the first half of the century passes fairly directly from the late baroque style to early Neoclassicism, with little evidence of a definite rococo style.

Italian Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

Architecture and decorative art was dominated by the work of two men at the turn of the century, Bernini and Borromini, but in particular the latter. Soon, however, the leading architect in Rome was Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1782), a Florentine whose greatest works were the Palazzo delia Consulta (1732-37) and the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore (1741-43). In the former, a delicate rhythm was created not by massive orders of columns but by subtly proportioned and slightly recessed panels. Against these were set highly decorative windows, and the whole was crowned by a large central sculpture of angels supporting a cartouche. It is much more sculptural in effect than any French building of the same date, and links up rather more with German Rococo. The same central emphasis is found in the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore, but there the whole facade is conceived as an open loggia, relieved only by light sculpture. Elsewhere in Rome, other architectural undertakings were coming closer to the spirit of the Rococo, as for example, in the Spanish Steps (1723-25) by Francesco de Sanctis.

While French architects such as Boffrand were searching for an economical means of expressing the sophistication of their interiors on the exterior, Italian architects were still very moch more concerned with the exterior as the vehicle for an immediate impression. They often devoted their energies to this at the expense of the interiors and as a result only succeeded internally where huge spaces were involved, as in some of the works of Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736).

Juvarra was born in Messina into a family of silver-smiths and was trained in Rome under Carlo Fontana, gaining his first successes as a designer of elaborate and decorative stage scenery, an experience which was later to stand him in good stead. After being appointed First Architect to the King at the Court of Savoy in 1714, he travelled to Portugal, London and, in 1719-20, Paris, probably seeing French Rococo in its earliest stages. On his return he became Italy's closest parallel to the French architect-designer, involved with not only architecture, but interiors, furniture and the applied arts. His outstanding achievements are the hunting lodge he designed between 1729 and 1733 for the Court at the Castle of Stupinigi, the Church of the Carmine (1732-35) in Turin, and the sanctuary of the Superga near Turin (1717-31). Of these, Stupinigi is his most exciting creation. Gigantic wings radiate from a domed central core Surmounted by a bronze stag, the white exterior preparing one for the incredible spatial acrobatics and colour inside the central Great Hall, which is close to many of Juvarra's architectural fantasies and theatrical drawings. Much use is made of illusionistic painting, trompe l'oeil urns filling giant niches painted above the many chimney-pieces in the hall, while a gently swaying gallery runs round the walls and seems to pierce the great piers. It is a theatrical tour de force. By comparison, the Superga and the Carmine seem a little pedantic, but the former is sensationally sited on a hilltop dominating the surrounding area with its elegant portico and high dome flanked by onion-domed towers.

Comparable to Juvarra was Bernardo Yittone (1704-1770), who worked exclusively in Piedmont, where he was born and to which he returned after studying in Rome and editing the great baroque architect Guarini's 'Architettura Civile'. His most important works are in obscure villages in Piedmont and unite Guarini's spatial complexity with Juvarra's lightness and brio. In this vein, his masterpieces are the Sanctuary at Vallinotto (1738-39) and the church of Santa Chiara at Bra of 1742.

While Vittone's domestic architecture is pedestrian, Juvarra's is not, and his rococo interiors are among the finest in Italy. Unlike France, Italy was not ruled by one monarch, so patronage was usually limited to a particular area of the country, as in Juvarra's case. His patron, Vittorio Amadeo II of Savoy, was fortunate in having such an able court architect, and for him Juvarra designed the facade of the Palazzo Madama in Turin (1718-21), and some of the few interiors which approach the French in quality; such is the Chinese Room of the Royal Palace in Turin with its lacquer and gilded boiseries, influenced, possibly, by JA Meissonnier's book of ornaments published in 1734. A comparison of Juvarra's interiors with others in Italy shows that he alone stood on an equal footing with other European designers.

Italian Rococo Furniture and Decorative Arts

Unfortunately the history of Italian rococo furniture does not follow such an easy pattern as the French. The style of the seventeenth century overlapped into the eighteenth, and pieces which are ostensibly datable before the turn of the century are often in fact much later. Much of Juvarra's furniture remains fairly heavy, using natural forms in quite a different way from French designers such as Nicolas Pineau or Meissonnier.

Splendour, left over from the baroque age, was still the dominant mood for all major interior designs, and there was no feeling, as in France, or even Germany, for the small scale. Thus were produced more sophisticated but equally imposing furniture and settings. Whereas the French taste was for constant novelty, Italian interiors changed little after the initial swing to the Rococo had been accepted. As in France, and to a greater extent in England, the newly rich or moderately well-off were now trying to keep abreast of contemporary developments.

What surprised most foreign travellers to Italy was the emptiness of the great suites which lay behind the facades of most large palaces. Apart from the few splendid apartments on view, the palaces contained many undistinguished rooms and their contents could not compare with French furniture and the chic of Parisian styles, for which the Italians substituted tasteless extravagance. The pictures by Pietro Longhi of Venetian interiors conjure up the sparsely furnished rooms of many Italian rococo houses.

The figures of Andrea Brustolon and Antonio Corradini dominated Venetian design at the beginning of the century, their heavy baroque forms continuing to be produced by succeeding craftsmen well after their deaths, almost until the end of the century. The Venetians were nonetheless the only Italians who took the rococo style seriously to heart and emulated the French, producing exaggerated bombe commodes often teetering on tiny, fragile legs. Few great names are known in the domain of Italian eighteenth-century furniture and one thinks mainly of highly important individual pieces such as G. M. Bonzanigo's painted and gilt firescreen in the Royal Palace at Turin. In Italy, even more than in France, an apparently insatiable demand for curious or unusual pieces arose, elaborately painted in the Venetian style with rustic scenes or flowers, inlaid, but never with the intimate skill of the French ebenistes. Lacquer, heavy gilding, mirrors, painted glass and combinations of other materials led to a bewildering and not always happy mixture of styles.


Outstanding in the art of inlay was Pietro Piffetti (1700-77), who worked for the House of Savoy at Turin, creating highly individual furniture combining wood and ivory inlays with such refinements in metal as masks at the corners and mounts for legs. The Royal Palace at Turin contains some breathtaking pieces, literally covered with ivory inlay and occasionally seeming to be supported solely by chance, so fragile are the legs beneath their elaborate upper parts. In the Museo Civico in Turin is a card-table by Piffetti, stamped and dated 1758, with a wholly convincing trompe l'oeil of playing-cards in ivory and rare woods.

In the minor arts nothing of great significance was produced in Italy compared with elsewhere in Europe, and certainly no ceramics factory appeared to rival that of Sevres. But two factories produced porcelain, much of which is certainly very beautiful - Vinovo in Piedmont and Capodimonte outside Naples. Capodimonte porcelain is characterized by the brilliance of its colouring, often in unexpected combinations as seen in the famous Porcelain Room from the Palace at Portici (1754-59).

Italian Rococo Painting


Rococo emerged in Italy slightly later than in France. Early traces can be seen in the lighter style of late Baroque painting, introduced in Rome and also in Naples by artists like Luca Giordano (1634-1705) and Francesco Solimena (1657-1747).

Then, in the space of 25 years, Venice produced Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), his son, Giandomenico (1727-1804), Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), Pietro Longhi (1701-85), Francesco Guardi (1712-93), Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) and Canaletto's nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1720–1780). All of these, except the last two, spent their working lives in Venice, although Canaletto visited England in 1746. Longhi, and to a lesser extent, the younger Tiepolo, portrayed the daily life of Venice, the former in small canvases, the latter in drawings; while Canaletto, Guardi and Bellotto painted outdoor scenes on the canals and piazza. Piranesi, though born in Venice, came to Rome in 1738. No paintings by him are known, and his fame rests entirely on his etchings of architecture and ruins. The elder Tiepolo is best known for his extraordinary fresco decoration of the state dining room (Kaiseraal) and the ceiling of the Grand Staircase (Trepenhaus) in the Wurzburg Residenz of the Prince Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, which was undoubtedly the greatest and most imaginative masterpiece of his career. The focal point was the soaring fresco of Apollo Bringing the Bride (1750-1) in the centre of the Trepenhaus, a work which brings to a majestic conclusion the Italian tradition of fresco painting initiated by Giotto (1270-1337) four hundred years earlier.


In the elder Tiepolo, and in him alone, can one speak of a pure rococo style, related to the late Baroque in many ways, but creating an entirely new type of visual experience. Not surprisingly, many of the greatest Venetian qualities from the past are present in his work: the colour and original imagination of Titian; the figure types and luxurious materials of Paolo Veronese, together with his love of opulent classical architecture as a backdrop for rich pageants of history and mythology.

The artificiality of the atmosphere in his early frescoes links Tiepolo at once with the mainstream of rococo art, but at a time when he could not have known much about contemporary French painting. From then on his career was a meteoric success until his eclipse in Madrid at the end of his life at the hands of the neoclassicists under Mengs (1728-79).

His greatest commission came in 1750, when he went to Wurzburg to paint frescoes for the newly completed palace there and stayed until 1753 to decorate the staircase (the largest mural painting in the world), the Kaisersaal and the chapel. Shortly before leaving for Wurzburg, Tiepolo had decorated the Palazzo Labia in Venice with the story of Anthony and Cleopatra, one of his most evocative recreations of classical history.

A comparison of Tiepolo's style with that of his exact contemporary, Boucher, reveals a different and perhaps more intellectual temperament. His glacially elegant but still voluptuous nudes and his subtle juxtaposition of types, as in the Wurzburg staircase where the 'Continents' are brilliantly contrasted, is more original and complex than anything by Boucher. It was no accident that Boucher admired Tiepolo above all others; "much more than Watteau's, his art is that of the theatre, with a stage that is deliberately elevated above us, and actors who keep their distance", says Michael Levey. Indeed his art is the last which is truly representative of aristocratic ideals, soon to be replaced by the republican values of the French Revolution, an art which could only have flourished in a city-state as decadent as Venice in the eighteenth century

View Painters

While Tiepolo, father and son, were the finest decorators in the city, there were the vedutisti, or view-painters, such as Canaletto (1697-1768), whose great fame brought him to England between 1746 and 1756, and his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80).

The paintings of Francesco Guardi (1712-93) are triumphs of atmospheric study and understanding of the singular effects of Venetian light on water and architecture. With a minimal palette, reduced in some cases almost entirely to simple greens and greys, Guardi evokes landscape and views of the canals in much the same way that Tiepolo executes figures, and with magic dots of colour suggests people hurrying or engaged in conversation in the Piazza San Marco or any of the many squares of Venice which he so clearly loved.

Pietro Longhi (1702-85), in contrast, specialized in somewhat gauche renderings of contemporary life; in their gaucheness however lies their great charm, and in the often delightfully unexpected choice of subject such as the 'Rhinoceros' (National Gallery, London) or the 'Moorish Messenger' (Ca' Rezzonico, Venice).

But Italy was never as happy with the rococo style as it had been with the preceding style of the Baroque or that of Neoclassicism, both of them heavier and more capable of expressing the grandezza so beloved of Italian post-renaissance art. This, however, appears in Tiepolo in a modified form, and it is his name which remains outstanding.

The Rococo Style in England - Characteristics

Of all the European countries which had adopted or contributed to the baroque style, England was the one which paid least attention to the Rococo.

English Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

In architecture, at least, England moved directly from the baroque style of Wren and Vanbrugh to Palladianism, a transition so swift that it allowed of no intermediate development. With buildings such as Walpole's Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, built from 1748, and Arbury, Warwickshire, of the same date and the other Gothick buildings erected during the era of late eighteenth century architecture it is sentiment which places these works in the rococo category rather than any relationship with the rocaille.

In fact English Gothick is divided into two distinct categories - 'associational' and 'rococo', the latter being a light-hearted form of decoration loosely based on medieval precedents but frivolous enough to become almost a counterpart of Continental Rococo in its sense of abandon and superficiality. William Kent (1684-1748), architect and decorator, devized his own vocabulary of Gothick decoration, which spread as quickly and as effectively over England as the arabesques of Continental Rococo. But, apart from this, rocaille in England touched only a handful of interiors, some high-quality furniture, certain paintings and some porcelain, in particular the products of Chelsea and Bow.

The earliest example of rocaille in England was the commission given to the great French designer Meissonnier by the Duke of Kingston in 1735 for a suite of table furniture in silver. But this was a fairly rare instance and rococo design was generally confined to engraved decoration on sobre forms almost entirely unaffected by the style. The new tendencies were disseminated predominantly by pattern-books such as Matthias Lock's, or Jones's "The Gentleman's or Builder's Companion" of 1739, which made rococo or quasi-rococo details available to every craftsman who could afford the volume. The fact that these were only details, detached from their surroundings, accounts for the frequently gauche quality of much English rococo furniture. since the craftsman could not be expected to appreciate the organic nature of the style from mere fragments.

As in Italy and France, the eighteenth-century patron's taste often extended to the Oriental in one form or another. accounting for the few rococo rooms of note in England such as the bedroom at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, of 1745, or, the most important. Claydon House in Buckinghamshire (c.1768), where a series of rooms were decorated by a certain Lightfoot, about whom little is known. In these rooms, however, the style is by no means as pure as Continental Rococo.

Rococo decorative art appear in other English town and country house interiors and issometimes of the highest quality - notably in the hall at Ragley, at nearby Hagley, and in the swirling plasterwork of the Francini brothers. who executed much stucco work in Ireland, and are particularly famed for their work at Russborough. But this attractive local craftsmanship is a far cry from the consummate, all-embracing schemes of the Continent.

English Rococo Furniture and Decorative Arts

Unlike the French, English cabinet-makers did not usually sign their pieces, and so comparatively little is known of men such as John Linnell, John Cobb, Benjamin Goodison and William Vile, who all appear to have worked extensively in the new fashion. The name of Chippendale is, however, outstanding, not only because of the quality of his pieces, but also because of his publication "The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director" (1754).

In his designs for mirrors and overmantels, often flavoured by chinoiserie, one sees exotic examples of the rococo style, every bit as meticulous as French boiserie but designed to be used as isolated features and rarely as part of a whole decorative scheme. Likewise, the elaborate and fantastic carvings in the hall at Claydon are isolated in an otherwise classical setting.

English Rococo Painting

In painting, two English artists made certain concessions to the rococo - William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Hogarth reacted strongly against the type of baroque history painting which was so sought after by the 'amateurs' and introduced into his own work the so-called 'Line of Beauty', which he explained in his "The Analysis of Beauty" (1753) and which was a serpentine line rather like an elongated 'S'. This was, of course, precisely the form of much rococo decoration.

Gainsborough, on the other hand, began life as a painter of small, stilted portraits later developing a more sophisticated style after his move to fashionable Bath. He painted some portraits in a rococo style surprisingly close to Boucher, their floating brushwork and feathery landscapes, bright pinks and silvery greys pronouncedly more rococo than any contemporary English painting. See also the Regency society portraitist Thomas Lawrence.

Neoclassicism swept England from the return of Robert Adam to the country in 1758, but even his chaste and epicene style echoes the dainty, meticulous quality of most French rococo decorations and his Gothick is as rococo as any decoration of that period in England. The Swiss portrait artist and history painter, Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), much admired by Sir Joshua Reynolds for her portraiture, worked with Robert Adam on a number of his architectural decorations.

The Rococo Style in Germany - Characteristics

In contrast to the superb restraint of the finest French rococo, Germany provides a breathtaking range of some of the most outrageous and magnificent rococo architecture and interior decoration in the history of European art.

German Rococo Architecture, Interior Design and Decoration

This high standard of excellence spread from architecture to applied art - furniture, furnishings and porcelain - though these rarely surpassed those of France. Nothing in 18th-century France, Italy or England rivals the sheer excess of such architectural masterpieces as Melk or the Dresden Zwinger, and in the number of first-rate churches and palaces alone, Germany easily outstrips the others. This may stem from the fact that what we now call Germany, was, in the eighteenth century, divided into several different principalities, kingdoms anq bishoprics, so that a certain rivalry must have determined the creation of buildings of major importance - unlike France or England where the really important commissions were invariably confined to a small number of patrons.

German rococo can be seen to trace its origins to Roman churches of the baroque period such as Bernini's Sant' Andrea al Quirinale, where colour, light and elaborate sculpture are all combined. This is apparent for the first time in Germany in the Abbey Church of Weltenburg, built after 1714, with its oval dome cut away internally to reveal a frescoed vision of the heavens above.

Colour was the main string to the bow of German rococo - pink, lilac, lemon, blue - all were combined or used individually to telling effect, as in the Amalienburg, near Munich. The heavier, curving forms of the Baroque are turned into more staccato rhythms in German rococo, and one finds the influence of a major baroque monument such as Bernini's baldacchino in St. Peter's Rome, transformed by Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753), into a confection of the order of the high altar at Vierzehnheiligen, perhaps the most complex and satisfying of German churches.

While room shapes in France during the eighteenth century did not change a great deal, and the plan of ecclesiastical buildings hardly at all, German rococo architects explored every possibility. Walls not only seem to sway despite their huge scale, but whole sections appear to have been cut away, with the effect that the enormous frescoed ceilings, which entirely dominate most of these churches, seem to float above the worshipper.

One of the most exciting features of German rococo architecture is the highly dramatic siting of some of the most important examples, such as the Abbey of Melk by J. Prandtauer, begun in 1702. Deliberately placed in a commanding position high above the Danube, the two great towers dominate a courtyard in front opened to the outside world by a great Palladian-type arch. Such a feeling for drama, and for the total involvement of the faithful both externally and internally, is also found at Ettal, in a reversed role, with the monastery dominated by surrounding mountains.

Secular building also reached a high level of perfection. Perhaps the most sophisticated examples are to be found in and around Munich where, as court dwarf and architect, Francois Cuvillies (1695-1768) was involved in many buildings, perhaps the finest being the Amalienburg. This small pavilion, built between 1734 and 1739 and named after the Elector's wife, has, in Hugh Honour's words, 'an easy elegance and gossamer delicacy'. Its gently swaying front, shallow rustication and unusual pediments herald one of the loveliest rooms in Europe - the famous Hall of Mirrors with its silver rocaille against powder-blue background and glittering glass. At the opposite end of the scale, Cuvillies Residenz-theater in Munich (1751-53) uses richly gilded figures and musical instruments to frame the entire auditorium, contrasting vividly with the red damask and velvet of the walls and seats.

Potsdam and Dresden never produced a rococo style as refined as that of Munich, but buildings such as the Zwinger (1709-19) by Poppelmann in Dresden overwhelm by their scale and superabundance of decorative detail. The effect of this type of architecture is also felt in the little Palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam (1745-51), which was built for Frederick the Great.

For sheer scale, opulence and overpowering grandeur of detail, the Rococo of Germany is foremost in Europe.

For more information about Rococo interiors in Russia, see the work of Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-71).

Later Variants of Rococo

The rococo style never really died out in provincial France. With the arrival of Historicism in the 1820s, many craftsmen found it comparatively easy to produce whole interiors and buildings in the 'Second Rococo' style so favoured by Louis Phillipe and his queen, examples of which are to be found throughout Paris.

The rococo architectural and design revival came to England as early as 1828 with Wyatville's Waterloo Chamber in Apsley House, the interiors of Lancaster House and the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle. It appealed naturally to the rich of the day, and the Rothschilds decorated several houses in the style, even incorporating actual 18th-century interiors at Waddesdon Manor in the 1880s.

Royal assent was given to the style by Ludwig of Bavaria in his Linderhof Palace and Herrenchiemsee of the same period. It became the accepted taste in the decoration of the many new hotels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and 'Le gout Ritz' was to be synonymous with luxury and elegance.

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