Rococo and Revolution

From the early eighteenth century on, the visual arts, from painting to interior décor, were markers of class and harbingers of the Revolution to come. A late expression of the pompous and grandiose Baroque, the soft Rococo style was the pompous Baroque turned lovely and domestic. The domaine of female patrons and even of women artists, the Rococo style was long given short shrift by art historians, who glossed over the pale pastel colors in favor of the more “masculine” style that supplanted it, Neo-Classicism. But even during the eighteenth century, this split between masculine and feminine and frivolous and sober, immoral and moral existed in the opposition between the aristocratic Rococo style and the genre paintings made for the middle class. The Rococo is a world of mirrored rooms with mirrors that had to be kept clean, of pale paneling trimmed in gilt that needed to be dusted and polished, of embroidered and brocaded fabrics that required careful maintenance–the maintenance  of all of which demanded hundreds of servants. The sight of elegantly carved furniture and voluminous shimmering silk gowns and shirts with lace cravats, depicted so appealingly by Jean-Antoine Watteau, makes one understands the rage of a vengeful revolutionary mob rioting in tattered clothes. And yet as Victoria Charles and Klaus Carl pointed out in their book on the Rococo, the new approach to art was, in fact, a reproach to the monarchy in France and can even be thought of as a prelude to Neo-Classicism. They wrote, “The natural reaction against the monarchy, which brusquely cut itself off on all sides and expressed its majesty only in stiff pomp and frivolous ceremonies, particularly from the time when lucky victories ceased to tilt the dictator in total brilliance, stirred resistance both in noble circles and in the upper bourgeoisie. The desire for a freer life and open expression was born. Art followed the trend of the age and its changed ideals. The volte-face can be seen in the architecture, decoration and artistic representations. The emphasis was placed on nature, which is not to say that now the popular fidelity to nature triumphed but in relation to the pompous heroic character assumed by the age of Louis XIV the fashion and practices above all had certainly grown somewhat more natural . A courtly idyll was being played out, and nature was donned like a mask:”

The Rococo style is dualistic in that it is both private and aristocratic and public and accessible. The aristocratic Rococo reflects the aimless lives of the privileged elite but had a sense of humor, respecting neither church nor state. Rococo art was an anti-style with a palette and a type of brushwork all its own, rejecting the grandeur of the Baroque and aiming to simply please the wealthy spectators with its fleshy and witty eroticism. With Rococo art, the grandiose didactic Baroque was watered down to an art without serious purpose or, to put it another way, an art for pleasure’s sake only. At the hands of Joseph Marie Vien (1716-1809), antiquity became an excuse not to wear clothes and to exhibit plump and pink female bodies to the male spectators under the disguise of “classicism.” After decades of religious strife and endless preaching of the Reformation, the sheer prettiness of the Rococo was a great relief to weary art patrons. The Rococo was an art of sexual allure rather than solemn instruction as to duty and country, an idyll beautifully imagined by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who pretended that life is an endless game, a fête galant for lovers who lived on a fantasy island or a Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717).

The world envisioned by the Rococo is a world of the court, where as Madame du Châtelet said, “We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but to seek pleasant sensations and feelings.” One can almost hear the clock of the Enlightenment ticking as it remorselessly reordered Madame’s world of pleasure into a world of democracy and equality. Today’s interpretations of the pleasures of Rococo art and the pretensions of Baroque art would have been largely lost on the actual audiences at the time, who, like any other art audience were interested in what they liked not in the social and class sub-texts of the art. The more famous of the Rococo paintings would have been private commissions, such as the quartet of paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) done in 1771 for the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These paintings, down on commission, were actually refused by the patron, for reasons that are unclear. In her book, Madame Du Barry: The Wages of Beauty, Joan Haslip suggested that “the countess wanted the young lovers to resemble herself and the King, but that Fragonard refused to play the role of the sycophant.” Haslip reported that “the artist was paid an indemnity of eighteen thousand lives. Fragonard kept his paintings and sent them to his home in Grasse, where over a hundred years later they were discovered by the art dealer Joseph Duveen.” Now in the Frick Collection, the Louveciennes panels, The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and Love Letters are almost as famous as earlier 1767 work, The Happy Accidents of the Swing (The Swing). To more discerning eyes, however, both Baroque art, as still alive and well in history paintings, and Rococo art represented outmoded styles of an exhausted art form that would be judged as frivolous in comparison to serious Neo-Classicism.

That more discerning eye belonged to the enlightenment writer and art critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784), one of the founders of the Encyclopédie, published in thirty two volumes between 1751 and 1765, who used his pen to critique his age. Because his job was to observe society, everything caught his eye and he was one of the first art critics, publishing Correspondance littéraire, accounts of the French Salons. As a hardworking journalist, Diderot used art criticism to press the cause of righteous and moral art, as seen in the genre scenes of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779), over the licentious art of François Boucher (1703-1770), such as Leda and the Swan (1741). The Diligent Mother (1740) by Chardin displayed the sober and reasonable life style of the middle class. The Father’s Curse, The Ungrateful Son (1777) by Greuze was an object lesson in didactic morality. In these paintings, the middle class behaved rationally, pursing definite goals through industrious and productive work. “Reason,” Diderot claimed, “must be our judge and guide in everything.” In contrast to the private art of pleasure patronized by aristocrats, the simple human virtues of ordinary people could be compared to the ideals of a past that existed before the current age of decadence.

As opposed to the divine right of the monarchy and the idle lives of the nobles, another alternative morality was to be found in Nature and in Antiquity, the repository of ancient ideals and virtues. The middle class virtues and serious behavior were “natural,” compared to the artificial lifestyles of the court, controlled by arcane rules of etiquette. Even Marie Antoinette sought “nature” in her Versailles retreat, Le Hameau (1783), where she played peasant and the acting out of the natural only underscored its un-naturalness in her highly artificial “farm,” Le Hameau. “Nature” became fashionable. Inspired by Discourse on Inequality (1755) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)  criticized modern life (culture) and compared it to the “natural” state of original human beings untainted by civilization. In addition, the world of nature itself was becoming an object of admiration, not of fear. Most importantly, Nature or the Natural, was mobilized as a critique of current social conditions being examined under the pens of the gens de lettres.

Hameau de la Reine

Hameau de la Reine (1782-83)

The kind of art preferred by Diderot the critic was moralizing and didactic that encouraged the public to use reason instead of the senses. As one of the first art critics, his task was twofold, to describe the works of art to the rulers of Europe who would never see them and to use art as a subtle vehicle for his social ideas. Although Diderot learned about art through studio visits with the artists, his audience, European despots, who sported the sobriquet “enlightened,” were informed of French art through an internationally distributed newsletter, Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, edited by Baron Friedrich-Melchior Grimm. The newsletter was not subject to French censorship and could freely critique the social system. The irony of Diderot extolling middle class virtues to the lusty Czarina of Russia, Catherine, is intriguing and one can only wonder what the great queen thought when she read in his review of the Salon of 1763, “First, I like genre–it is moral painting.”

In relation to the works of Boucher, Diderot wrote in 1765, “Depravity of morals has been closely followed by the debasement of taste, color, composition,” and suggested a year later that an appropriate alternative to aristocratic frivolity would be antiquity: “It seemed to me that we should study the antique in order to learn to see Nature.” But Diderot demanded more than mere stylistic servitude, “First of all, move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder, outrage me, delight my eyes, afterwards, if you can…Whatever the art form, it is better to be extravagant than cold.” Although Diderot did not live long enough to witness either Neoclassicism or Romanticism, both of which are anticipated in his writings, he articulated many important concepts in his art writing with his emphasis on naïvité, which led to “primitivism” in the Realist Movement and the grand ideal of Nicholas Poussin, grand manner painting based in classicism.  He advocated restraint: “Paint as though in Sparta.”

The re-discovery of Pompeii (1748) and Herculaneum (1709) reignited an interest in ancient life. The towns, buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, were perfectly preserved under layers of ash and lava and consequent (and ongoing) excavations revealed a way of life thought extinct. Fueled by the unearthing of wall paintings, history painting shifted more and more to the moral lessons of antiquity. The example of ancient virtue, especially the Roman virtue of the early days of the Roman Republic, provided an alternative to the current decline in social standards. Roman virtue was more than a dream, for Rome–ancient Rome–had become the climax point of every Grand Tour for every well-to-do European during the eighteenth century. Scholars and tourists inspected the ruins and artists, such as Hubert Robert and Canaletto, responded to the demand for Italian vistas with vedutas. Archaeologists explored and discovered the remains of classical civilizations, and these recoveries were made available to the public and to artists through carefully engraved reproductions.  Antiquity, from the reading of Homer to the use of the ancient as a suitable subject for artists, became the order of the day from the mid-eighteenth century on.

Diderot believed that art should teach moral development but at the same time he believed in the idea of genius, a new idea that was beginning to circulate and would be best articulated decades later in the writings of Emmanuel Kant.  Although the moral sentiments of the works by Greuze were admirable, Diderot lamented that he was “no longer able to like Greuze,” who occasionally attempted the grand manner, and preferred Chardin, who was not only morally sound but also the superior artist. Reading Diderot, one thinks of Jacques-Louis David as the Messiah of art that the critic was waiting for, but Diderot died too soon and never saw “Spartan” art of David. In fact, the artistic period of the Enlightenment is one of transition, because intellectuals found it hard to either predict the future or to foresee the logical consequences of the newly forming ideals of “reason,” “democracy,” and “equality.” Diderot’s public counterpart, the art writer, La Font de Saint-Yenne, author of Réflexions sur quelques causes de l’état present de la peinture en France, 1757, also took a middle path and equated the aristocrats with the ancients and was typical in his inability to imagine a form of government or society without these hereditary rulers. The aristocrats, in turn, took the prudent course of denouncing their own decadence and corruption and joined in the vogue for the “natural” by praising simplicity and order. The nobles attacked royal despotism of King Louis XVI and the Austrian Queen, Marie Antoinette, in defense of their own privileges and positions, threatened by the wayward behavior of these hapless monarchs.

The repudiation of the monarchy did not save the lives of the French nobility and the stage was set for a new form of art that would more precisely reflect the Enlightenment ideals for a middle class art public.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason”  and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” 

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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