Rococo art originated in early 18th century Paris and is characterized by soft colours and curvy lines. The subject matter is usually scenes of love, nature and amorous encounters with a play on light-hearted entertainment and the nature of youth. The word itself originates from rocaille, which is French for rubble or rock. That seems like a strange thing to derive an art movement from but it refers to the shell-work in small gardens and is used a descriptive word for the serpentine patterns we see often in the Rococo period.
The movement originated as a response to the Baroque period, particularly after the death of Louis XIV. The French court left Versailles and moved back to their old Parisian mansions, redecorating their homes using softer designs and gentler tones. The king enjoyed the Baroque movement and as such, surrounded himself and his subjects with rich colours and precious metals. The French aristocracy now lived in more intimate interiors. This style was new and different and we know the French have always been style setters. The style is characterized by asymmetry, graceful curves, elegance and delightful new paintings about daily life, courtly love, and the French landscape.
In the sense of painting, Rococo was primarily influenced by the Venetian School’s use of colour, erotic subjects and Arcadian landscapes, which refers to a vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. Arcadia is a poetic space associated with bountiful natural splendor and harmony. It is an almost utopian space. When it comes to interior design, the School of Fontainebleau was the foundation of Rococo living spaces. The school of Fontainebleau is not a physical school but rather a style. It is split into two primary sections with the first being characterized by extensive stucco (moldings and picture frames), frescoes and an elaborate system of allegories and mythological iconography. Gilding was a key focus for this first school of art because even simple elements of Rococo interior decorating became highly accentuated. For example, clocks would be embedded into intricate, almost sculptural pieces that seamlessly complemented the overall look and feel of its surroundings. Renaissance decorative motifs are common as well as a certain degree of eroticism. The second school was overhauled by Henry the IV and leaned far more into mannerism styles than its predecessor did. Rococo art also eventually spread outside of France to places like Italy, England, and even Germany with each region bringing its own flavour to the mix.
Rococo art and the people associated with it embraced a sense of whimsy, certainly. But there was a sense of purpose in the decorative quality of the movement. Jean-Antoine Watteau said, “In my view, you must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not something you add. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or its nothing.” Watteau was a french painter who spurred on the revival of colour and movement in French art. Rococo embraced an almost over-the-top quality and very successfully too. Everything was deliberate and designed to build on this aesthetic. Over time, Rococo veered towards more divergent paths but continued to be popular throughout the French provinces. Even today it has been a major influence on fashion, interior design, and art. The Neo-classical approach grew out of it and spawned many branches of further art movements. However, the term Rococo and the artists associated with it only began to be critically re-evaluated in the late 20th century when the movements of Pop Art and the works of artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. They created a new context for art expressing the same sort of ornate, stylistic and whimsical style. In conclusion, Rococo seemed to have arisen from Baroque as a breath of fresh air, which permeated through to art and design even now.