“I have just completed a forty-two-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share them with the public… Be so good as to accompany me on my voyage. ” Xavier de Maistre Renee L. Winter University of Calgary Word count: 2044 Abstract This paper looks at the artistic movement known as Rococo in France after the death of Louis XIV.
Artwork by France’s Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Jean-Antoine Fragonard, as well as artwork done by Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, and will be discussed to demonstrate that Rococo and the themes of the pictures represented a form of escapism for the aristocracy in Europe. According to Pignatti (1988, p. 203), the decorative art and design movement known as Rococo featured light-hearted romance and care-free aristocrats at play in imaginary settings. This style is characterized by pastel colors, gracefully delicate curving forms, fanciful figures, and a light-hearted mood.
Paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741), Jean-Antoine Fragonard (1732-1806), and Thomas Gainsborough (1721-1788) were all part of an emerging trend that started in France and spread throughout Europe in the last decades of the 17th century as described by Stinson in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Art (1969 p. 302). These works reflected the escapism society strived for in a time of socio-economic and political decline after the death of Louis XIV and the heavy, authoritarian formality of the court at Versailles.
Art responded to the new demands; depictions of the amusements, the pleasures, and the variety of life. Rococo art is the visual representation of the optimism people felt in response to new ideas emerging. Rococo was a reaction against the “grand manner” of art identified with the baroque formality and rigidity of court life, portraying a world of artificiality, make-believe, and game-playing. Although it was less formal, it was essentially an art of the aristocracy and emphasized what seem now to have been the unreflective and indulgent lifestyles of the aristocracy rather than piety, morality, self-discipline, reason, and heroism.
Stinson (1969, p. 302) argues that the specific character that French painting took in the 18th century was in large part determined by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). That he was one of the world’s great draftsmen because he drew incessantly from life, capturing the inflections of a gesture, or the nuances of a pose or attitude. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera, (1717) reflects the idea of escapism. Stinson says that in Antiquity, Cythera, one of the Greek islands, was thought to have a serious claim to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love.
The island thus became sacred to Aphrodite and love; Couples in the foreground on the right, pictured beneath a statue of Venus are rising to their feet. They are at the end of a procession of people, some of whom carry a pilgrim’s staff-Bartz (Bartz, 2005), argues that this was no religious pilgrimage, that those shown are lovers, paying homage to Venus, the goddess of love. While looking at the picture, one is unsure if the people are waiting to leave Cythera, the island of love, or if they are instead waiting to be ferried across to the island.
Bartz (Bartz, 2005) says that cupid is hidden, his bow and arrow hanging on the bottom of the statue’s base, Cupid’s mother. Janson argues (Janson, 1991), that Watteau’s picture violated all “academic canons” and its subjects did not conform to any established category. Janson also argues that Watteau characteristically inter-wove theater and real life so that no clear distinction can be made between the two. Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera also included classical mythology and eighteenth century custom. Watteau painted a picture that appeared entirely to be real.
His contemporaries themselves become dream figures and are able to enter into the lofty regions of the supernatural world, previously denied to them. (Blunt 1953, p. 183). Blunt also argues that by entering into this world of the imagination, they were able to change their own every day world. The picture shows many cupids, surrounding the young couples on the island, with the story beginning in the foreground. Janson claims that the meaning of the picture reads like a story, unfolding from left to right, which also informs us that they are about to board the boat: wo lovers are still engaged in their amorous tryst; behind them another couple rises to follow a third pair back down the hill as the reluctant young woman casts a wistful look back at the goddess’ sacred grove. Watteau’s figures are slim and graceful; it appears that they move with the studied assurance of actors who play their roles so superbly that they touch us more than reality ever would. Robb (1951) describes this work as lingering on one idea: men and women, not playing at the game of love, but whose whole existence is dedicated to love.
They are dressed for the part; they exercise restraint lest the passion burn out and avoid everything gross and uncultivated, displaying their seductions with the greatest delicacy and charm. Robb (1951) believes the picture contains all that Watteau had to say, couples in a “fantastic landscape overhung with a magical atmosphere…” (p. 374). Janson (1991, p. 605) argues that those portrayed in paintings by Watteau recapture an earlier ideal of “mannered” elegance. Kalnein (1972, p. 7) asserts that in works by Watteau life mirrored society, and that his characters actively engaged in being social. The painting L’Enseigne de Gersaint is an example of this and is described by Schwarz (1971, p. 16) as depicting the interior of a shop, its walls lined with pictures for sale to those who are educated in art. Schwarz claims the interpretation of this work is quite simple. The young lady in the shining pink satin dress is stepping from the cobbled street into the shop and looks curiously at the packers as she passes them.
The elegant and the extremely young cavalier, whose lissome posture would not be out of place in a ballet, holds out his hand in gallant greeting which is directed at the viewer as much as to the lady, with whom the artist evidently intends us to identify. On the right-hand side of the picture we see two groups who are completely preoccupied with objects d’art. First there is the lady in black and her companion who is kneeling in what is virtually a ballet position.
They are seen looking at an oval picture which the dealer is holding for them, and using their lorgnettes to examine the technique. Then on the far right, behind the desk, we see Madame Gersaint, who is showing a lacquered mirror. The composition of this painting is reminiscent of a set stage with the paving stones serving as a proscenium and the raised floor of the shop as a stage. The movement of those in the picture is quite natural, although quite controlled. Elegance and an unruffled posture were the magic formula which gave a leisurely and festive air to everyday reality.
According to Kalnein (1972, p. 14) paintings by Watteau were activated by a feeling for drama on the Shakespearean principle that “all the world is a stage” and that his characters are always engaged in acting a scene. Kalnein (1972, p. 14) also argues that Watteau usually “Contrived that circumstances should have freed them from the ordinary conventional pressures of society: they seem to owe allegiance to no one but themselves, pay taxes for nothing except being in love, and calmly declare their occupations to be pleasure.
Jean-Honore Fragonard, who worked in the second half of the eighteenth century (Kalnein (1972), was the last of the great representatives of the French Rococo. Kalnein (1972) explains that Fragonard was more concerned with the representation of esprit. This esprit was the characteristic feature of the eighteenth –century mind, and was responsible for Fantasies, its delicate allusions and subtle ideas, for its refined etiquette and its exquisite taste. Moreover, it furnishes a link between aesthetics and ethics by its novel conception of social gallantry. The Swing (1768) by Fragonard is an example of this.
Kalnein (1972, p. 30) discusses this work, and how the swing motif was a further development of the old classical motif in which sleeping or bathing nymphs were surrounded by intruders. The classical nymphs were invariably distressed and often roused to by their discovery. The young ladies of the eighteenth century exploited the situation and enjoyed it to the full. Thus, the erotic gestures of the girl on the swing in Fragonard’s picture are quite unashamed: in her endeavors to display her legs she has kicked off one of her slippers, which we see flying through the air in a high arc.
Her lover meanwhile is stretched out on the ground beneath her, delighted with the enticing view provided by the fluttering skirts above him. In portraying this flirtatious scene, Fragonard has been unable to resist a hint of gentle parody. But the same scene acquires its principle emphasis and its delicate poetic atmosphere from the enchanting brushwork and the great mass of motifs. According to Schwarz (1971), society during this time, which has suddenly entered into a completely new era, was trying to escape from its problems by treating life as a comedy.
The people lived out their fantasies; they regarded themselves as actors and consequently sought refuge in an imaginary world, completely unaware of the social patterns of the time. People preferred to play a part, which enabled them to keep their options open. Schwarz (1971, p. 13) also says that an essential characteristic of Rococo art was feeling. This feeling was not deeply passionate though, instead it was gentle and pleasing. Pignatti (1951) insists that this picture is among the most influential and representative paintings of the Rococo. The frivolity, eroticism, and gallantry of the time is reflected well.
Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741) was a rococo painter from Venice, who Dennis Farr (1995) suggests was considered to be one of the most important Venetian painters of the early 18th century. Pellegrini uses Greek mythology in the painting Bacchus and Ariadne The Greek myth a story of abandonment and rescue, Ariadne, princess of Crete, had helped an Athenian hero, Theseus escape the Labyrinth only to be left deserted on the island of Naxos. Eventually she is rescued by Bacchus who was flying around and heard her crying and fell in love with her.
This painting also reflects the idea of being in love/falling in love as well as the use of mythology in conveying that message. Thomas Gainsborough (1704-1770) was known as one of most outstanding rococo artists in England. Gainsborough preferred to paint landscapes, but there was no market for this. Lindsay (1981) describes Gainsborough’s feelings for the countryside as being deep and intimate and would often place his subjects in a natural setting. This can be seen in Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750) (p. 16). It is argued that his landscapes are among the best, and that nature’s secrets and mysteries are revealed in landscape paintings.
It is also argued (Lindsay 1981) that nature was his first and greatest love, his artwork resembling locations from his childhood. It may be argued that Gainsborough missed the country life and wished to return to the simplicity if offered. The painting Madame de Pompadour by Boucher (1794-1770 is another good example of Rococo art. Her dress is a pretty pastel color and the scene is very serene. She has an erotic sense about her as does the sculpture of the mother and child behind her. It is very light-hearted with her and her dog out in the yard just lounging about with all the gorgeous flowers around them.
The whole scene is very light and optimistic; one gets a feeling that Madame de Pompadour doesn’t have a care in the world. She is elegant and respectable, appearing to be a woman of the time. The Rococo was a style in which the feminine element predominated as well as being focused on high society, and the wealthy people of this period. Artists portrayed scenes and activities from daily life, and there was a hint of wish-fulfillment in their paintings. Sayre states that rococo was not focused on morality or any other serious issue that other types of art focused on.
Davis (Davis, 1973) says that the members of the bourgeoisie wanted to see themselves represented in an ideal light, and artists during this time created fairy-tale worlds full of mysterious charm, worlds of festivity and play with vivid renderings of mythological and classical subjects. The paintings of convey the frailty of human happiness. Even the most beautiful day must end and the people return to a more realistic world. In the Rococo period most of the paintings were of people enjoying their leisure time, this would not happen as shown among the working class people.
This artwork was not created for them and exemplified a lifestyle unknown to the common person at that time. This art was created for enjoyment and to show others enjoying their lives, not only in France, but throughout Europe. References Bazin, G. (1964). Baroque and Rococo. 185-195. Bennett, S. M. , & Sargenston, C. (2008) The progress of love by Jean-Honore Fragonard. 338-342. Blunt, A. (1953). Art and architecture in France. 1500-1700. 102-443. Formack, M. & Mellon, P. (1991) The Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 46. Davis, T. (1973).
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