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The term rococo style, or the rococo, refers to a style of decoration current in Europe, particularly France, during the 18th century. It applies both to interior decoration and to ornaments. By extension it may also be applied to some sculpture, paintings, furniture, and architectural details, although hardly to architecture as such. It was a style of high fashion and had few popular forms.

Rococo is derived from the French word rocaille, originally meaning the bits of rocky decoration sometimes found in 16th-century architectural schemes. It was first used in its modern sense around 1800, at about the same time as baroque, and, like baroque, was initially a pejorative term (see baroque art and architecture). The revival of the rococo occurred gradually during the 19th century, beginning as a vogue for collecting French 18th-century pictures and furniture and for imitation rococo interiors.

The earliest rococo forms appeared around 1700 at Versailles and its surrounding châteaux as a reaction against the oppressive formality of French classical-baroque in those buildings. In 1701 a suite of rooms at Versailles, including the king's bedroom, was redecorated in a new, lighter, and more graceful style by the royal designer, Pierre Lepautre (1648-1716). Versailles remained the creative center of the rococo until Louis XIV's death, in 1715, after which the initiative passed to Paris. Successive waves of the style during the Regency (1715-23) and the long reign of Louis XV (1723-74) may be seen in such Parisian interiors as the Hôtel de Toulouse - Galerie Dorée, 1718-19, by François Antoine Vassé (1681-1736); the Hôtel de Lassay -- late 1720s, by Jean Aubert (d. 1741); and the Hôtel de Soubise - 1736-39, by Germain Boffrand (1667-1754).

The essence of rococo interior decoration is twofold; first, the forms are almost flat instead of being, as in baroque schemes, in high relief; second, architectural and sculptural features are eliminated so that the designer is confronted with a smooth surface, interrupted only by the window recesses and the chimneypiece. In a typical rococo decorative scheme, series of tall wooden panels (including the doors), decorated with brilliantly inventive carved and gilded motifs in low relief, are arranged around the room. After 1720 the panels were usually painted ivory white and the motifs tended to be concentrated at the tops, bottoms, and centers with straight moldings down the sides. Further motifs appeared on the dadoes and along the coving, which replaced the cornice, at the tops of the walls. The forms were fine and were originally based on ribbons; later forms consisted mainly of elongated C- and S-shapes; plant tendrils, leaves, blossoms, and sometimes shells and small birds were also introduced.

In later schemes the forms were often mildly asymmetrical in arrangement, but asymmetry was more the province of three-dimensional objects, such as wall brackets, candlesticks, and table ornaments, the master designer of which was Juste Aurèle Meissonnier. Mirrors were an important part of the ensemble, and paintings were sometimes set into the paneling over the doors. The overall effect is glittering and lively, a fitting background to 18th-century aristocratic social life, with its emphasis on privacy and its cult of human relationships.

In rococo painting, the powerful rhythms, dark colors, and heroic subjects characteristic of baroque painting gave way to quick, delicate movements, pale colors, and subjects illustrating the varieties of love: romantic love, as in the Antoine Watteau Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717; Louvre, Paris); erotic love, as in the François Boucher Cupid a Captive (1754; Wallace Collection, London); or mother love, as in the Jean Baptiste Chardin The Morning Toilet (c.1740; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). Sculpture was equally lively and unheroic, but its most typical manifestation was portrait busts, the outstanding quality of which was realism, as is evident in the Jean Baptiste Lemoyne Reaumur (1751; Louvre).

During the second quarter of the century the rococo style spread from France to other countries, and above all to Germany. Francophile German princes eagerly adopted the latest fashions from Paris and often employed French-trained architects and designers. Transplanted to Germany, the rococo took a more fanciful and wayward turn, with greater emphasis on forms derived from nature. The supreme example of German rococo style is the Francois Cuvillies Hall of Mirrors in his Amalienburg Pavilion (1734-40), a hunting lodge in the park of Nymphenburg Palace, near Munich. Germany, however -- like Austria and Italy to some extent -- also produced an indigenous form of rococo, a style evolved out of, rather than in reaction against, the baroque. Because the baroque style in Austria, Germany, and Italy was already much freer than in France, it needed only a fairly small adjustment in scale, pace, and mood to turn baroque decorative forms into rococo ones. This type of rococo found a home both in churches and in palaces. Its most beautiful manifestation is the interior of the pilgrimage church of Die Wies (1745-54) in southern Bavaria, executed by the brothers Johann Baptist and Dominikus Zimmermann.

Germany's other great contribution to the rococo style was the rediscovery (1709-10) of the Chinese art of porcelain manufacture (see pottery and porcelain) at Meissen, near Dresden. Meissen ware achieved enormous popularity, and soon every major court in continental Europe had its own porcelain factory. Small porcelain figures such as those made by Franz Anton Bustelli (1723-63) at Nymphenburg (see Nymphenburg ware) are perhaps the quintessence of the rococo, fusing all its qualities into a single miniature art.

The rococo style began to decline in the 1760s, denounced by critics who condemned it as tasteless, frivolous, and symbolic of a corrupt society. Within 20 years it was supplanted, together with the baroque, by neoclassicism.

Michael Kitson, Reader in the History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, London.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Germain Bazin, Baroque and Rococo (1985); Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, L'Art au dixhuitieme siècle (1880-82; trans. as French XVIII Century Painters, 1948); Eberhard Hempel, Baroque Art and Architecture in Central Europe (1965); Erich Hubala, Baroque and Rococo Art (1989); Stephen Jones, The Eighteenth Century (1985); W. G. Kalnein and Michael Levey, Art and Architecture of the Eighteenth Century in France (1972); Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo (1943; repr. 1965); Michael Kitson, The Age of Baroque (3d ed., 1976); Michael Levey, Rococo to Revolution (1966; repr. 1985); John L. Varriano, Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture (1986).
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Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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