The most rebellious of design styles ..
Sinuous curves, asymmetrical ornament, pastel colours, shells and flowers, playfulness, cupid’s arrow – all are emblematic of the highly decorative Rocaille style, or French Rococo which reached a crescendo during the reign of Louis XV between about 1723 and 1759.
The rococo succeeded and evolved out of the overawing grandeur of the baroque style, the rococo washed away the heaviness of baroque ornament, making it both lighter yet more flamboyant. If the baroque is characterised by a large carved scallop shell wrapped with leafy branches, the rococo would take the same shell but elongate it, so it becomes misshapen, or asymmetrical, and simultaneously transform the heavily carved garland into a spray of flowers.
The frivolity of the rococo is said to echo the lascivious of King Louis XV, and reflecting this, The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) illustrated above, has become the defining painting of the rococo (Wallace Collection, London).
The word rococo evolved from rocaille, meaning rock or broken shell and referred to a method of shellwork decoration favoured for decorating garden grottos. Rococo was a variation coined in the early nineteenth century, intended as a derogatory term for a style ‘overloaded with twisting ornaments’. Characterised by an abundance of curves the main ornaments of Rococo include asymmetrical shells, birds, bouquets of flowers, fruits, musical instruments, cherubs and Chinoiseries inspired ornaments such as pagodas, dragons, monkeys and stylized flowers.
Design for a canapé with characteristic shell and C-scroll carving designed by Meissonnier for Count Bielinski, Warsaw, Poland (1735). Ornamental and theatrical, it shows rococo to be a style without rules.
The parcel-gilt and white painted boiseries and mirrors of the Salon de la Princesse at the Hôtel de Soubisse, dating to circa 1737, are an illustrative early rococo interior.
In Germany architects quickly adopted the rococo making it far more asymmetric and loaded with more ornate decoration than the French original. The German style featured more extreme curves and counter-curves cascading down walls, ceilings with no right angles and stucco foliage creeping up the walls. The decoration was often gilded or silvered to give it contrast with the white or pale pastel walls.
The Hall of Mirrors at Amalienburg by Johann Baptist Zimmermann (1734–1739). Nymphenburg Palace Park, Munich, Southern Germany.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) amplified the rococo to new heights of extravagance, as seen here in the hall of mirrors at the Schloss Linderhof built 1870-79.
In Britain the rococo was called the ‘French taste’, and compare to neoclassicism was considered frivolous and indulgent, even degenerate. Contrary to this, art theorists of the day argued that the undulating curves and S-scrolls were more akin to nature and therefore rococo displayed a truer sense of beauty than rectilinear neoclassicism. In this way rococo was a formative influence when a century later Art Nouveau emerged.
Norfolk House Music Room, 1748 – 56, London, England
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Design for a rococo interior, by John Linnell, about 1755, England. Museum no. E.263-1929.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
British rococo was more restrained and was propagated via pattern books of furniture designs. A distinctively British interpretation of Rococo scrollwork is evident in the furniture designs of Matthias Lock and Henry Copland as published in a series of prints from 1742 and the most famous is The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director by Thomas Chippendale the Elder, published as a collected edition in 1754.
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