Toward the end of the century, the frivolous and playful Rococo was criticized as an art of decadence. French Neoclassical art, modeled more directly on Greek and Roman art than on the work of either Poussin or Reynolds, emerged as a powerful force that seemed to express a new, more serious moral purpose... All the fluidity and elegance of the Rococo, echoes of which had remained in the work of Kauffman, were replaced by a new icy-hard surface. In their crystalline purity, David's figures seemed to be carved rather than painted.
The delicate, sensual, and often capricious art of the first half of the eighteenth century, especially in France, seems at first sight to be at odds with the rational thought of the Enlightenment. Indeed, most contemporary theorists criticized it from this point of view. Later, in the revolutionary era, it was dubbed Rococo - a frivolous confection of shells and shell-like forms - and dismissed as an attempt to satisfy the whims of a dissipated upper class. But if it lacked a closely reasoned theory, it was not without rationale. Demands for freedom from academic restrictions and rules, for an appearance of spontaneity and for novelty were its motivating forces.
Critics have often said that the only purpose of rococo art was to provide pleasure, but this is a somewhat incomplete view of its social role. The rococo style was for the most part aimed at an aristocratic audience; its grace and charm served the important purpose of shielding this class from the growing problems of the real world. The elegant picnics, the graceful lovers, the Venuses triumphant represent an almost frighteningly unrealistic view of life, and one that met with disapproval from Enlightenment thinkers who were anxious to promote social change.
In France, from the death of Louis XIV in 1715 onward, new gardening principles led to new forms of social leisure in increasingly asymmetrical, more intimate and randomly planted Rococo garden-parks. The models for these gardens were the dreamlike park-scenes by Antoine Watteau and François Boucher (64.145.4), filled with colorful picnickers seated on grassy slopes among artificial ruins, whimsical pavilions, and playful fountains. Hubert Robert's (17.190.27) park scenes with antique villas, obelisks, and aqueducts epitomize the vision of idyllic landscape, which became the central theme of eighteenth-century interior decoration (61.21.2), ranging from restrained classical wall designs in the North, to flamboyant Rococo furnishings for an actual garden room (1974.356.114-.121) in southern Germany.
French Rococo interiors were lively total works of art. Exquisitely wrought furniture, enchanting small sculptures, ornamented mirror frames, delightful ceramics and silver, small paintings, and decorative tapestries complemented the architecture, relief sculptures and mural paintings. The Salon de la Princesse no longer has most of the movable furnishings and decor that once contributed so much to its total ambience. Visitors can imagine, however, how this and similar Rococo rooms - with their alternating gilded moldings, vivacious relief sculptures, luxurious furniture, and daintily colored ornamentation of flowers and garlands - must have harmonized with the chamber music played in them, with the elaborate costumes of satin and brocade, and with the equally elegant etiquette and sparkling wit of the people who graced them.
Boucher's greatest student, Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), was an outstanding colorist whose decorative skill almost surpassed his master's. An example of his manner can stand as characteristic not only of his work but also of the later Rococo style in general. In "The Swing", a young gentleman has managed an arrangement whereby an unsuspecting old bishop swings the young man's pretty sweetheart higher and higher, while her lover (and the work's patron), in the lower left corner, stretches out to admire har ardently from a strategic position on the ground.
A theme frequently taken up by Diderot and other eighteenth-century critics, and one that I will attend to closely, is that of women's taste for Boucher and thus women's responsibility for his success... During the second half of the eighteen century, the rococo qualities exemplified by the work of Boucher - grace, plenitude, emphasis on the seductions of color and brushwork (le faire), and frequently a de-emphasis of sexual difference - came to be identified exclusively with the feminine. It is crucial to point out that this had not always been the case. Yet these qualities were cited throughout the period by anti-rococo critics as evidence that rococo art was made for the rich and frivolous: for Diderot's "little women" and effeminate men, men who were stereotypically under the sway of the (supposedly) culturally dominant fair sex.
Boucher's most original contribution to Rococo painting was his reinvention of the pastoral, a form of idealized landscape populated by shepherds and shepherdesses in silk dress, enacting scenes of erotic and sentimental love. This form was closely tied to contemporary comic operas, especially those produced for the Théâtre de la Foire by Boucher's friend Charles-Simon Favart (1710–1792), for whom he occasionally produced stage and costume designs.
The Rococo first developed in France, where Classicism had been made the guiding principle of a rigorous system of artistic instruction. In 1699 Louis XIV called for paintings more light-hearted and 'youthful' than those previously commissioned for Versailles, where work was still in progress. He also transferred his favours from artists who supported the official doctrine of the Academy to those who dissented from it.
Rococo is the name for one of the great international ornamental styles of the eighteenth century. In its departure from classical order and symmetry, the Rococo scorned the rule and the compass in favor of embellishment that required skillful freehand rendering and an imagination that transcended the bounds of academic convention. The emphasis was on naturalistic ornament, either carved or engraved. The style originated in Italy, flourished in France beginning in the 1730s, in England in the 1740s, and in America in the 1750s.
The libertine whore is a creature of the rococo, of an age enamored of materialist philosophy and comfortable with sensual pleasure, especially "varied" pleasure. She owes little to the new notions of sexual difference, of which Rousseau was the best-known spokesman. She knows nothing of woman's supposedly inherent modesty and cares little for her role in the family... Unlike the virtuous courtesan, she knows no shame or guilt and never denigrates her trade, except to suit the censors.