By Rachel Lebowitz
Following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715, the cultural center of the French elite shifted away from the royal palace in Versailles and toward private homes in Paris. This more personal milieu found its artistic expression in Rococo, which represented a rejection of Baroque art’s formal grandeur. Drawing its name from the French word rocaille (meaning rock or pebble), which originally referred to the Renaissance penchant for decorating artificial grottos with shells and stones, Rococo began as an interior design style favored by the urban upper class.
Characterized by elegance, levity, floral motifs, muted colors, and curving, asymmetrical lines, Rococo soon extended to painting, where its aesthetics combined with themes of sensual love and nature. The style quickly spread to the rest of France, and then to Germany, Austria, England, and other European countries.
While it ultimately fell out of favor due to its perceived frivolity, while proponents of Neoclassicism prevailed in popularizing a more sober style, Rococo painting remains enchanting—not just in its cotton-candy colors, but also in its playfulness, combination of naturalism and ornament, and celebration of recreation, love, and youth. What follow are 10 iconic artworks that exemplify Rococo in its varied iterations, from mythological scenes to historical portraits, and lush landscapes to lavish interiors.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)
Pélerinage à l'île de Cythère (Pilgrimage to Cythera), 1717
Musée du Louvre
Jean-Antoine Watteau is credited with the birth of Rococo painting. Combining influences from Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens and Venetian Renaissance giants like Titian and Paolo Veronese with theater, Watteau created dynamic compositions in brilliantly articulated colors. He presented nature as idyllic and untamed. These qualities went on to inspire later Rococo greats, including Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher.
Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717), known also as The Embarkation for Cythera, is perhaps Watteau’s most famous work. The painting melds a lush, Renaissance-style landscape with an allegorical scene in which a group of couples either return from or set out for—scholars differ in their interpretations—Cythera, a small Greek island near the mythical site of Aphrodite’s birth, which has long been associated with the goddess of love. Each of the three couples in the foreground represents a different phase of courtship, while the flying cupids that take off into the sky signal the island’s amorous associations.
Completed over five years, the work sealed Watteau’s admission to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In accepting the painting, which measures over 6 feet long and currently hangs in the Musée du Louvre, the Academy also officially recognized a new genre that sparked the beginning of Rococo painting: the fête galante. Featuring courtly characters in idealized pastoral settings, the genre reflected the French Regency period—the time between Louis XIV’s death and Louis XV’s reign, when Philippe II ruled as regent. It was an era of peace and prosperity, when people revelled in celebrating the rituals of courtship.
François Boucher, Triumph of Venus (1740)
Triumph of Venus
Triumph of Venus, 1740
As a young artist, Paris-born François Boucher created etchings from Jean-Antoine Watteau’s drawings. He later journeyed to Italy to study both the Venetian Baroque and 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. After he returned to Paris in the early 1730s, Boucher garnered acclaim as a painter of large mythological scenes, like his jubilant Triumph of Venus (1740), which depicts the goddess Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite) after her birth from seafoam, accompanied by water nymphs, tritons (mermen), and cherubic putti. Ample pink flesh abounds, with the coloring and configuration of the nude figures echoed in the pink-and-white sash that floats above the group.
Well-balanced yet active, lighthearted yet sexually charged, the scene exemplifies Rococo in its energy and palette, and points to how Boucher further developed a playful sense of eroticism as a defining element of the genre. Hugely popular in his own time, Boucher’s works were transformed into prints, porcelain figurines, and tapestries, and five years before his death, he became the first painter to the king and director of the Royal Academy, the two highest posts in the French art world at the time.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Meeting (from the “Loves of the Shepherds”)(1771–72)
The Meeting (from the Loves of the Shepherds)
The Meeting (from the Loves of the Shepherds), 1771-1773
The Frick Collection, New York……………