National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Rococo Decorative Arts of the Mid-1700s

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Reacting against the rigid court etiquette under the seventeenth century's “Sun King,” Louis XIV, eighteenth-century French art patrons sought greater informality. A new, more intimate style emerged under Louis XV, great-grandson of the old king. The early phase of the Louis XV style is called the régence because from 1715 to 1723 Philippe, duc d'Orléans, ruled as regent for the young king, who was only five years old when he came to the throne.

During the reign of Louis XV (1723-1774), the arts were marked by an intricate grace. Later named rococo, after rocaille (shells and pebbles encrusted on garden grottoes), this style used iridescent pastel tints and natural motifs such as flowers, vines, and seashells.

Sinuous, asymmetrical curves pervade the overall shapes of rococo decorative arts. Termed bombé, literally meaning “blown out,” the forms seem to swell as though gentle gusts of wind have billowed the furniture like airborne sails. Even heavy chests of drawers seem to waft in a breeze.

In an age devoted to gaiety and comfort, the rococo style reached its height of elegance under Madame de Pompadour. A highly educated and brilliant woman, Pompadour dictated fashionable taste from her accession as Louis XV’s mistress in 1745 until her death in 1764.

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