National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: 18th-Century France — The Rococo and Watteau

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In 1715 the French greeted a new king for the first time in seventy-two years. Louis XV, a boy only five years old, succeeded his great-grandfather Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had made France the preeminent power in Europe. For the next eight years the late king's nephew, the duc d'Orléans, governed as regent. His appetite for beauty and vivaciousness was well known, and he set aside the piety enforced by Louis XIV at Versailles. France turned away from imperial aspirations to focus on more personal—and pleasurable—pursuits. As political life and private morals relaxed, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.

The Rococo Style

Louis XIV's desire to glorify his dignity and the magnificence of France had been well served by the monumental and formal qualities of most seventeenth-century French art. But members of the succeeding court began to decorate their elegant homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style has been known since the last century as "rococo," from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. First emerging in the decorative arts, the rococo emphasized pastel colors, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Painters turned from grandiloquence to the sensual surface delights of color and light, and from weighty religious and historical subjects—though these were never ignored completely—to more intimate mythological scenes, views of daily life, and portraiture. Similarly, sculptors increasingly applied their skills to small works for the appreciation of private patrons.

Antoine Watteau and the Fête Galante

Though several painters of the preceding generation had experimented with the ingredients of rococo—emphasizing color, a lighthearted approach, and close observation—Antoine Watteau merged them into something new.

Born near the Flemish border, Watteau was influenced by the carefully described scenes of everyday life popular in Holland and Flanders. Arriving in Paris in 1702, he first made his living by copying these genre paintings, which contained moralizing messages not always fully understood by French collectors. He worked for a painter of theatrical scenes and encountered the Italian commedia dell'arte and its French imitators. The stock characters of these broadly drawn, improvised comedies appear often in Watteau's paintings, and the world of the theater inspired him to mingle the real and imagined in enigmatic scenes. Through work with a fashionable rococo decorator, Watteau came eventually to the attention of patrons and established artists. He began studies at the official Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture—membership in which was necessary for important commissions—and gained access to new art collections being amassed by aristocrats and members of the expanding bourgeoisie. Influenced by his study of Rubens and Venetian Renaissance artists, Watteau developed a free, delicate painting technique and a taste for warm, shimmering colors.

In 1717 Watteau's "masterpiece" submitted for admission to the Academy was accepted as a "fête galante." With this new category, the Academy recognized the novelty of his work. The immediate popularity of these garden scenes, in which aristocratic young couples meet in amorous pursuits, suggests how well the fête galante matched the pleasure-seeking spirit of the early eighteenth century. Engravings made Watteau's subjects and manner widely known. Though the lyrical mystery of his own work remained unique, other painters who specialized in the fête galante, notably Pater and Lancret, also enjoyed international popularity.

Eighteenth-Century France

1713War of Spanish Succession ends, halting France's expansion in Europe
1715Louis XV succeeds Louis XIV as king of France
1717Handel's Water Music first performed on Thames
1718New Orleans founded by the French
1721Death of Watteau
1727Death of Isaac Newton
1740Frederick the Great assumes Prussian throne
Richardson's Pamela, Virtue Rewarded published
1742Handel's Messiah first performed
1745Madame de Pompadour becomes mistress of Louis XV
1748Excavation of Roman Pompeii begun
1751First volume of Diderot's Encyclopedia appeared
1758Voltaire completes Candide
1762Rousseau's Social Contract published
Mozart, age six, begins tour
Catherine the Great begins rule in Russia
1763Seven Years War ends; France loses most colonial possessions
1770Death of Boucher
1774Louis XVI becomes king of France
Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther published
1776Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations published
American War of Independence begins
1777Lavoisier proves air contains oxygen and nitrogen
1779Death of Chardin
1781Kant's Critique of Pure Reason published
1783Treaty of Versailles ends American War of Independence
1789French Revolution begins with storming of the Bastille
1806Death of Fragonard

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