French and Italian Painting of the Eighteenth Century

Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice

Canaletto
Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice, 1742/1744
Gift of Mrs. Barbara Hutton
1945.15.4

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The taste for rococo—intimate and charming subjects painted in pastel colors—gave way by mid-century to the simpler, more restrained forms of neoclassical art. In Italy, travelers on the Grand Tour patronized painters of ancient and modern landmarks for souvenirs, while in France a sober and restrained look, like that of Roman reliefs, would serve the Revolution.

In the 18th century, a brisk trade in painted views of Venice and Rome grew up in response to tourists' demands for souvenirs. Canaletto, Bellotto, Guardi, and Pannini were at the forefront of production. Italian painters were also commissioned by foreign princes to decorate their palaces. It is a mark of the times that Tiepolo, perhaps the most celebrated Italian painter of the eighteenth century, died in Spain after completing an ambitious mural program for the royal palace in Madrid.

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the center of French society moved from the court at Versailles to Paris. Elegant interiors were decorated with motifs with sinuous curves and arabesques. The S curve of this rococo style was incorporated in paintings such as the fêtes galantes of Antoine Watteau, which showed pleasure-seeking ladies and gentlemen socializing in a pastoral setting. François Boucher, who started his career as an engraver copying Watteau's paintings, indicated the taste of the mid-18th century in his idealized depictions of courtly beauty.

In the closing decades of the century, a surge of interest in archaeology and a rediscovery of the straight lines and regularized proportions of Greek and Roman art supplanted the curvilinear and sensual shapes of the rococo. The French Revolution (1789–1799) profoundly changed the entire political system and subsequently the governmental structure that had supported the arts since the early reign of Louis XIV. Jacques- Louis David created new motifs suited to the political needs of the revolution and also of the Emperor Napoleon, reinterpreting the principles of classicism.