Rococo Art: A History of the Period and Style

Rococo was a style of art, especially architecture and decorative art that originated in France. It is marked by elaborate ornamentation with a profusion of scrolls, foliage, and animal forms.

Its main period was from the late 1720s to the late 1780s. The French Revolution in 1789 ended Rococo. People turned away from aristocratic frivolity to more serious subjects in keeping with the working life.

In this guide, learn everything you need to know about the Rococo art period. This includes the style, characteristics, history and most famous artists.

What is Rococo art?

Antoine Watteau: Merry Company in the Open Air

The definition of Rococo art is a style that uses elegance, lightness, pastel colours and gold. It has ornamentation, scrolls, asymmetrical patterns and foliage. Rococo art, sometimes called the “feminised” version of the Baroque style, is associated with the aristocracy and also the playful rich. It is less formally classical than the preceding periods of the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque. Typically the paintings depict aristocrats or aristocratic leisure time activities like courtship rituals or picnics in a harmonious natural environment or excursions to romantic places in a semi-surreal state.

The history of the Rococo period

Antoine Watteau: The Feasts of Venice

The death of Louis XIV, King of France in 1715 and with his heir being too young to rule at that time, gave the aristocratic French a lot of power. Aristocrats spent this power and money on themselves in a frivolous way, on parties and lavish expensive houses.

Rosalba Carriera: Portrait of Louis XV as Dauphin

Moreover, the perspectives of art changed in France, resulting in the beginnings of Rococo. It was a reaction to the then more formal classical style. What started as a movement in interior decoration gradually became incorporated into art. This altered the outlook on art for much of the 18th century. Rococo is often described as the final expression of Baroque. Jean-Antoine Watteau ushered in the Rococo movement, and Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard followed as two of the most influential Rococo painters in France.

Where did the Rococo movement take place?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Apollo and Diana

Rococo art spread as a movement from France through central Europe to Germany and Austria. It also spread to Italy, centring around Venice where it was epitomised by artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in his wall sized large frescos. Rococo art then spread to several other countries, more represented by individual artists, with a slightly different interpretation.

Rococo architecture
Royal Fort House Bristol

The movement didn’t take off so well in England. However, there are some examples of architecture built during the period which epitomise it well. This includes the Royal Fort House in Bristol (1761) which is currently a university building.

Famous Rococo artists

Francois Boucher

Francois Boucher: The Birth and Triumph of Venus

Son of less well known painter Nicholas Boucher, Francois Boucher (1703-1770) was a French painter who was brought up in Paris. A draughtsman and etcher, he worked in the Rococo style. He produced about 75 paintings and was known for his idyllic and voluptuous paintings on classical themes, decorative allegories, and pastoral scenes.

Boucher was perhaps the most celebrated painter and decorative artist of the 18th century. This is because his work reflected the mood of that time. He achieved many academic honours in his career. However, he was criticised towards the end as the more structured Neoclassicism style came to the fore. His style lost its appeal and was seen as trivial.

As a native of Paris, Boucher painted for the king of France, Louis XV and Madame Pompadour. Boucher is probably most well-known for his mythological paintings. These include Birth of Venus, Diana Bathing and Hercules and Omphale.

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough: Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

England’s main Rococo artist, along with his rival Joshua Reynolds, was Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) who lived in Sudbury, Suffolk. Gainsborough was thirteen when he persuaded his father, on the strength of his already developed artwork to be allowed to leave home and study art in London.

He trained as an engraver with Hubert Gravelot. He then became associated with English Painter William Hogarth who used a French Rococo style with an edge of realism. Gainsborough produced landscapes and portraiture, but his landscape work at that time was not successful or in demand. So in 1748 he returned to Sudbury to concentrate on portraits. While in Sudbury he painted one of his most famous pictures, an oil on canvas entitled Mr and Mrs Andrews which has been described as the masterpiece of his early career, as he was only 21. Very little was known about this painting as it was held in the family of the sitters until 1960. 

Gainsborough didn’t like painting portraits, he liked painting landscapes, but they were not in demand. He wrote many letters to friends, complaining about the demand for portraits from rich gentlemen and contrary to this in 1759 he moved to Bath to meet that very demand.

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya: Leocadia (from the Black Paintings series)

Spanish artist, Francisco Goya (1746 -1828) painted in Romantic and Rococo styles. Not only did he cover Portraiture, Mythology and Religion, but he put messages in his work of a political and social nature. He travelled to Rome at 14 years old and won 2nd prize in an art competition. This secured him work creating tapestries. Forty-two of these tapestries were used in the newly built palaces around Madrid which led to him getting a royal audience. In 1781 he became friends with the crown prince of Spain and was appointed as a salaried royal court painter. He then went on to paint many portraits for an expanding circle of the royals at court. 

Francisco Goya: A Scene from The Forcibly Bewitched

Around 1792 Goya contracted an undiagnosable illness which deafened him and affected his mental well-being. This altered his painting. The Disasters of War series (1810-1820) show the misery, disasters and devastation of the Napoleonic war.

Goya painted a series of disturbing paintings on the walls of his house the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf One). This may have been to do with the onset of the Peninsular war with France (1808-1814). The so called ‘Black Paintings’ series (1819-1823) have images of loss and evil doings. These were reflections of himself, an ageing, deaf man who was detached and disappointed with the world around him.

Altogether Goya painted over 400 pieces of art and will be remembered for painting The Third of May, The Naked Maja, The Clothed Maja and Saturn eating his children. He was a bridge between old classical painting and modern art and as such cast his influence on many other emerging artists such as Picasso, Manet and Degas.

Antoine Watteau

Antoine Watteau: The Embarkation for Cythera

Watteau was a French artist who is considered to be one of the founders of the Rococo style. He is best known for his delicate and dreamlike depictions of sensual landscapes and romantic scenes.

Antoine Watteau was an influential French painter born in 1684 in Valenciennes, France. Watteau’s early education was in the field of architecture. However, he developed a passion for art and moved to Paris to study under French painter Claude Gillot. He initially worked on stage designs and later began painting portraits and fêtes galantes, which became his signature style.

Watteau’s style combined elements of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art with a delicate and romantic sensibility. His paintings often depict elegant figures in exquisite costumes, set in luscious, dreamlike landscapes. He was interested in themes such as flirtation, love, and the pursuit of pleasure, often depicting his subjects in fragile poses or languorous moods. His style was characterised by the use of a muted colour palette, which added a sense of softness to his works. Watteau’s mastery of the ‘fête galante’ genre such as “Embarkation for Cythera,” which depicts a group of elegantly dressed aristocrats enjoying a romantic encounter on a mythical island, earned him great popularity.

Watteau’s influence on Rococo art was significant, and his legacy can still be observed in the art world today. He was known for his ability to capture the essence of 18th-century France in his works while also displaying a talent for making his fantasies and imaginations come to life. Later artists would draw inspiration from his works in creating similar pieces. For example, the British artist Thomas Gainsborough was known to admire Watteau, and some of his works such as “Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan” have been said to be influenced by Watteau’s style.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Jean-Honore Fragonard: The Swing

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a prominent French Rococo artist born in Grasse, France, in 1732. At the age of 18, he moved to Paris to study under prominent artists such as Francois Boucher and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Fragonard’s style was heavily influenced by the decorative arts. His paintings often depicted sensual themes in a lavish, ornate manner. He developed a technique characterised by loose brushstrokes and bold colour choices. This paved his way to becoming one of the most prominent Rococo artists.

One of Fragonard’s most famous artworks is The Swing, a masterpiece that vividly captures the playful and whimsical nature of the Rococo period. The painting portrays a woman on a swing, a hint at the frivolity characteristic of Rococo art. Another notable piece by Fragonard is The Stolen Kiss, another romantic scene painting that explores the theme of love. His works typically showcased softness, dreaminess, and also the intricate details of the human form, frequently romanticising classic scenes from Greek mythology.

Jean-Honore Fragonard: The Stolen Kiss

Fragonard is one of the central figures of the movement along with artists like Francois Boucher and Antoine Watteau. His unique style and innovative techniques were highly influential in shaping Rococo art to the point where his works became known as quintessential pieces of the period. Despite being highly celebrated, Fragonard’s legacy met with controversy when some critics accused him of creating work that was obscene or trivial. Fragonard died in 1806, leaving behind a complex and fascinating body of work that epitomised the indulgent and luxurious nature of the Rococo movement.

The lasting influence of Rococo

The Rococo style was multimedia. It overflowed from interior design into pure art, sculpture, fashion, furniture, architecture, landscaped gardens and household ornaments in its time. The lasting influence of Rococo can be seen not only in paintings, but in interiors, buildings and gardens worldwide.

The influence of Rococo is often seen in home decor. It is now popular for contemporary interiors to include contrasting pieces in the Rococo style. Where intricate details and craftsmanship are highlighted against a minimal modern setting (such as a feature wall).

Rococo had a revival period between 1880 and 1915 which influenced Art Nouveau and is still referenced and alive today.

21st Century Rococo

Nearly 250 years after it came to an end there is a modern day return to Rococo by artists in the 21st century which could be described as a mini movement or second revival.

British artist Flora Yukhnevich has re-configured Rococo in her Venice series of paintings and at the same time kept the same defining elements. Among the series is the oil on linen Crème de la Mer which has lost none of the essence, frivolity or the over the top style of original Rococo and there can be seen a beautiful extravagance of colour and activity that gives a decadence of light and intricate detail. Her paintings are priced between $250,000 and $3m.

London based artist Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s large-scale abstract paintings are lavishly detailed. They are based on observations of self and society with botanic and poetic references. At first chaotic, there is a beautiful quiet madness, but as the eye gets absorbed, the brilliance shines through. There are echoes of the past and a statement of the future and a freshness in the light colours.