Rococo comes from the French Rocaille (meaning broken rocks and pebbles, which along with shells were a very common theme in designs) , and was a craft based style that appeared after the baroque period in Paris just before 1715. It is mainly associated with highly decorated and extravagant household furniture and architecture with superfluous, swirling motifs often relating to nature and wealth. It also became a very popular style of painting among the aristocratic who wanted to decorate their homes with lavish scenes depicting youth, fun, and most importantly, debauchery. Paintings mostly consisted of other wealthy nobles frolicking and abstaining from their duties, with little or no political agenda and a focus instead on pleasing aesthetics.
Boucher’s “Louise O’Murphy” (1752) is a prime example of the decadent paintings of the period, it depicts Madame Murphy, aged just 15, laying on a chaise longue and surrounded by a wealth of fancy insense, flowers (possibly from a suitor, discarded on the floor) and decadent fabrics (although none of the fabrics manage to cover her nude form.) She lies with legs splayed gazing intently into the distance perhaps at her client, Louis XV, the then king of France. The indulgent pose and bright joyful colours exude an aura of youth and playfulness, but carry no weight and serves purely as a reminder of the almost hedonistic attitude of the times.
Depictions of young beautiful women are exceptionally common at this time, as well as mythological figures, both of which showcased in Boucher’s Jupiter and Callisto (1744). Depicting The king of the gods disguised as Callisto’s fellow nymph Diana, so that he might evade his wife’s gaze while simultaneously luring the virgin nymph into his bed. Yet another opportunity for the nobles to have paintings of objectified women being debauched hung in their stately homes. The myth itself also has dark undertones of deception and the subsequent ruining of a seemingly smitten and “pure” (read: virginal) young girl by a figure she thought she could trust which ties in with the common sexual undercurrent in many paintings of the time. It also seems to be quite common for many women to have one breast exposed as a hint of their sexuality. As beautiful as it is, it has no deep powerful message and is instead what we would probably call “fanservice” today; sadly it serves as an excuse for some powerful man to have a painting of two vulnerable young women about to share something intimate in his home.
The decadent nudes continue with Boucher’s The Toilete of Venus (1751) which features, (surprise, surprise) Venus, reclining nude on her chair surrounded by cupids and doves. This painting exudes an aura of peace, calm and mischief painted in stunning colours and yet again serving little purpose other than to please the eye. The playful cupid in the lower left seems to be upturning a vase of some sort and spilling her possessions everywhere while she looks on with a chiding gaze.
In contrast, the works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze although similarly beautiful, present more dark elements. For example, “Young girl Weeping For Her Dead Bird” (1759) which is obviously less cheerful and showcases more the loss of innocence and naivety as a young child witnesses death for the first time is illustrated by the replacement of bright colours with harsh blacks and greys.
Loss of innocence seems a common theme in Greuze’s works, additionally shown in The Broken Mirror (1762-63). The loose hair and unlaced bodice of the subjects dress suggest a recent ravaging while the red of her ribbon contrasts with the “purity “of the white dress, and implies further sexual undertones. The girls almost disdainful expression as she gazes down on her fractured reflection however, may hint that he first encounter was perhaps not as happy and wonderful as she would wish it to be and that she now sees the broken reality of her situation. The jacket carelessly slung over the back of her chair screams “ownership” , similar to the way one would fling a beach towel down over a deck chair proclaiming it was theirs for the day. The desk and floor are covered in clutter and mess suggesting further ravishings while the balls of wool are placed in a not so subtle phallic reference. Again, the dulled background colours suggest realism and a grim outlook for the girl who is now trapped by her position.
Furthermore, if Greuze’s “The Broken Pitcher” (1771) is not a blatant reference to the sexuality of a poor young girl, I don’t know what is. She stands in the center of the portrait, breast exposed, clutching the bottom hem of her skirts around her in what could be considered a “come hither” pose, yet the completely blank expression says otherwise. Clearly she does not want to be there, and the subject looks so young that who could possibly blame her? Her hands clutch around the skirt and almost in some semblance of pain suggesting possibly menstrual pain, possibly pain from her recent questionably consensual escapades. Also terrifying in this painting is the ominous looking black bear (with some remarkably human features) lurking in the background. The bear seems to be holding some kind of flute (or a straw) that is held to it’s mouth in reference to the pied piper’s preferred child stealing method. The Pitcher of the title could be a reference to the female sex organ here with the implication that she is in some great pain and has been internally damaged by whatever happened to her. Her expression of indifference to all the horror going on around her suggests that either she is too naïve to notice, or that she knows yet feels compelled to continue out of some misplaced sense of duty.
I would like to point out that I really do like all these styles of painting, it just becomes difficult to express that over the torrent of feels for women who’ve been so strongly objectified.
Pictures from http://onokart.wordpress.com/category/rokoko-rococo/ (18/04/2010)
Zuvich, A. The Difference Between Baroque & Rococo Art.
Trapasso, E. A Brief History of Rococo Art
Mends, D. Rococo Art and Its Greatest Artists