Rococo: Was this really how the upper class lived?

With the reign of King Louis XIV of France (“the sun king”-1643-1715) came a shift in art from the formal, religious Baroque style to the frivolous, playful Rococo, marking the period in time when France became the trendsetter for high fashion and art in Europe. Rococo art can often be identified by six aspects: light-hearted depiction of domestic life in the upper class home; elegantly dressed aristocrats at play; scenes of beauty, romance, sex symbols, and playfulness; mythological themes; pastel colors; and cherubs. This style is often criticized for its erotic subject matter, yet Rococo art was often viewed as the “tabloid magazine” of its time, depicting the lives of the rich and the famous in France and their easy day-to-day lives without work or a care in the world. This type of art was actually an embodiment of the causes of the French Revolution: “upper class preoccupied with their own amusement and luxuries while the common folk were miserable”.

The shift in style primarily began with the construction of the Palace of Versailles, when all the attention was placed on the king of France and his grand palace, instead of on international, religious affairs, or on the common people. This accent of Rococo, in which society constantly was reflected by the elegance of the aristocracy developed because the citizens of France wished to resemble the exciting lives of the upper class. Figures of this style were often depicted as plump and with a healthy physique in order to show their upper class status and wealth. In addition, women were often portrayed as erotic and as objects of lust, as they were viewed in society, demonstrated by the numerous wives and lovers of King Louis XV such as Madame Pompadour, who patronized the arts.

The aristocrats and those of the middle class had strict rules about public displays of affection; therefore in Rococo works, secret meetings between lovers are often depicted as they were often societal realities. The three infamous Rococo artists expressed this theme throughout their works during the time period: Watteau's art of 'fete gal ante' depicted outdoor courtship parties; Fragonard depicted love and seduction; Boucher depicted opulent self-indulgence.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Stolen Kiss

The Stolen Kiss by Jean-Honore Fragonard depicts a moment frozen in time of two lovers sharing a secret passionate embrace, a simple kiss. Though, the young woman at the same time looks away, making sure that they are not being watched, as it was not proper for the couple to share such a moment. This scene is one that was often commissioned by aristocrats to send to their lovers, as the French society had strict courtship rules. These paintings were used as signals to share one’s affection for their lovers, exchanged between those of financially superior families. Fragonard’s content often pushed the limits of sexuality that was repeatedly criticized for its erotic subject matter.

Great detail is given to the woman’s dress, a statement of high fashion of the time. During pre-revolutionary France, fashion could not be afforded by the common folk, only by those of the middle or upper class, who constituted for about 2% of the French population. Therefore, by being depicted in voluminous dresses and sweeping hairstyles, the aristocracy were able to visually put themselves at a higher level than the commoners. In addition, the luminous color palette highlights her gown and her skin demonstrates the idealized portrayal of the aristocracy, the ones who the common people looked at as those who lived much more frivolous, erotic lives full of gossiping and flirting. Rococo generally characterized the aristocracy accurately: shallow.

As previously noted, the aristocracy were forbidden from public displays of affection; therefore, lovers often portrayed their wishes for intimacy and sexual relations through art. Rococo is known for its seductive and risque themes, depicting couples having secret affairs or get togethers, especially located in sublime gardens. However, this painting takes the risque factor to another level by depicting a naked woman, a harem to be exact. Yet, the fact that she is a harem adds an aspect of cultural difference from the typical French woman portrayed seducing a man in that a harem was seen as an Oriental fantasy, not a reality of French society. Her pose though is one of an aristocrat laying elegantly on a lavish sofa but not letting her eyes meet with the audience.

Francois Boucher, L'Odalisque

This piece is considered one of Rococo due to the central purpose-simply to please the aristocracy, specifically the male audience. Rococo is often viewed by art historians as art that gives “a day in the life of an aristocrat”, rather than the realities of the time or artistic interest.

Therefore, after the French Revolution, when the king was overthrown, there was no room in the art scene for “shallow subject matter”; in addition, many commissioners were executed by the guillotine during the Terror of Paris.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Musical Contest

In the scene of a lush garden, a woman of high standing holding a parasol romantically while being courted by two possible suitors, each trying to impress the maiden with their musical skills. However, the woman looks confused and disheveled, as if this was the hardest decision of her life. Yet, she has the power to decide who she likes most. This accurately represents the “difficult” decisions that faced the aristocracy during this time period.

As with many Rococo pieces, there is a common theme of sensuality, depicted through the woman’s elegant arm gestures, low cut dress, and the intimacy and closeness between the woman and the man on her left. Rococo not only made the life of the aristocracy seem desirable, but also theatrical in a sense.

Rococo art is not known for being a revolution in the techniques of art, highly regarded for its style or its connections with the typical political or economic scenes at the time; instead, the content is found enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing to the eye simply because it was a fad at the time. The French were more concerned about spending taxpayer money on these types of artworks, making the French lifestyle look more charming to other upper class Europeans, rather than focusing on the internal and international turmoil outside of the bubble of the aristocracy and the artists they commissioned to create these paintings.

Tete a Tete, from Marriage A-la-Mode series

While most Rococo art was commissioned by those of the aristocracy, voluntarily wishing to be portrayed as silly and flirtatious, living extravagant lives, Hogarth satirically portrays the aristocracy as without morals, marrying for money and convenience rather than love in his Rococo work the Tête à Tête. In this six piece series, Hogarth tells the story of a young couple whose marriage is financially arranged between the woman’s father and the suitor. Yet, from the beginning of the marriage to the end (due to the wife’s suicide), both the man and the woman have affairs with their lovers and contract sexually-transmitted diseases. The financial counselor of the couple even seems fed up with the marriage and the disrespect that both spouses had towards each other.

Hogarth’s view on marriage was not given the reaction that he had expected. Unlike most of his other works,

Tête à Tête had to be sold for a few coins. Yet, I find this surprising considering the fact that this showed the ridiculous reality of the life of the aristocracy, the aristocracy which the common folk of France in the 18th century despised because of their shallowness and meaningless spending on fashion, furniture, and in this case, marriage arrangements.

Hogarth is associated with the Rococo style because while he was an English satirical painter who critiqued the aristocracy, his painting technique of flowy and loose brushstrokes gives his works a similar technical appearance.

“When you view Rococo paintings and judge the wealthy by their arrogant, lush, and indulgent lifestyles in their own age of decadence, be sure to also see the innocence of happy parents and children and the grace of elegant lovers.” Although the time of Rococo was not a pleasant one for those of all classes, we must always remember when critiquing this style that this ridiculous, foolish, happiness still brings back those feelings when we admire its beauty and humor today.


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