The Rococo Revival
By Adele Kenny
Reprinted with the kind permission of The Antiquer, August 2003.
Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.
The word Rococo derives from the French rocaille, which originally referred to rocky bits of shellwork decoration sometimes found in sixteenth century architecture and garden ornamentation. Rococo was initiated into fashionable design in eighteenth century France during the reign of Louis XIV. The first Rococo forms were introduced to Versailles and its surrounding châteaux in 1701 when a suite of rooms, including the king’s bedroom, was decorated in Rococo style by royal designer Pierre Le Pautre (1648-1716). The preceding Baroque style was heavy, and design was ready for a transition into refreshingly lighter, more whimsical, Rococo forms. Rococo was concurrent with the phase-out of Baroque, and early Rococo is sometimes regarded as Baroque’s final stage.
During the long reign of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, France became the preeminent power in Europe. When Louis died in 1715, he was succeeded by his five-year-old great grandson. For the next several years the late king’s nephew, the duc d’Orléans, governed as regent. The duc’s worldly appetites for beauty and high spirits led to attenuation of the piety enforced by Louis XIV at Versailles. Under the duc’s influence, France turned its gaze from imperial ambitions and began to focus more on personal and pleasurable pursuits. Political life and morals relaxed, and a lively – intimate, highly decorative, sometimes erotic – style was welcomed. Following the Regency (1715-23) and throughout the reign of Louis XV (1723-74) Rococo was the height of fashion in France. Parisian designers were arbiters of popular world taste, and during the second quarter of the seventeenth century, Rococo style was embraced by other European countries. In Germany emphasis was placed on motifs and forms derived from nature, and in Italy and Austria indigenous Rococo concepts evolved as the French fashion was copied and adapted. Interestingly, Rococo was not favored in England until its revival in the nineteenth century.
Less evident in architecture than in interior design, furniture, and ornaments, Rococo’s light sweeps, curves, and flourishes were set in juxtaposition to the coarse, straight, and ponderous Baroque lines. Rococo was a perfect complement to the modish and, in the reckoning of some, the “fussy” couture of the time. Characterized and humanized by the free spirit of the pittoresque, the Rococo period was typified by its exaggerated curves. Elaborately elegant parlors, dainty sitting rooms, and lavish boudoirs took on fantastical and sculptured elements in which straight lines were interrupted, and sometimes virtually eliminated, by curves, shell-like ornamentation, impressive gilding, and extravagant gracefulness.
During the Louis XIV period, Rococo furniture included chairs with carved, gilded scrolls and velvet or silk upholsteries that were embroidered with gold or silver thread. Armoires and bureaus of the Louis XIV period were distinguished by their opulence and size and the use of metal and tortoiseshell marquetry (called boulle after cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle). Storage furniture often featured inlaid ebony. Rococo flourished to extremes during the reign of Louis XV and was characterized by increasingly complex curving forms, fanciful patterns inlaid on veneers, flower marquetry, and extensive use of ormolu. Bombé commodes, particularly those made by Charles Cressent (1685-1768), conveyed the Rococo spirit with distinctive singularity. The fauteuile (an armchair with a scrolled back and seat and with curved arms and legs) and the bergere (easy chair) became popular along with the bureau-plat (designed by Boulle for Louis XIV) and other writing desks (including the secretaire with a fall-front and the bureau de dame or ladies’ writing desk set on slender legs often ending in gilt-bronze sabots or “shoes”).
Decorators, goldsmiths, and a range of specialists and technicians were called into action to create eighteenth century Rococo interiors. Wall murals and ceilings, along with academic canvasses, depicted the “beautiful sensuality” of the French court through Rococo interpretations in which subject was subordinate to style. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, was the style trendsetter of the Rococo period and a patron of artists like the archetypal French Rococo painter François Boucher (1703-1770), whose canvasses were filled with mythological, idyllic open air (fête galante), and romantic courtship themes (not to mention Madame de Pompadour herself). Other luminary exponents of the new style included Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). In general, Rococo painters turned away from religious and historical subjects and the dark grandiloquence of Baroque in favor of color and light. The French Rococo painting style was “laid back” and sometimes mischievous. An essential brightness, curves, and small details dominated Rococo canvasses. Fairy tale landscapes, portraits (flattering and idealized renderings of aristocrats), nudes, woodland tableaus, and scenes that emphasized the airy refinement and sophisticated pleasures of the salon and boudoir were a blend of court life, nature, and fantasy. English painting of the time did not display the characteristic Rococo frivolity; however, Rococo influences were expressed in the works of such British painters as Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792).
Rococo interior spaces were characterized by liberated asymmetry, fine and ornamental plasterwork, arches, ovals and rounded shapes, and natural forms like clouds, flowers, and seashells. Pastel colors accented by prodigious amounts of gold highlighting were typical. Rooms were designed in oval shapes or in rectangular forms – set in seemingly continuous or flowing arrangements. Ceilings were ornately carved or were plastered and decorated with devices that included shells, flowers, and ribbon motifs: they were usually whimsically outlined and painted white or off-white. Windows and doors stretched from ceiling to floor, were lightly carved, and often featured pull-up curtains. Rococo furniture was typically light, carved, gilded, and set on cabriole legs (shaped like an animal’s hind legs and with scrolled feet). Upholstery and other fabrics were showy – not unlike the confections of a Parisian patisserie – and not well suited to the rigors of everyday use. Mirrors were a key element of Rococo interiors and, in many cases, entire walls were lined with them – irregularly shaped, with alternating white or pastel panels, and laced with ornamental silver or gold.
The Rococo style began to decline in the 1760s. For the most part, it was too expensive and too impractical for any but the wealthy to enjoy. It was criticized as excessive and tasteless – representative of a corrupt society – and it fell to the more restrained and well-defined symmetry of Neo-Classical design.
Although the British did not hold Rococo in much esteem during the eighteenth century, the Victorians indulged in an enthusiastic Rococo revival that began during the 1820s, gathered momentum during the 1830s, and lingered into the 1860s. The Rococo Revival was, at first, a reaction to the severity of Empire style and was encouraged by a return to Romanticism that sent Victorian designers into the past for inspiration. The swirling lines, natural motifs, and over-stated elegance of Rococo style caught the collective Victorian fancy. Rococo Revival style, as it did at the time of its inception in eighteenth century France, reflected the Victorian predilection toward displays of prosperity and the psychological need to create a sense of refined opulence in the home. Upper and middle class Victorians were far from the staid and somber individuals their queen became: they loved to party and play; they enjoyed the naughty and the risqué; and they celebrated anything that delighted the eye.
The Rococo Revival infused Victorian decorative arts with much of the elaborate embellishment for which the era is known and, although the Revival was felt most keenly in Victorian parlor suites and is the style most commonly associated with Victorian furnishings today, it was also communicated through a vast array of ornamental pieces. Most importantly, new technologies and mass production brought Revival items to a wider public, and Rococo ornament in its second incarnation was more accessible and affordable than it was in its first.
Nineteenth century cabinetmakers applied their skills to creating pieces that brought back the curvilinear forms, the carvings, and the scrolled lines of eighteenth century Rococo style, and their cleverness resulted in furnishings that displayed the look with the bonus of greater comfort. Furniture legs were curved, but not purely cabriole. Rounded and scrolled contours formed cartouche-like back pieces on sofas and chairs, and naturalistic carvings of C- and S-curves, shell designs, flowers, grapes, leaves, and birds appeared in abundance. These were often more ornate than eighteenth century Rococo designs and frequently featured trailing grapevines and extended scrolling foliage. Rosewood, black walnut, and mahogany were the preferred woods. While eighteenth century Rococo design was strongly and curvaceously feminine, the Revival was somewhat less so. Rococo Revival furniture tended to have heavier lines than its eighteenth century ancestors did; the legs were not as delicate, the rear legs were often chamfered at the base (giving a more solid appearance), and the carvings were less fragile-looking.
Sofas and loveseats were made in graceful forms with upholstered wood frames. Frequently, the frame was carved and serpentine-shaped. Others were crafted with oval or round upholstered medallions framed in wood at the back. Later sofas were made with rounded, upholstered arms with carved wood fronts. Sometimes the arms were made to be let down in order to lengthen the sofa for extra seating or reclining room. Side chairs were attractive and were made in a range of styles: chairs from the 1830s, known in Britain as “Old French” or ”Louis XV” style, were sometimes a mix of Louis XIV and Louis XV styles. The earliest of these Revival chairs were painted or highlighted with gilt, but by the 1840s exposed, polished wood had come into vogue. Later Rococo Revival chairs were designed with balloon-style backs and evolved into more naturalistic styles with decoration comprised of winding tendrils entwined with flowers. Upholstered gentleman and lady chairs were made in pairs – the gentleman chairs were constructed with high backs and arms, and the lady chairs were lower and without arms. Console tables, some gilded and with marble tops, featured foliate and shell-encrusted aprons, and x-frame stretchers that were characteristic of the Louis XV Rococo style.
Spring-driven cartel wall clocks became extremely popular and were decorated with elaborate asymmetrical scrollwork, flowers, fruit, and shells. French examples of the Revival period tended to be more ornate than British timepieces of similar style and were typically made of bronze or brass while the British versions were usually made of less expensive gilded wood. Ceramic clock cases were also made in the Rococo style with elaborate scrolls, encrustations of flowers, and cartouches (usually centered near the base). Rococo elements also appeared in high relief on ornate silver tea sets. Silver tea urns (larger than teapots, usually fitted with a horizontal tap near the base) were made in the Rococo style and were frequently produced in Sheffield plate (size dictated cost, and plate was less expensive to produce and to buy). Rococo devices appeared in silver flatware patterns, and in other silver items like candlesticks. Intricate Rococo-style silver baskets were produced with pierced designs of scrolls, circles, crescents, elaborate engraving and chasing, and asymmetrical handles with cast and applied animals, figures, and birds. Large silver items like soup tureens and other serving pieces were also produced during the Rococo Revival and were considered essentials for the well-appointed Victorian dining table.
In ceramics, Rococo elements were used extensively, often incorporated into porcelain and earthenware figures and, especially, into figure bases. Tableware patterns included Rococo motifs on mass produced transfer printed wares, and one flow blue pattern was called “Watteau” after the eighteenth century Rococo painter. In particular, the Rockingham factory in Yorkshire was a master of the Rococo Revival and specialized in lavish molded decoration on its ceramic wares.
Surviving nineteenth century design books and catalogs bear testimony to the Rococo Revival’s immense popularity in Britain and France. Like other Victorian revivals, it even crossed the Atlantic and became a style of choice in the United States where John Henry Belter set the standards for America’s Rococo Revival. However, just as Rocco style was supplanted by a return to Classical ornament during the eighteenth century, the bon vivant and delightfully decadent spirit of the Rococo Revival ended in a return to Classicism in Britain and abroad after the 1860s.