Art and visual culture: Medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: Medieval to modern

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Art and visual culture: Medieval to modern

Rococo ‘style’

The use of style labels such as the Baroque can thus be justified so long as they are employed to analyse the formal means used by artists to achieve specific effects in particular historical circumstances. It remains problematic when what began as a rhetorical device for disparaging certain artists and works is transformed into an ostensibly neutral category applied in a broad-brush way. In the case of the Baroque, this does not matter very much any more; Borromini, for example, is now generally admired for precisely the tendencies for which he was vilified in the late eighteenth century. It is still a live issue, however, in the case of the Rococo, a term that originated at around the same date. It is said that students of the Neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) coined the word (a conflation of rocaille, meaning a kind of ornamental rock and shellwork, and barocco, that is, Baroque) just before 1800 in order to castigate whatever they associated with the fashionable taste of the court society that had been swept away by the French Revolution. It is now used to designate the erotic, playful and decorative style that developed in France during the first half of the eighteenth century. The example by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) shown in Figure 18 is a ‘cabinet picture’, identifiable as such from its small size and known to have been commissioned by a courtier, who would have displayed it with other paintings, sculptures and precious objects to create a harmonious ensemble (Bailey, 1987; Bailey, 2002, p. 1). The problem lies in the way that the pejorative connotations with which the word was originally imbued still cling to it, with the result that the Rococo still tends to be damned for its supposed frivolity, superficiality and decadence rather than analysed with reference to the functions that it was designed to serve and the significance it held at the time. (For recent works that offer a properly historicised account of the Rococo, see Sheriff, 1990; Scott, 1995; Hyde, 2006.)

Figure 18 Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767, oil on canvas, 81 × 64 cm. Wallace Collection, London. Photo: © Wallace Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

As Wölfflin’s use of Dutch art to exemplify the Baroque suggests, a reliance on style labels is also problematic in so far as it projects a homogenous model of artistic development across Europe, regardless of geographical differences. Take Britain, for example, which defined itself during this period as a Protestant nation by contrast to its Catholic neighbours and took pride in the tradition of political liberty that set it apart from the absolutist regimes on the Continent, above all France. For these and other reasons, the Baroque made comparatively little impact in this country. Its main British exponents were a small group of architects who worked in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: Christopher Wren (1632–1723), John Vanbrugh (1664–1726) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661/62–1736). Similarly, though what we now call the Rococo, but was then known as the ‘modern taste’, gained a certain currency in Britain, its use was restricted to small-scale pictures and decorative objects. Hogarth parodied what he saw as its fanciful excesses in the leafy wall ornament sprouting a clock, a cat, a fish and a Buddha in The Tête à Tête (Figure 11): a preference for natural, irregular forms and a vogue for Chinese artefacts were both typical of the Rococo (compare Figure 13) (Snodin, 1984; Crown, 1990; Porter, 2010). British art can also be seen as anomalous in having produced a major Neo-classical painter, Benjamin West (1738–1820), who was in any case American by birth, some two decades before David exhibited what is usually taken to be the style’s manifesto picture, The Oath of the Horatii. Of course, West’s classical paintings are only ‘premature’ from the perspective of a conception of art history as a succession of period styles that expects Britain to be a provincial backwater lagging behind the rest of Europe.

The point here is not to assert Britain’s status as a pioneer of Neo-classicism, but rather to draw attention to the dominance of classicism throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This point applies especially to architecture; the classical vocabulary of columns, arches, domes and pediments derived from ancient Greek and Roman buildings was used for virtually all important architectural projects during this period, with only rare exceptions until well after 1800 (see Arciszweska and McKellar, 2004; Bergdoll, 2000). However, painting and sculpture were also profoundly indebted to the legacy of classical antiquity, even during the heyday of the Baroque and Rococo. The Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseilles (Figure 16), for example, reveals Rubens’s familiarity with ancient allegory and mythology; the winged figure at the top personifies fame, while the naked figures in the water are pagan goddesses. Classicism ‘proper’ is distinguished from other styles by its greater reliance on antique sculpture, such as could then be seen in papal, royal and aristocratic art collections. It also looks back to the Renaissance, when the legacy of antiquity had first been ‘rediscovered’, taking artists such as Raphael (1483–1520) as a source of inspiration. Both of these sources, but especially antique sculpture, were central to the curriculum of art academies. Together, they formed the basis of what was then known by such labels as the ‘great style’ or the ‘true taste’. The crucial point is that what we now call classicism was not regarded at the time as a distinct style identified by a specific set of formal features (of the sort elaborated by Wölfflin). Rather, ‘the antique’ (as it was known) functioned as a cultural norm, setting the standards of good taste that distinguished the social elite from the working poor, who had no access to the body of ideas, texts and objects that constituted the classical tradition (Haskell and Penny, 1981). Images and artefacts that lay outside that tradition did not count as art by these standards; this applied both to those for a ‘popular’, non-elite audience and to those from other cultures.


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