Following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715, the cultural center of the French elite shifted away from the royal palace in Versailles and toward private homes in Paris. This more personal milieu found its artistic expression in Rococo, which represented a rejection of Baroque art’s formal grandeur. Drawing its name from the French word rocaille (meaning rock or pebble), which originally referred to the Renaissance penchant for decorating artificial grottos with shells and stones, Rococo began as an interior design style favored by the urban upper class.
Characterized by elegance, levity, floral motifs, muted colors, and curving, asymmetrical lines, Rococo soon extended to painting, where its aesthetics combined with themes of sensual love and nature. The style quickly spread to the rest of France, and then to Germany, Austria, England, and other European countries.
While it ultimately fell out of favor due to its perceived frivolity, while proponents of Neoclassicism prevailed in popularizing a more sober style, Rococo painting remains enchanting—not just in its cotton-candy colors, but also in its playfulness, combination of naturalism and ornament, and celebration of recreation, love, and youth. What follow are 10 iconic artworks that exemplify Rococo in its varied iterations, from mythological scenes to historical portraits, and lush landscapes to lavish interiors.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)
Jean-Antoine Watteau is credited with the birth of Rococo painting. Combining influences from Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens and Venetian Renaissance giants like Titian and Paolo Veronese with theater, Watteau created dynamic compositions in brilliantly articulated colors. He presented nature as idyllic and untamed. These qualities went on to inspire later Rococo greats, including Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher.
Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717), known also as The Embarkation for Cythera, is perhaps Watteau’s most famous work. The painting melds a lush, Renaissance-style landscape with an allegorical scene in which a group of couples either return from or set out for—scholars differ in their interpretations—Cythera, a small Greek island near the mythical site of Aphrodite’s birth, which has long been associated with the goddess of love. Each of the three couples in the foreground represents a different phase of courtship, while the flying cupids that take off into the sky signal the island’s amorous associations.
Completed over five years, the work sealed Watteau’s admission to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In accepting the painting, which measures over 6 feet long and currently hangs in the Musée du Louvre, the Academy also officially recognized a new genre that sparked the beginning of Rococo painting: the fête galante. Featuring courtly characters in idealized pastoral settings, the genre reflected the French Regency period—the time between Louis XIV’s death and Louis XV’s reign, when Philippe II ruled as regent. It was an era of peace and prosperity, when people revelled in celebrating the rituals of courtship.
François Boucher, Triumph of Venus (1740)
As a young artist, Paris-born François Boucher created etchings from Jean-Antoine Watteau’s drawings. He later journeyed to Italy to study both the Venetian Baroque and 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. After he returned to Paris in the early 1730s, Boucher garnered acclaim as a painter of large mythological scenes, like his jubilant Triumph of Venus (1740), which depicts the goddess Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite) after her birth from seafoam, accompanied by water nymphs, tritons (mermen), and cherubic putti. Ample pink flesh abounds, with the coloring and configuration of the nude figures echoed in the pink-and-white sash that floats above the group.
Well-balanced yet active, lighthearted yet sexually charged, the scene exemplifies Rococo in its energy and palette, and points to how Boucher further developed a playful sense of eroticism as a defining element of the genre. Hugely popular in his own time, Boucher’s works were transformed into prints, porcelain figurines, and tapestries, and five years before his death, he became the first painter to the king and director of the Royal Academy, the two highest posts in the French art world at the time.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Meeting (from the “Loves of the Shepherds”)(1771–72)
Housed at The Frick Collection on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Meeting (1771–72) was commissioned as part of a set of four paintings for King Louis XV’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry. Together, these “Progress of Love” panels illustrate the development of a romantic relationship. The second in the set, The Meeting, shows a scene that occurs after the young woman has accepted her lover’s marriage proposal; the lover has climbed a garden wall for a stolen private moment with his betrothed. The work reveals Fragonard’s training in history painting, as he infuses the intimate love scene with grandeur and drama.
Like FrançoisBoucher, in whose studio he once worked, Fragonard was also influenced by both Italian Baroque and Dutch landscape painting. However, the quick, painterly brushstrokes for which Fragonard was celebrated represent a generational evolution in Rococo, and in The Meeting, the painter demonstrated his mastery over various textures, from billowy clouds to dappled leaves and flowers, and the carefully creased fabrics of the couple’s clothing. Likely because they were not Neoclassical enough, the comtesse returned the paintings to Fragonard, who created seven more works in the series.
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour (1748–55)
Gazing serenely toward the side of the frame, the Marquise de Pompadour holds a musical score and sits at a desk, upon which rests a play, an encyclopedia, texts by Voltaire and Montesquieu, a globe, and an engraving. Brilliantly executed in pastel—Maurice-Quentin de La Tour’s signature medium—this full-length portrait of the Marquise announces its sitter’s worldly talents, intelligence, and appreciation for art.
A friend and one-time mistress to Louis XV, the Marquise was a patron of great thinkers like Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She aimed to convince the king to champion the Enlightenment ideas that permeated Parisian society. Despite the painting’s seriousness in advancing that aim, and its relative restraint—seen in the Marquise’s lack of jewelry and simple hair style—it nonetheless exhibits some Rococo whimsy in the blue hues and floral motifs that weave throughout the composition, visually uniting the Marquise’s fashionable, sumptuous dress with her surroundings. It’s a testament to de La Tour’s preeminent skill in the medium, which he used to move traditionally formal portraiture into a more private, psychological realm.
Luis Paret y Alcázar, Charles III Dining Before the Court, c. 1775. Museo del Prado. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Known as the “Spanish Watteau” due to his skilled emulation of the French Rococo style, Luis Paret y Alcázar began and finished his life in Madrid, where today his Charles III Dining Before the Court (c. 1775) hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado. The oil-on-panel painting compensates for its modest dimensions with the lavish, oversized interior it depicts in remarkable detail. The work shows King Charles III of Spain as he dines at the Royal Palace in Madrid, accompanied by hounds, ambassadors, ministers, and servants, including one who serves him water and wine on bended knee.
In the real-life counterpart to this ceremony, members of the public would observe the royal family eating in their chambers. The artist inserted mythological scenes into the painting—representing themes like love, patriotism, and hunting—in effect heightening the pageantry surrounding what is an unusual subject of royal portraiture. These vignettes are also thought to humorously allude to the king’s inner thoughts. Adding to the jocularity and enigma of the work, its patron is unknown (it was most likely not commissioned by Charles III) and the artist signed his creation in Greek lettering: “Luis Paret, son of his father and mother, made it.”
Giambattista Tiepolo, The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick and Beatrice of Burgundy (1751–52)
Venice-born artist Giambattista Tiepolo was a disciple of the Grand Manner, a style indebted to the High Renaissance. As such, his use of color and his lofty scenes in bright, open spaces show affinities to Venetian Renaissance master Paolo Veronese. Yet Tiepolo is also lauded for his contributions to Italian Rococo, which was both based on its French counterpart and an airier iteration of the preceding Baroque. His frescoes in Germany’s Balthasar Neumann-designed Würzburg Residenz are among his most renowned works, epitomizing his use of accurate perspective and luminous color.
In The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick and Beatrice of Burgundy (1751–52), Tiepolo commemorates a piece of local history from 1156, adding whimsy to it. The scene takes place within a rich architectural space, replete with arches, columns, and a balcony from which musicians play. Putti hold up a gold curtain on either side of the ornately decorative proscenium, as if revealing a theater set. Framed within, the Bishop of Würzburg presides over the kneeling couple, the royal family, and the bride’s father; in a humorous touch, the court jester splays himself across the altar steps, his rear to the viewer. In the midst of deep reds, rusts, and golds, Beatrice’s luxurious dress—quintessentially Rococo in pale blue and cream—crowns the lighthearted composition.
Jean-François de Troy, The Declaration of Love (1731)
Jean-François de Troy, The Declaration of Love, 1931. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-François de Troy was trained as a history painter, first by his artist father and then in Rome—where, in 1738, he became the director of that city’s French Academy. But his innovation was the tableau de mode genre: straightforward, detailed scenes of well-to-do society types at leisure. Often compared with Jean-Antoine Watteau’s more general and timeless fête galante scenes, tableaux de modes consciously document a specific time period and social set.
The Declaration of Love (1731) is a defining example of the genre. In this jovial oil painting, a group of genteel ladies and gentlemen pause outside a garden, as one of the young men kneels and presents his beloved with a corsage. Flanking the ladies on either side, the three gentlemen all but blend into their surroundings, as their taupe outfits match both the ground and the classical garden wall. The ladies, however, pop in coordinated fanciful, flower-dotted dresses of pink, blue, and white—which, along with the outdoor setting and romantic theme, creates a visual Rococo feast.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Court Dress (1778)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun bucked tradition, and not just with her toothy smile. Born in Paris at a time when women were denied formal art schooling, she received training from her father, though she was largely self-taught, and became a successful professional artist by age 15. At 28, through the intercession of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she earned a spot in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, joining just three other women.
As official portraitist to Marie Antoinette, a 22-year-old Vigée-Le Brun first painted the infamous queen in 1778, at the behest of Marie’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Towering nearly 9 feet high, the full-length portrait places the queen alongside a table, chair, large column, and statuary—but Marie, resplendent in a luminous satin gown, commands attention even within the cluttered composition.
The drapery, elaborate patterns, and floral elements here align with Rococo aesthetics, but while Vigée-Le Brun adhered to Rococo coloration and subject matter, her oeuvre hovers between that style and the Neoclassicism that supplanted it. Fleeing the country when the French Revolution began, she continued a prolific career in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Russia, before eventually returning to France. In all, Vigée-Le Brun painted over 600 portraits, the large majority of which depict women.
William Hogarth, The Settlement (from “Marriage A-la-Mode”)(1742–44)
William Hogarth is famed for his revolutionary, morally instructive works, which rely on caricature to humorously point out the ills of 18th-century British society. The London-born engraver and painter’s well-known series, like “A Rake’s Progress” and “Marriage A-la-Mode,” also show a distinctly Rococo bent, albeit a British variation, as Hogarth pokes fun at en-vogue tableaux de mode paintings by the likes of Jean-François de Troy.
“Marriage A-la-Mode” (1742–45), for one, tells the tale of the fictional Earl of Squander, who is planning the marriage of his son to a merchant’s daughter. The first work in the series, The Settlement (1742–44), intimates the moral failings and pretensions of those involved in the match: The Earl sits pompously beside a scroll detailing his family tree, while the merchant attempts to buy social status through the match; meanwhile, the young couple ignores each other. She looks dejected, for he has returned from continental Europe not only with his fashionable Parisian outfit, but also with syphilis, insinuated by the black mark on his neck. Two dogs chained together at their feet represent their ill-fated pairing. As he harnessed Rococo’s satirical potential into a distinct, powerful mold, Hogarth exposed the unsightly underbelly beneath its charming, carefree surface.
Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (c. 1770)
Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, c. 1770. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Rococo gained a footing in England due largely to French artist Hubert François Gravelot, who was living in London when William Hogarth founded St. Martin’s Lane Academy in 1735. The school became the seat of English Rococo, as Gravelot, himself a former student of François Boucher, disseminated Rococo drawings and engravings as a teacher. One of his most notable pupils was Thomas Gainsborough. A celebrated portraitist, Gainsborough’s true love was landscape, and his portraits fittingly explore the dynamics between human figures and their environments, recalling Rococo’s interest in fashionably clad people in outdoor settings.
The Blue Boy (c. 1770)—one of Gainsborough’s most recognizable works—shows a rosy-cheeked boy in an elegant, detailed outfit against a more painterly backdrop, creating a contrast between the delicate figure and his rustic surroundings. Influenced by 17th-century Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, the boy’s azure suit was one of Gainsborough’s first attempts at painting a van Dyck-style outfit. It may also have been the artist’s rebuttal to his rival, Joshua Reynolds, who asserted that cool colors like blue and green should not feature prominently in an artwork.
At once virtuosic and intimate, the life-sized portrait—which most likely depicts Jonathan Buttall, the son of a well-off merchant, and hangs at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California—reflects Gainsborough’s revelling in the Rococo-style play between fantasy and reality.
Millenary Frosted Gold and Opal Dial