Wednesday, October 5, 2011

End of Rococo and the Call of a New Art

Francois Boucher, The Toilette of Venus, 1751
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The respect and power Louis XIV established over all of Europe during the grand siecle had completely vanished during Louis XV's(1715-1774) long reign due to his excesses, extravagance and incompetence in war. The feckless life in Versailles, became even more frivolous, scandalous and detached from the real world.  Madame de Pompadour's protege, Francois Boucher painted pastoral scenes of aristocrats imitating shepherds and farmers frolicking in nature dressed in satins and silks, accompanied by pristine clean dogs and sheep, causing critics to complain "His lovers are shepherds, but incapable of watching a flock." Life in Paris imitated life at court. 1The aristocracy lived only for its pleasure without any idea of the realities of the lower classes.  

Francois Bocher, Dark-Haired Odalisque, 1745
(Musee du Louvre)
Rococo was the style for the decorative and fine arts during Louis XV's reign. The oval frame, pastel pinks, yellows and blues, undulating forms, wooded landscapes, plump bodies and themes of love and seduction were all typical features to be found in rococo paintings.  Even with indoor scenes where there were straight walls in the background, continuous arabesques were more prominent.  While most of the French population suffered, the aristocracy played in a world of make believe behind closed doors. 

Art criticism, came into its own as we understand it today with La Font de Saint-Yenne's pamphlet published in 1747, about the current state of painting in France. In his lengthy pamphlet, La Font severely criticized the decadence of contemporary art, calling out to artists to let go of the frivolous and sensuous subject matter for a return to the grand manner of history painting.2

Jean-Baptist Greuze, Father Reading the Bible to His Children, 1755 
When the philosopher, writer, art critic Diderot reviewed the Salon some twenty years later, he found fault with painting on moral, social and aesthetic grounds, especially calling Boucher depraved.3  He found Boucher blatantly artificial and mercenary, criticizing his formulaic pastorals, parsley trees and powdered female bottoms. 4
Diderot called for a new art that would promote virtue and not vice.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze's genre paintings about drame bourgeois, depicting the lives of the middle classes in an austere way, with elevated virtue could be identified as the perfect models for this new art.  In the etching of Father Reading the Bible to His Children, we see a middle class family who is engrossed in what their father is reading with their backs to the door.  This is a family who is not interested in what is going on outside with the nobility.  The sons are engrossed in what their father is reading, one stands with a solemn expression on his face. Just the fact that the father is reading shows that they are educated. The maid in the background informs us of the financial stability of the family.  It is a clean, orderly, humble setting in an enclosed space, quite a contradiction to Boucher's paintings of nubile ladies carouseing in nature.  With his somber, moralizing paintings Greuze would be the bridge between Rococo and Neoclassicism.

Francois Boucher, Shepherd and Shepherdess Resting, 1761
(Wallace Collection, London)

 Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Village Bride, 1761
(Musee du Louvre)

1 Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Vintage Books, New York, 149
2  Rémy G. Saisselin, The Enlightenment against the Baroque - Economics and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century, University of California Press, 1992; 49
3  Ibid., 50
4  Diderot, Denis translated by John Goodman, Diderot on Art I The Salon of 1765 and Notes on Painting, Yale University 1995, xxiii 

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