Rococo, from the French rocaille (meaning “rock and shell garden ornamentation”), was an eighteenth century movement in art that began in France. In 1699, the French king, Louis XIV, called for more youthful art to be produced by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and other artists commissioned for works in Versailles. Louis XIV was the powerful empire-builder called the Sun King, and he ruled for more than seven decades. Upon his death in 1715, French rule passed to his great-grandson, Louis XV, at age five.

At the Academy, the Rococo movement began as an artistic controversy on the importance of drawing versus the importance of color. The Poussinistes (named after Nicolas Poussin) believed that drawing was more important, and the Rubenistes (named after Peter Paul Rubens) maintained that color was more important than drawing. The new Rococo style included works of art reflecting this controversy. With bright colors, exquisite detail, and ornamentation, it is easy to see how Rococo art appealed to the wealthy and powerful of France.

Francois Boucher (1703-1770) was a proponent of Rococo painting. In Hercules and Omphale, Boucher shows another aspect of the Rococo, erotic and sensual themes. In this painting, Hercules and Omphale are locked in a sensual embrace. Boucher shows his attention to detail, his use of classical elements (similar to the Renaissance) in portraying human figures, his superior depiction of human flesh, and overall balance in composition. The erotic nature of the piece does nothing to deter from its beauty.

Boucher’s fancy piece contrasts powerfully with The Artist and her Daughter (c. 1785) by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842). This piece is described as plain and classical, but the observer sees that she uses the same attention to detail and vivid colors as Boucher. What is missing perhaps is the eroticism.

Like many other forms of art, Rococo played out in different ways in other parts of Europe, including Germany and Italy. In France, the salons of hotels and private homes featured Rococo painting and interior work for the upper class taste, including gilt and mirrors. In Germany, the Rococo style survives in beautiful church architecture and dome paintings, including the beautiful pilgrimage church, The Weiskirche, in Bavaria.

In Italy, the Rococo style is best captured in ornate, heavy furniture. Each piece acquired by a wealthy Italian would cost a handsome sum. Rococo appealed to the upper class as far away as Russia where Empress Elizabeth had the Catherine Palace completely torn down and renovated in the Rococo fashion. As an art and architecture movement, Rococo is best observed by visiting buildings surviving from the eighteenth century in Europe and Russia.