Rococo Genre and Neoclassical Painting Social Change and Artistic Style Thesis

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According to Liselotte Andersen, writing in Baroque and Rococo Art, many art historians retain the view that the artistic creations of the eighteenth century in Europe "are merely an extension of the Baroque, a mellowing and refinement of it and not sharply distinguishable from it either chronologically or stylistically" (1969, p. 45); however, after a close examination of the artistic periods which followed the Baroque, being Rococo and Neoclassicism, there are distinct differences, especially related to how European artists portrayed everyday life in their paintings which generally exhibited what it known as genre painting. Thus, during the eighteenth century, European painters boldly attempted to distance themselves from the Baroque style and made a concerted effort to express the world around them which at the time was changing almost on a daily basis.

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During the eighteenth century in Europe, political and social systems were just beginning to take on new shapes and forms. This was the century of the rise to great power of the British Empire and the state of Prussia which quickly became a major military power. Also at this time, new ideas were being offered by philosophers and social commentators, some of which directly attacked the role of the church in European society and propagated democratic ideals related to individual freedom and equality. Many so-called enlightened monarchs made it possible for men like Voltaire to attack old European systems and call for limitations related to the privileges of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the clergy.

Thesis on Rococo Genre and Neoclassical Painting Social Change and Artistic Style Assignment

The period between the death of King Louis XIV of France in 1715 and the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 served as a time of great social change in most of Europe and the ruling aristocracies, obviously fully aware of their decreasing importance in society, "gradually abandoned their societal positions in favor of men belonging to the "Third Estate," being the increasingly wealthy and influential middle class" (Conisbee, 2007, p. 78). Thus, within a relatively brief period of time, old social systems and the nobility became obsolete; however, the nobility also became patrons of the arts, much like the earlier Medici family of Florence, Italy during a long period known as the Renaissance.

After the death of King Louis XIV, often referred to as the "Sun King" and the penultimate symbol of monarchical decadence and power in France, a period of "perfect artistic harmony and expression came about" called Rococo which comes from the French word rocaille meaning pebble and/or coquille or shell. Although the Rococo period is most closely associated with some of the finest examples of European architecture, it was also a time of great artistic expression and experimentation, especially in painting. Compared to paintings rendered during the early years of the Baroque, those done during the Rococo period exhibited a relatively new type of artistic expression known as genre painting.

Basically speaking, genre painting, as opposed to painting styles, may include still life, landscapes, seascapes and portraits, but during the Rococo period, genre painting came to be understood as "paintings which illustrate common, everyday activities of common men and women and at times royalty or the nobility" (Walker, 1994, p. 214). Some of these activities include outdoor scenes of common workers or agricultural workers, scenes of interior home life, such as having supper or cooking, scenes of outdoor activities like sitting in a park or strolling down city streets and avenues and mothers in their kitchens feeding their children as the family dog watches intently or plays with the children. One may also find paintings with scenes depicting political life or perhaps stories from the Bible or even mythological tales from the Greeks and Romans. In addition, some genre paintings of the Rococo period contained hidden moral messages or symbols which often tempted the viewer to try to unravel the message which in some instances revealed the personal viewpoints of the artist as they relate to politics or the social conditions of their respective nations ("Ancien Regime Rococo," 2008, Internet).

Besides the courtly or aristocratic style of the Rococo period, such as paintings by Jean Honore Fragonard, a student of Francois Boucher, there developed a different artistic taste which highly appealed to the middle classes of France during the reign of Louis XV. One painting in particular by Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699 to 1779) called Grace at the Table (1740) depicts the genre of simple home interiors. In this painting, Chardin provides a scene of a simple room in which a mother and her small daughters are about eat supper. The mood of this painting is highlighted by "quiet attention with hushed lighting, mellow colors and still life kitchen accessories, all placed within a humble domestic atmosphere" (Andersen, 1969, p. 214). The female children in this painting appear to be quite content and well-behaved as their mother sets the dinner table with plates and silverware. The table itself is draped with a very simple tablecloth while the mother's dress represents the style most often associated with the French middle classes some fifty years before the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

Another painting from a later period of the Rococo is known as the Return of the Prodigal Son (1777 to 1778), rendered by Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725 to 1805), a painter who became widely popular with the French middle classes and whose artistic approach to genre painting bordered on pure sentimentality. In this painting, Greuze "expresses perfectly the transition of taste from the Rococo to nineteenth-century Romanticism which is sometimes referred to as the "Age of Sensibility" (Smith & Cheal, 2003, p. 217). In the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher and observer of human nature and society, the Return of the Prodigal Son represents "the abandoning of wanton frivolity and the luxuriance of the Rococo and instead symbolizes sensibility and emotional feelings," all set against "the cold, heartless and selfish culture of the French courts and aristocracy" (Conisbee, 2007, p. 235).

A final painting from 1745 called Breakfast Scene by Englishman William Hogarth (1697 to 1764) illustrates Hogarth's favorite artistic device, being to make a series of narrative/genre paintings that follow the misadventures of a specific character or group of characters as they encounter or experience some type of social evil, such as excessive drinking or over-indulgence in food or sex. In Breakfast Scene, Hogarth depicts a typical upper middle class English couple (husband and wife) who are apparently exhausted after spending the night in pursuit of pleasure. The young man sits slouched in his chair while his young wife stretches her arms over her head, a sign of tiredness and perhaps boredom. A male house servant with his hands full of unpaid bills and an account book under his left arm raises his eyes to heaven in despair, obviously upset at what his young master and mistress had been doing the past night. As previously mentioned, this painting contains a clear social message to the viewer, one which illustrates the fact that living a life of debauchery and ignoring the realities of life will undoubtedly lead to financial and social ruin.

During the middle years of the eighteenth century, Europeans re-discovered the beauty and majesty of ancient Greek and Roman works of art which "turned the romanticizing taste of Europe in a new direction and inaugurated" the style now known as Neoclassicism which exemplified the human traits of honor, courage, sacrifice and a deep and abiding love for one's country of origin, much in line with the spirit of nationalism which at the time was sweeping all of Europe. Most assuredly, the greatest painter most closely linked to Neoclassicism and regarded as the father of neoclassical artistic expression in painting is Jacques Louis David (1748 to 1825) who "rebelled against the Rococo as an artificial taste and exalted classical art as the imitation of nature in her most beautiful and perfect form." David's artistic doctrine of the superiority of classical art was based upon the idea that art must "contribute forcefully to the education of the public and must at all times reflect the social conscience of a nation in the form of nationalistic propaganda" (Thompson, 1988, p. 265).

As a genre painter, David specialized in depicting scenes and figures from the ancient past, especially Greek and Roman classical iconography. In his Oath of the Horatti (1784), David selected a story from Republican Rome in which three brothers swear their allegiance to win or die for Rome and its ideals. Much like the social messages found in some Rococo paintings, this too has a deep message, one which the pre-Revolutionary French middle classes readily identified. This painting created a sensation when it was exhibited in Paris in 1785 and soon became the symbol and semi-official voice of the French Revolution. As Michael Thompson puts it, David's Oath of the Horatti served as a vehicle for arousing an audience "into a fever pitch of patriotic zeal" (1988, p. 282) which was… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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