For 72 years, King Louis XIV ruled France with an iron fist. History books describe him as Europe’s crème de la crème monarch and the longest reigning king in French history. Known as a micromanaging control freak, Louis XIV transformed his country into a military powerhouse as well as Europe’s financial and cultural superpower. The country was so prosperous that the French peasant class owned 40 percent of the farmland and enjoyed more privileges than other European peasants. France dictated the Western world’s taste in culture, art and fashion.
After King Louis XIV’s death, all hell broke loose. Five-year-old Louis XV ascended to the throne. His uncle, Philippe, Duke of Orléans, ruled in his stead as regent until the child turned 13. History books describe Louis XV as a whoremonger whose only accomplishments were his harem of mistresses and nurturing the arts. Louis XV is best known for his Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, later the Marquise de Pompadour, who was his “maîtresse en titre,” the official and favorite royal mistress.
He may have been one of the worst monarchs in European history, but without him, we wouldn’t have had Rococo art. The word is a mashup up of the French world for shell, “rocaille” and the Italian word for Baroque, “barocco.” Rococo followed Baroque and was hallmarked by curves and waves that can best be seen in the opulent furniture and décor of that time period.
Perhaps Rococo is art imitating life. Critics condemned rococo art for blatant sexuality and tasteless frivolity, which was also why French aristocrats embraced the licentious art style. While the royal mistress became synonymous with Rococo because of the vast amounts of tax dollars Madame de Pompadour siphoned into art, the style was also a favorite among fabulously wealthy aristocrats who saw the light-hearted style as a way to show off their money. was known to insist that an artist start over, if she did not like how she was portrayed in commissioned paintings.
This flamboyant style emerged in the 1720s and spread throughout Europe. While art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were absolutely influenced by religion, this shallow style was about decadence and opulent displays of wealth mixed in with light-hearted fun. It was a celebration of the gross wealth of the aristocracy and their dalliances. Paintings showed outdoor scenes, picnics and naughty portraits of aristocrats’ mistresses. The nudes were designed to entice, not show the beauty of the human body like Michangelo’s David. Since paintings weren’t intended for cathedrals, art was smaller to fit into the décor of a mansion or palace. The colors are light and pastel, a stark contrast to the darker colors associated with Baroque.
According to Fady Zaki of IdentifyThisArt.com, “the era’s paintings portrayed “the French high society’s taste at the time, summed up in the words of Emilie du Châtelet, 1706-1749, aristocratic French scientist, mathematician and mistress of the famous writer Voltaire: ‘We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but seek pleasant sensations and feelings.’” Perhaps this is why the Rococo began to decline 40 years later because of the backlash from harsh condemnation from intellectuals like Voltaire.
Centuries before Playboy, there was Rococo paintings
I like the back stories associated with Rococo paintings as much as the joie de vivre personified by this style. Rococo has an exuberance and a naughtiness that the devilish part of me can’t help but enjoy. The genre is honest enough to not try to be something it’s not and could never be. Rocco is characterized by an in your face honesty and unabashed revelry in hedonism. Think of it as Playboy in oil paints centuries before Hugh Hefner.
The Wallace Collection
Jean-Honoré Fragonard was meant to paint The Swing, so much so that even the artist originally commissioned to paint the piece agreed. Legend has it that a gentleman of the court who wished to remain anonymous commissioned Gabriel-François Doyen to paint his mistress. Doyen was horrified to discover that the patron wanted his lover portrayed on a swing being pushed by a bishop while he was admiring the view up her skirt. Poet Charles Collé, who is attributed to telling the story, claims that Doyen insisted that the commission be given to Fragonard, who completed more than 550 paintings with none of them as enduring as The Swing.
Originally titled, The Happy Accidents of the Swing, the piece is a masterpiece of playful eroticism without indecency. Fragonard vetoed the bishop, instead an older man, perhaps her father or aging husband, pushes a beautiful young girl on the swing. It’s an opulent outdoor scene with a vision of loveliness in pink and lace playfully flirting with what seems to be the cherubic statue. Concealed by lush foliage is her young lover (the anonymous patron) enjoying the view up her skirt. The vixen is poised in mid-air, tantalizing both men. Its a fun painting. What I like best is that painting shows a love triangle: the cuckolded husband, a dashing secret lover and a beautiful woman who is playing them both.
I tease my wife that I am going to hang a print of the Reclining Girl in our bedroom. Speaking of bedrooms, François Boucher’s painting of Marie-Louise O’Murphy landed her in the bedroom of King Louis XV. In his memoirs, Casanova says he discovered young Marie-Louise who had been working part time as a dancer at L’Opera and occasional model and introduced her to the artist and the King.
This painting should be vulgar. But somehow, its lasted the test of time as bonafide art with an intriguing back story. Some art historians have said that she was painted face-down on a chaise-lounge because she was only 14 at the time of the portrait. Nevertheless, the painting is as unabashedly erotic as any modern Playboy centerfold. Marie-Louise is offering herself up on a golden platter or in this case, a chaise-lounge. Her bottom and splayed thighs are the focal point of the painting. While the painting may not show frontal nudity and she is looking away, her body language invites sexual intercourse. Clearly it was the intended message. Shortly after seeing the painting, Mary Louise became one of the King’s many lovers. She rose up the hierarchy of mistresses and courtesans. She was banished from the palace after a failed attempt to oust Madame de Pompadour as the favorite.
The Bath of Venus
It’s impossible to highlight Rococo art without a painting of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson. Thanks to Madame de Pompadour, Boucher, became the first painter to Louis XV. The artist takes a classical mythical goddess, Venus, and transforms her into a sexpot that was painted for the marquise’s bathroom of all places. Its an aesthetically beautiful painting. Venus, of course, is modeled after Madame de Pompadour. You can see the curving lines and bright, yet pastel colors that characterize Rococo. The Bath of Venus is gorgeous. I must admit that I am creeped out by the pouting Cupid who is accompanied by two putti, chubby male children portrayed in art. Something weird about naked little boys in art. I know its classic, but ick!
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