Rococo: The 18th Century Playboy

About Rococo

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.

Portrait of King Louis XIV by an unknown artist in 1685.
Portrait of King Louis XIV by an unknown artist in 1685.

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.

Louis XV, by Louis Michel van Loo, (Château de Versailles).
Louis XV, by Louis Michel van Loo, (Château de Versailles).

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.

Madame de Pompadour (1756), portrait by François Boucher (1703–1770)

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, “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 SwingThe Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806)     

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.

Reclining Girl

Resting Girl (Louise O’Murphy) *oil on canvas *59.5 x 73.5 cm *signed b.r.: F. Boucher / 1751 Reclining Girl was painted in 1751 and can be seen in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.
Resting Girl (Louise O’Murphy)
Reclining Girl was painted in 1751 and can be seen in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

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 François Boucher (artist) French, 1703 - 1770 The Bath of Venus, 1751 oil on canvas overall: 107 x 84.8 cm (42 1/8 x 33 3/8 in.) framed: 132.1 x 110.2 x 7.6 cm (52 x 43 3/8 x 3 in.) Chester Dale Collection
The Bath of Venus François Boucher (artist)
French, 1703 – 1770
The Bath of Venus, 1751
oil on canvas
overall: 107 x 84.8 cm (42 1/8 x 33 3/8 in.) framed: 132.1 x 110.2 x 7.6 cm (52 x 43 3/8 x 3 in.) Chester Dale Collection

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!

Works Cited

“The Bath of Venus.” The Collection. National Gallery of Art, n.d. Web. 28 June 2015. <;.

Carosio, Gil. “Fragonard, Jean-Honore.” Gil Carosio YouTube Channel. YouTube, 11 Apr. 2008. Web. 28 June 2015. <;.

Carosio, Gil. “Francois Boucher _ Rococo Painter.” Gil Carosio YouTube Channel. YouTube, 9    Nov. 2009. Web. 28 June 2015. <;.

Harris, Beth, Ph.D., and Steven Zucker, Ph.D. “A Beginner’s Guide to Rococo Art.”         Smarthistory. Art, History, Conversation. Khan Academy, n.d. Web. 27 June 2015.             <   beginners-guide-to-rococo-art>.

Harris, Beth, Ph.D., and Steven Zucker, Ph.D. “Fragonard, The Swing.” Smarthistory. Art,  History, Conversation. Khan Academy, n.d. Web. 27 June 2015.             < enlightenment/rococo/v/fragonard-the-swing-1767>.

“Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) The Swing.” Wallace Live. The Wallace Collection, n.d.    Web. 27 June 2015.       <  >.

“Jean-Honoré Fragonard.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 June 2015.             <;.

Jonathan5485. “Reclining Girl by François Boucher.” My Daily Art Display. Jonathan5485, 30      Mar. 2011. Web. 28 June 2015.    <            boucher/>.

“Louis XIV.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 01 July 2015.

“Louis XV.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 01 July 2015.

Lubbock, Tom. “Boucher, François: Mademoiselle O’Murphy (1751).” The Independent.    Independent Digital News and Media, 18 July 2008. Web. 27 June 2015.            < mademoiselle-omurphy-1751-870379.html>.

Maylon, John. “Rococo Art.” Artcyclopedia: The Guide to Great Art Online. Specifica, Inc., n.d. Web. 27 June 2015. <;.

“NGA -18th-Century France: Boucher and Fragonard.” The Collection. National Gallery of Art,   n.d. Web. 28 June 2015. <      over1.html>.

“Secrets of the Wallace: The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767).” YouTube. Ed. The        Wallace Collection. YouTube, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 01 July 2015.      <;.

Zaki, Fady. “Rococo Art Movement.” Identify This Art, 25 Sept. 2011.  Web. 27 June 2015. <;.


6 thoughts on “Rococo: The 18th Century Playboy

  1. I also chose to put The Swing in my blog. This is one of the first pieces of artwork I have seen in this class that is comical. Paintings from the Baroque Era and the Renaissance are quite different. The secret lover might just be the first Peeping Tom that was ever painted. I would have liked to see you relate the individual art pieces to one of the themes that the professor requested. It is interesting that most of the women in the paintings are fully nude, why not the men as well? Here is a link regarding the use of nudity in Renaissance artwork. I couldn’t find an article directly related to the reasoning behind the choice to leave out clothing for women in the classical era.


  2. Ryan,
    I absolutely love the clever title choice as well as “…Centuries before Playboy, there was Rococo paintings.” Your blog post was extremely entertaining and made me “laugh out loud” and then share with my husband. Humor and great writing aside, you also included great information. What an interesting fact about Louis XV– A ruler at the age of 5! I included “The Toilet of Venus” into my blog post, and found it interesting that Madame de Pompadour also requested a similar picture featuring a bath. I agree, it is hard to wrap my head around the cupids as well.
    Great blog post!


    1. Also, at first glace, “The Swing” painting seems very beautiful and innocent. While it remains beautiful through its splendid choices of color and technical method of painting, it is very scandalous. Jean-Honoré Fragonard did a great job camouflaging the patron. Such an interesting background of that story. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Ryan,
    I’d just really like to say that I really enjoy this impressionist painting. It’s weird for me to say since this style of art isn’t necessarily my favorite due to the small brush strokes which makes most paintings look blurry. However, I really do think Claude Monet is very astatically pleasing. What I like most about the painting is the fact that it is made up of different tones of gray/blue. Although the painting is mostly one color, you can distinctly tell that they are boats. In this particular painting, I actually find the small brush strokes make it more beautiful. Thank you for picking this piece! You just made me appreciate impressionist art in a way that I hadn’t before 
    Great job this week!


  4. This type of art has never really caught my attention because I might be partially a marxist in the fact that the rich or powerful seem to have so much control. I am entirely talking about the kings and royalty of the time frame.
    The Swing picture is actually my favorite listed on your blog. It speaks to me that times were often easier for women of beauty and wealth during the times. The cherubs lend greatly to peacefulness of the art, The gentleman in the painting seems like most of modern day society to be vulgar and after what he can’t have.
    The art you choose seems to go well with the piece I chose for my blog, though your art seems to be of more wealthier individuals than my own. It seems to fit together well.
    I looked up more information on Rococo arts it is very interesting you might find this link something fun to look at.
    I really enjoyed your blog and hope to continue reading more of it as time passes.


  5. I really like the amount of effort I can see that you but into this exhibit. You went above and beyond. My personal favorite art work that you put in your exhibit is “The Bath of Venus” because it is so beautiful. I also find it strange that is was chosen for a bathroom! You see the chubby little boys as “ick” but I think the way that Rococo art was based upon sexuality and fun is reason for why they are naked and especially why they are chubby. These art forms were focused upon sexual features and the artist chose to make the children chubby as a way to assure the children wouldn’t be considered sexual beings. Perhaps they are chubby to add to the fun in the painting!
    I really wish you mentioned more about how you view these art forms, I would really like to know more about your personal opinion. It is clear that you love “Reclining Girl” as she is your main page background and you want to hang the picture in your bedroom! However, with that being said you gave so much insight into the history of this period (and for that I am gratefully educated), but I can’t help but wonder what you personally like and dislike about each of these paintings.

    You mention how these paintings are about wealth, sexuality, and fun. I can certainly see the fun in some of these paintings; especially in “The Swing” where the man in looking up her skirt. I think the art you chose for your exhibit greatly flows with your theme.

    Most of all, I love how your exhibit is about playboy. That is hilarious and brings light and joy into reading about these paintings.



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