"POUSSINISTES" VS. "RUBENISTES."
It is hardly surprising that the
straitjacket system of the French Academy produced no significant
artists. Even Charles Lebrun, as we have seen, was far more Baroque
in his practice than we would expect from his classicistic theory.
The absurd rigidity of the official doctrine generated, moreover, a
counter-pressure that vented itself as soon as Lebrun's authority
began to decline. Toward the end of the century, the members of the
Academy formed two warring factions over the issue of drawing versus
color: the "Poussinistes" (or conservatives) against the "Rubenistes."
The conservatives defended Poussin's view that drawing, which
appealed to the mind, was superior to color, which appealed to the
senses. The Rubenistes advocated color, rather than drawing, as
being more true to nature. They also pointed out that drawing,
admittedly based on reason, appeals only to the expert few, whereas
color appeals to everyone. This argument had revolutionary
implications, for it proclaimed the lay person to be the ultimate
judge of artistic values and challenged the Renaissance notion that
painting, as a liberal art, could be appreciated only by the
By the time Louis XIV died in 1715,
the dictatorial powers of the Academy had already been overcome, and
the influence of Rubens and the great Venetians was everywhere. Two
years later the Rubenistes scored their ultimate triumph when the
painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was admitted to the Academy
on the basis of A Pilgrimage to Cythera. This picture violated all
academic canons, and its subject did not conform to any established
category. To accommodate Watteau, the Academy invented the new
category of fetes galantes (elegant fetes or entertainments). The
term refers less to this one canvas than to the artist's work in
general, which mainly shows scenes of elegant society or comedy
actors in parklike settings. He characteristically interweaves
theater and real life so that no clear distinction can be made
between the two. A Pilgrimage to Cythera includes yet another
element: classical mythology. Accompanied by swarms of cupids, these
young couples have come to Cythera, the island of love, to pay
homage to Venus, whose garlanded image appears on the far right. The
action unfolds in the foreground, like a continuous narrative, from
right to left, which informs us that they are about to board the
boat: two lovers are still engaged in their amorous tryst; behind
them, another couple rises to follow a third pair down the hill as
the reluctant young woman casts a wistful look back at the goddess'
The scene at once recalls Rubens'
Garden of Love, but Watteau has added a touch of poignancy, lending
it a poetic subtlety reminiscent of Giorgione and Titian. His
figures, too, lack the robust vitality of Rubens'. Slim and
graceful, they move with the studied assurance of actors who play
their roles so superbly that they touch us more than reality ever
could. They recapture an earlier ideal of "mannered" elegance.
Watteau was separated from even his
most faithful followers by an unbridgeable gulf in human
understanding and artistic ability. Shortly before his death,
Watteau painted perhaps his most moving work: Pierrot, known
traditionally as Giles after a similar character in the Italian
commedta dell'arte. It was probably done as a sign for a cafe owned
by a friend of the artist who retired from the stage after achieving
fame in the racy role of the clown. The troupe's performance having
ended, the actor has stepped forward to face the audience. The other
characters all bear highly individualized likenesses, no doubt
belonging to friends from the same circle. Yet the painting
transcends portraiture and its purpose as an advertisement. Pierrot
is lifesize, so that he confronts us as a full human being, not
simply as a stock character. In the process, Watteau transforms
Pierrot into Everyman, with whom he evidently identified himself.
The face and pose have a poignancy that suggests a subtle sense of
alienation. Like the rest of the actors, except the doctor on the
donkey who looks mischievously at us, he seems lost in his own
thoughts. Still, it is difficult to define his mood, for the
expression remains as elusive as it is eloquent.
Jean-Antoine Watteau. A Pilgrimage to Cythera.
1717. Oil on canvas, 1.3 x 1.9 m. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Giles and Your Other Characters from the
Commedia dell'Arte (Pierrot).
c. 1719. Oil on canvas, 184 x 149 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris
The work of Watteau signals a shift
in French art as a whole to the Rococo. Although the term originally
applied to the decorative arts, it suits the playful character of
French painting before 1765 equally well. By about 1720 even history
painting becomes intimate in scale and delightfully ebullient in
style and subject. The finest painter in this vein was Francois
Boucher (1703-1770), who epitomized the age of Madame de Pompadour,
the mistress of Louis XV. The Toilet of Venus, painted for her
private retreat, is full of silk and perfume. If Watteau elevated
human love to the level of mythology, Boucher raised playful
eroticism to the realm of the divine. What Boucher lacks in the
emotional depth that distinguishes Watteau's art, he makes up for in
unsurpassed understanding of the world of fantasies that enrich
people's lives. Yet, compared to Vouet's goddess from which she is
descended, Boucher's has been reduced to a coquette. In this
cosmetic never-never land, she is ageless in her youthful beauty,
for she has the same soft, rosy skin as the cherubs who attend her.
Trapped in eternal youth, she is a Venus who seems strangely
incapable of passion.
Francois Boucher. The Toilet of Venus.
1751. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 85.1 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Bathers by Jean-Honore Fragonard
(1732-1806), Boucher's star pupil, shows him to be an even franker
Rubeniste than Boucher. He paints with a fluid breadth and
spontaneity reminiscent of Rubens' oil sketches and even paraphrases
the Flemish master's figures. They move with a floating grace that
also links him with Tiepolo, whose work he had admired on an
extended stay in Italy. Fragonard had the misfortune to outlive his
era; his pictures became outmoded as the French Revolution
approached. After 1789 he was reduced to poverty, supported,
ironically, only by a curatorship to which he was appointed in 1793
by Jacques-Louis David, who recognized his achievement, although
their styles were antithetical. He died, virtually forgotten, in the
heyday of the Napoleonic era.
Jean-Honore Fragonard . Bathers. ñ. 1765.
Oil on canvas, 64 x 80 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris
The style Fragonard practiced with
such mastery was not the only alternative open to him and the other
French painters of his generation. His art might have been different
had he followed that of his first teacher.
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699—1779), whose style can be called Rococo only with
reservations. The Rubenistes had cleared the way for a renewed
interest in still-life and genre paintings by Dutch and Flemish
masters. This revival was facilitated by the presence of numerous
artists from the Netherlands, especially Flanders, who settled in
France in growing numbers after about 1550 while maintaining
artistic ties to their native lands. Chardin is the finest French
painter in this vein. He is nevertheless far removed in spirit and
style, if not in subject matter, from any Dutch or Flemish painter.
Indeed, he is more akin to Le Nain and Sanchez Cotan. His paintings
act as moral exemplars, not by conveying symbolic messages as
Baroque still lifes often do, but by affirming the Tightness of the
existing social order and its values. To the rising middle class who
were the artist's patrons, his genre scenes and kitchen still lifes
proclaimed the virtues of hard work, frugality, honesty, and
devotion to family.
Back from the Market shows life in
a Parisian middle-class household with such feeling for the beauty
hidden in the commonplace, and so clear a sense of spatial order,
that we can compare him only to Vermeer and De Hooch, but his
remarkable technique is quite unlike any Dutch artist's. Devoid of
bravura, his brushwork renders the light on colored surfaces with a
creamy touch that is both analytical and subtly lyrical. To reveal
the inner nature of things, he summarizes forms, subtly altering
their appearance and texture, rather than describing them in detail.
Chardin's genius discovered a
hidden poetry in even the most humble objects and endowed them with
timeless dignity. His still lifes usually depict the same modest
environment, eschewing the "object appeal" of their Dutch
predecessors. In Kitchen Still Life, we see only the common objects
that belong in any kitchen: earthenware jugs, a casserole, a copper
pot, a piece of raw meat, smoked herring, two eggs. But how
important they seem, each so firmly placed in relation to the rest,
each so worthy of the artist's—and our—scrutiny! Despite his concern
with formal problems, evident in the beautifully balanced design,
Chardin treats these objects with a respect close to reverence.
Beyond their shapes, colors, and textures, they are to him symbols
of the life of common people.
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Back from the Market. 1739.
Oil on canvas, 47 x 37.5 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Kitchen Still Life. ñ 1731.
Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 cm. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
It is from portraits that we can
gain the clearest understanding of the French Rococo, for the
transformation of the human image lies at the heart of the age. In
portraits of the aristocracy, men were endowed with the illusion of
character as a natural attribute of their station in life, stemming
from their noble birth. But the finest achievements of Rococo
portraiture were reserved for depictions of women, hardly a
surprising fact in a society that idolized the cult of love and
feminine beauty. Indeed, one of the finest practitioners in this
vein was herself a beautiful woman: Marie-Louise-Elisabeth
Throughout Vigee's long life she
enjoyed great fame, which took her to every corner of Europe,
including Russia, when she fled the French Revolution. The Duchesse
Je Polignac was painted a few years after Vigee had become the
portraitist for Queen Marie Antoinette, and it amply demonstrates
her ability. We will recognize the duchesse as the descendant of
Domenichino's St. Cecilia . She has the eternally youthful
loveliness of Boucher's Venus, made all the more persuasive by the
artist's ravishing treatment of her clothing. At the same time,
there is a sense of transience in the engaging mood that exemplifies
the Rococo's whimsical theatricality. Interrupted in her singing,
the lyrical duchesse becomes a real-life counterpart to the poetic
creatures in Watteau's A Pilgrimage to Cythera by way of the
delicate sentiment she shares with the girl in Chardin's Back from
The Ducbessc de Polignac. 1783.
Oil on canvas, 98.3 x 71 cm.
The National Trust Waddesdon Manor
Across the Channel the Venetians
were the predominant artists for more than a half-century, but the
French Rococo had an important, though unacknowledged, effect and,
in fact, helped to bring about the first school of English painting
since the Middle Ages that had more than local importance.
The earliest of these painters,
William Hogarth (1697-1764), was the first English artist of genius
Nicholas Hilliard . Although he certainly learned something about
color and brushwork from Venetian and French examples, as well as
Van Dyck, his work is of such originality as to be essentially
without precedence. He made his mark in the 1730s with a new kind of
picture, which he described as "modern moral subjects . . . similar
to representations on the stage." He wished to be judged as a
dramatist, he said, even though his "actors" could only "exhibit a
dumb show." These pictures, and the engravings he made from them for
popular sale, came in sets, with details recurring in each scene to
unify the sequence. Hogarth's "morality plays" teach, by horrid
example, the solid middle-class virtues. They show a country girl
who succumbs to the temptations of fashionable London; the evils of
corrupt elections; and aristocratic rakes who live only for ruinous
pleasure, marrying wealthy women of lower status for their fortunes,
which they soon dissipate. Hogarth is probably the first artist in
history to become a social critic in his own right.
In The Orgy, from The Rake's
Progress, the young wastrel is overindulging in wine and women. The
scene is so full of visual clues that a full account would take
pages, plus constant references to the adjoining episodes. However
literal-minded, the picture has great appeal. Hogarth combines some
of Watteau's sparkle with Jan Steen's narrative gusto, and
entertains us so well that we enjoy his sermon without being
overwhelmed by its message.
William Hogarth. The Orgy, Scene III of The Rake's Progress, ñ.
Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 74.9 cm. Sir John Soane's Museum, London
William Hogarth. He Revels (The Orgy), Scene III of The Rake's
Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Allan Ramsay, self-portrait, c.1737–9 (National Portrait Gallery).
Allan Ramsay, (born Oct. 2,
1713, Edinburgh, Scot.—died Aug. 10, 1784, Dover, Kent,
Eng.), Scottish-born painter, one of the foremost
18th-century British portraitists.
The son of the poet and
literary antiquary Allan Ramsay, he received rudimentary
artistic training in Edinburgh and then went to London and
worked with the Swedish portrait painter Hans Hysing (1734).
His style was also influenced by Francesco Imperiali and
Francesco Solimena during his studies in Italy in 1736–38.
On settling in London in 1739 Ramsay soon became a popular
portraitist, although he reached the height of his powers
only after his return to London from his second visit to
Ramsay painted numerous portraits in a style that
anticipated Sir Joshua Reynolds’ grand manner, but his more
lasting reputation rests on his less formal and more
intimate studies. His portraits of women are especially
notable for the warmth, tenderness, and bloom of their
presentation, as well as for the technical facility with
which lace and ruffles are reproduced. The influence of
French Rococo portraiture is clear in the lightness and
unpretentious elegance of these works.
In 1767 Ramsay was
appointed painter to George III and executed little but
royal images thenceforth. Most of this work, intended for
government buildings, was done by assistants. Disabled by an
accident in 1773, Ramsay henceforth painted little, devoting
the rest of his life to political pamphleteering, classical
studies, and literary pursuits. He also traveled several
more times to Italy for his health.
Portrait Of Jean Abercromby, Mrs Morison
Portraiture remained the only
constant source of income for English painters. Here, too, the
eighteenth century produced a style that differed from the
Continental traditions that had dominated this field. Its greatest
master, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), began by painting
landscapes, but ended as the favorite portraitist of British high
society. His early portraits, such as Robert Andrews and His Wife,
have a lyrical charm that is not always found in his later pictures.
Compared to Van Dyck's artifice in Charles I Hunting, this country
squire and his wife are unpretentiously at home in their setting.
The landscape, although derived from Ruisdael and his school, has a
sunlit, hospitable air never achieved (or desired) by the Dutch
masters, while the casual grace of the two figures, which affects an
air of naturalness, indirectly recalls Watteau's style. The newlywed
couple— she dressed in the fashionable attire of the day, he armed
with a rifle to denote his status as a country squire (hunting was a
privilege of wealthy landowners)—do not till the soil themselves.
The painting nevertheless conveys the gentry's closeness to the
land, from which the English derived much of their sense of national
identity. (Many private estates had been created in 1535, when Henry
VIII broke with the Catholic church and redistributed its property
to his supporters.) Out of this attachment to place was to develop a
feeling for nature that became the basis for English landscape
painting, to which Gainsborough himself made an important early
Gainsborough spent most of his
career working in the provinces, first in his native Suffolk, then
in the fashionable resort town of Bath. Toward the end of his
career, he moved to London, where his work underwent a pronounced
change. The very fine portrait of the famous actress Mrs. Siddons
has the virtues of Gainsborough's late style: a cool elegance that
translates Van Dyck's aristocratic poses into
late-eighteenth-century terms, and a fluid, translucent technique
reminiscent of Rubens' that renders the glamorous sitter, with her
fashionable attire and coiffure, to ravishing effect.
Thomas Gainsborough. Robert Andrews and His Wife, ñ. 1748-50.
Oil on canvas, 69.7 x 119.3 cm. The National Gallery, London
Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs. Siddons. 1785.
Oil on canvas, 125.7 x 99.1 cm. The National Gallery, London
Gainsborough painted Mrs. Siddons
in conscious opposition to his great rival on the London scene, Sir
Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who had portrayed the same sitter as
the Tragic Muse. Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy since its
founding in 1768, was the champion of the academic approach to art,
which he had acquired during two years in Rome. In his famous
Discourses he formulated what he felt were necessary rules and
theories. His views were essentially those of Lebrun, tempered by
British common sense. Like Lebrun, he found it difficult to live up
to his theories in actual practice. Although he preferred history
painting in the grand style, most of his works are portraits
"enabled," whenever possible, by allegorical additions or disguises
like those in his picture of Mrs. Siddons. His style owed a good
deal more to the Venetians, the Flemish Baroque, and even to
Rembrandt (note the lighting in Mrs. Siddons) than he conceded in
theory, though he often recommended following the example of earlier
Reynolds was generous enough to
give praise to Gainsborough, whom he outlived by a few years, and
whose instinctive talent he must have envied. He eulogized him as
one who saw with the eye of a painter rather than a poet. There is
more truth to this statement than it might seem. Gainsborough's
paintings epitomized the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume's idea
that painting must incorporate both nature and art. Gainsborough
himself was a simple and unpretentious person who exemplified Hume's
"natural man," free of excessive pride or humility. Reynolds'
approach, on the other hand, as enunciated in his Discourses, was
based on the Roman poet Horace's dictum ut pictura poesis. His
frequent borrowing of poses from the antique was intended to elevate
the sitter from an individual to a universal type through
association with the great art of the past and the noble ideals it
embodied. This heroic model was closely related to the writings of
the playwright Samuel Johnson and the practices of the actor David
Garrick, both of whom were friends of Reynolds. In this, Reynolds
was the very opposite of Gainsborough. Yet, for all of the
differences between them, the two artists had more in common,
artistically and philosophically, than they cared to admit. Reynolds
and Gainsborough looked back to Van Dyck, drawing different lessons
from his example. Both emphasized, albeit in varying degrees, the
visual appeal and technical proficiency of their paintings.
Moreover, their portraits of Mrs. Siddons bear an unmistakable
relationship to the Rococo style of France—note their resemblance to
Vigee's Duchesse—yet remain distinctly English in character. Hume
and Johnson were similarly linked by an abiding skepticism. If
anything, Johnson's writings, which inspired Reynolds, were more
bitterly pessimistic than Hume's, which generally advocated a
tolerant and humane ethical system.
Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse. 1784.
Oil on canvas. 236.5 x 146 cm.
Henry K. Huntington Library and Art Gallery,
San Marino, California
Just as the style of architecture
invented in Italy achieved its climax north of the Alps, much of the
Italian Rococo took place in other countries. The timid style of the
Late Baroque in Italy was suddenly transformed during the first
decade of the eighteenth century by the rise of the Rococo in
Venice, which had been relegated to a minor outpost for a hundred
years. The Italian Rococo is distinguished from the Baroque by a
renewed appreciation of Veronese's colorism and pageantry, but with
a light and airy sensibility that is new. The first to formulate
this style was Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), who began his career as
a stage painter and emerged as an important artist only in
mid-career. Their skill at blending this painterly manner with High
Baroque illusionism made Ricci and the Venetians the leading
decorative painters in Europe between 1710 and 1760, and they were
active in every major center throughout Europe, particularly London
and Madrid. They were not alone: artists from Rome and other parts
of Italy also worked abroad in large numbers.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
The last, and most refined, stage
of Italian illusionistic ceiling decoration is represented in
Wiirzburg by its greatest master,
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
(1696-1770). In his mastery of light and color, his grace and
felicity of touch, and power of invention, Tiepolo far surpassed his
fellow Venetians, and these qualities made him famous far beyond his
home territory. When Tiepolo painted the Wurzburg frescoes, his
powers were at their height. The tissuelike ceiling so often gives
way to illusionistic openings of every sort that we no longer feel
it to be a spatial boundary. These openings do not, however, reveal
avalanches of figures propelled by dramatic bursts of light, like
those of Roman ceilings, but rather blue sky and sunlit clouds, and
an occasional winged creature soaring in this limitless expanse.
Only along the edges of the ceiling are there solid clusters of
At one end, replacing a window, is
The Marriage of Frederick Barbarossa. As a public spectacle, it is
as festive as Christ in the House of Levi by Veronese, whose example
the artist has followed by placing the event (which took place in
the twelfth century) in a contemporary setting. Its allegorical
fantasy is literally revealed by the carved putti opening a curtain
onto the wedding ceremony in a display of theatrical illusionism
worthy of Bernini. Unexpected in this lively procession is the
element of classicism, which lends an air of noble restraint to many
of the figures.
Tiepolo afterward became the last
in the line of Italian artists, beginning with Luca Giordano,
invited to work at the Royal Palace in Madrid. There he encountered
the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, a proponent of the classical
revival whose presence signaled the effective end of the Rococo.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Ceiling fresco (detail). 1751. The
Kaisersaal, Residenz, Wiirzburg
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Marriage of Frederick Barbarossa
(partial view). 1752. Fresco. Kaisersaal, Residenz, Wiirzburg
The artist replaced by Mengs was
Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1765), who departed because of ill health.
The only serious rival in ability to Tiepolo, he can be claimed with
equal justice as the last great representative of painting in both
Naples, where he trained under Francesco Solimena, and Rome, where
he passed most of his career, for the two schools were intimately
related. At the Spanish court, where he exercised powers comparable
to Lebrun's, Giaquinto was hailed as the successor to Giordano,
whose work in turn had a decisive impact on his art.Justice and
Peace bears an obvious resemblance to Giordano's Rape of Europa, but
with overtones of Boucher that suggest an awareness of his style.
The painting happily unites the best of both worlds: the
monumentality of Italy and the charm of France. What sets it apart
is its ravishing beauty. The seemingly effortless brushwork and bold
palette are unique to Giaquinto. No other painter of the Rococo
could apply such a daring array of hues with such creamy
Corrado Giaquinto. Justice and Peace. ñ. 1753-54.
Oil on canvas, 2.16x4.25 m. Museo del Prado, Madrid
During the eighteenth century,
landscape in Italy evolved a new form in keeping with the character
of the Rococo: veduta (view) painting. Its beginnings can be traced
back to the seventeenth century with the many foreigners, such as
Claude Lorraine, who specialized in depicting Rome's environs, but
after 1720 it acquired a specifically urban identity. The most
renowned of the vedutists was
Canaletto (1697-1768) of Venice. His
pictures were great favorites with the British, who purchased them
as souvenirs of the grand tours of Italy, then so popular. Indeed,
he enjoyed such success with clients from England that he later
became one of several prominent Venetian artists to spend lengthy
sojourns in London. The Bucintoro at the Molo was one of a series of
paintings commissioned by Joseph Smith, an English entrepreneur
living in Venice. These served both to decorate Smith's house and to
introduce Canaletto's work to prospective buyers.
Smith subsequently issued them as a
suite of etchings to meet the demand for remembrances of Venice by
those who could not afford an original canvas by the artist.
Canaletto's landscapes are, for the most part, topographically
accurate. However, he was not above tampering with the truth, and
while he usually made only slight adjustments for the sake of
compositional effectiveness, he would sometimes treat scenes with
considerable license or create composite views. He may have used a
mechanical or optical device (perhaps a camera obscura, a forerunner
of the photographic camera) to render some of his views, although he
was a consummate draftsman who hardly needed such aids. In any
event, they fail to account for the visual sparkle of his pictures
and his sure sense of composition.
These features sprang in part from
Canaletto's training as a scenographer. This experience in the
theater also helps to explain the liveliness of his paintings. He
often included vignettes of daily life in Venice that lend a human
interest to his scenes and make them fascinating cultural documents
as well. The Bucintoro at the Molo shows a favorite theme: the Doge
returning on his magnificent barge to the Piazza San Marco from the
Lido (the city's island beach) on Ascension Day after celebrating
the Marriage of the Sea. Canaletto has captured to perfection the
festive air surrounding this great public celebration, which is
presented as a theatrical display of spectacular brilliance.
Canaletto. The Bucintoro at the Molo. ñ. 1732.
Oil on canvas, 77 x 126 cm. The Royal Collection
Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Canaletto shared his background as
a designer of stage sets with Ricci and also with Giovanni Panini
(1691-1765), his fellow vedutist in Rome who had a passion for
classical antiquity. They, in turn, are the
forerunners of another Roman artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi
(1720-1778), whose Prison Caprices derive from his stage
designs for operas. Unlike the prints after Canaletto's paintings,
these masterful etchings were intended as original works of art from
the beginning, so that they have a gripping power. In Piranesi's
romanticized imagery, the play between reality and fantasy, so
fundamental to the theatrical Rococo, culminates in a vision of
despair as terrifying as any nightmare.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Tower with Bridges,
from Prison Caprices. 1760-61.
Etching, 55.2 x 41.6 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York