Rococo and the Enlightenment

The late Baroque known as Rococo can be seen as the final stage or gathering of the ideas of Enlightenment into the art of the time. Though the Rococo period is known for its loose style in its works it would not be until the end of the Rococo movement that we can see the true nature of art. To understand this movement of art from the strict guides of Baroque to the more natural movement of the Rococo I will focus on the works of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Much of Rococo work is said to be a movement away from symmetry to a more ornate, florid, and playful look and feel to the work of the time. (Delevati, Riffert, 9-10) To many it was about trying to capture or imitate nature.
In order for us to know if Michel De Montaigne’s (1533 – 1592) expectation was misplaced or not or if the Rococo is connected or disconnected to the Enlightenment we must know fist what is it to be enlightened. The Enlightenment was seen as a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism, which when looked at does not mean that people are truly enlightened but as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it ‘the act or means of enlightening’. (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2011) It is for this reason of understanding that I find de Montaigne’s expectation unrealistic.
From my understanding the readings of de Montaigne’s idea is kind of like the question of what came first the chicken or the egg, for we cannot have an egg without a chicken and the chicken cannot be born without the egg. It seems to me that de Montaigne’s concept was purely scientifically based and left no room for the abstract. His statements come from his disappointment in religious conflicts, reflecting a spirit of skepticism and belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2004) and seem too literal for the time.
While Enlightenment is meant to get to the truth and based on rationalism de Montaigne seems to want to skip the search involved and declare defeat in our ability to understand before we even explore which is why it might be that de Montaigne saw his life as preparing for his death. These ideas came about during what is known as de Montaigne’s skeptical crisis. He seemed to take the ideas so to heart that he had his famous quote ‘Que sais-je?’ What do I know?, engraved on a personal medal. (Foglia, 2010) This is not to say that de Montaigne essays did not have merit, they did, however it may have been much to ask for during its time and of artists who were just starting to explore the ideas of the Enlightenment as a whole and not in small parts. With this we are still left with the question of whether Rococo is associated or contradictory of the ideas we find in the Enlightenment.
When it comes to the Rococo Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) had referred to this period of art as an “Ars Simia Naturae (Art is the ape of nature)” (B. 282-83) something that had originally referred to artists during the middle ages because they were simply trying to imitate life in their works. This idea has emulated through time and when searching the art of Rococo it is a common phrase that many have come to associate with the art of the time, but here we can see it as more than just a mere imitation. Artists were capturing not just the presence of life but the stories of life itself.
The idea of the connection of Rococo and the Enlightenment is best described in the essay “Late Baroque & Rococo Portraits: The Cult of Sensibility”. The idea of the artists having Freedom to make choices, a heightened sense of self-awareness, a personal vision of a better life, and the individual embracing values of change was what the enlightenment was all about. (Delevati, Riffert, 10:6) As mentioned earlier Rococo work is said to be a movement away from symmetry to a more ornate, florid, and playful look and feel to the work of the time is what we have come to know as artistic license in the world of art. This is a move away from the very controlled and technical based ideas of artistic view in art during the earlier Baroque period.
We see those ideas brought to focus during Gainsborough’s late portraiture works. Though Gainsborough would prefer landscapes to portraitures it is in these later paintings that his work would truly take on the ideas of the enlightenment through what was known as natural and spontaneous mood feeling to his work. (Wilson, Reill 2004).
Many would agree that it is his painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1749) that shows the true spirit of the enlightenment and while I will cover some of the aspects of the work of art, I would say that Girl with Pigs (1782) gives us a better idea of the Enlightenment in Rococo art, and will discuss this work as an example of the ideas of Enlightenment and how they relate to the Rococo. While this work might not be as well-known as Mr. and Mrs. Andrews it managed to capture even the eye of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Gainsborough rival, who called it ‘by far the best picture he ever painted, or perhaps ever will’ before purchasing it for a hundred guineas. (Gomez, Greensides, Hyland 286-287).
There are two main reasons why I believe that Girl with Pigs is more symbolic of the Enlightenment in the Rococo than Mr. and Mrs. Andrews is the way in which the background is painted and the subjects of the paintings. While both paintings display a lighter brush stroke than the previous Baroque period the landscape portion of the portrait for Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was done in a Dutch style that Gainsborough had learned, where the Girl with Pigs’ landscape is painted in more of the Rococo style of not just loose strokes but also less detail work in the landscape objects. This style which begins in Rococo will go on to influence Romantic Art, the Hudson River School and even Impressionism.
Gainsborough had painted the landscape in Mr. and Mrs. Andrews as a way to show his ability to potential patrons of his work and to satisfy his personal preference in his work. This style of his painting was done as a way to make money, as already discussed Gainsborough preferred landscapes but needed a way to help his family. He continued to paint portraits of sitters in what he called “face paint” and while they are done in the Rococo style they are done with the approval or disapproval of the sitter, which is more characteristic of the Middle Baroque period. What makes Girl with Pigs different in this manner is that the painting while could be known as portraiture is more of a story in the Rococo style.
The girl in the painting sits in a natural pose not looking at the painter, but observing her pigs as they drink from a bowl. The painting not depicting the girl in fancy clothing or made up hair, but in plain torn clothing, shoeless, and with short hair, something that was done at the time to help keep young girls from head lice. While Gainsborough tried to depict people in his portraits in a natural pose in his works, here he captures the natural pose as it is meant to be not so much staged but as part of the story line. He also attempted to capture the pigs eating naturally in the painting, but according to a farmer who viewed the painting did not understand the nature of pigs feasting “nobody ever saw pigs feeding together but one of them has a foot in the trough.” While I was unable to find it, it is believed that Gainsborough painted another painting with a pigs paw in the dish as well in an attempt to capture the natural appeal of pigs feeding. (Oklahoma State Department of Education)
It is through the understanding of works of Gainsborough that we can not only get the sense of the Rococo style but see how they fit into the Enlightenment. The Rococo like the Enlightenment was about creating works that reflected the rational aspects and realist appeal of life what we have seen referred to as the Ape of Nature in the period. The works of art used loose lines to describe the shapes as they appear in motion and free of constraints which are the same as the aspects of the Enlightenment that is based on the rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas that were considered constraints of the earlier Baroque tendencies.
We also see through the works the ideas that are discussed in the essay “Late Baroque & Rococo Portraits: The Cult of Sensibility”. In this late Baroque period of Rococo we witness the artists as having freedom to make choices in the works that they create and who they create them for. As having a heightened sense of self-awareness in that artists see themselves as a worker for their own personal needs and not constrained solely by the needs of others or the Monarch. Having a personal vision of a better life where artists realize their ability to create a better life through selling their work to support themselves and their families as they see fit. And the individual embracing values of change where we see artists creating works of art that speak more of the life of the time and not that described or controlled by the monarch or church.

Delevati, Paul and Riffert, David. GS 607: Art & Ideas of the Enlightenment. Module 9-10, Graduate Studies Department. Academy of Art University, Sept. 2009. Web. April 2011.
Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. University Of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.
Bazin, Germain. Baroque and Rococo. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Print.
B., Hope. The Continuum encyclopedia of animal symbolism in art. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. 282-83. Print.
Wilson, Ellen J, and Peter H. Reill. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Facts On File, Inc, 2004. 218. Print.
Olga Gomez, Francesca Greensides, Paul Hyland. The Enlightenment: A Sourcebook and Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003. 286-287. Print.
“Enlightenment.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2011. Merriam-Webster Online.
23 April 2011
“de Montaigne.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 23 April 2011.
Foglia, Marc, “Michel de Montaigne”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Web. 23 April 2011
“Mr. and Mrs. Andrews.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 23 April 2011.
“Ag in Art” Oklahoma State Department of Education: Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom. 2011. Web. 23 April 2011

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