In my high school art history class, my teacher, having covered with reverence the high-contrast drama of the Baroque, flipped the slide machine to show Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing and paused, glaring at the slide in the darkened room. Then she pronounced: “The Rococo. I loathe the Rococo! The Rococo is art history’s porn!”
Admittedly, there’s truth in that statement—artists working in this style often included sexual innuendo in their works (the aforementioned The Swing features a young man looking right up the lady’s skirt; our own The Shepherdess, left, also by Fragonard, is chock full of tongue-in-cheek references—check out Tom Strini’s Third Coast Digest article on this piece for more). And my teacher’s statement reflects the attitude of many an art historian, although they usually phrase it a bit more delicately. The Rococo is not exactly the popular kid of art history periods—its pastel, rounded shapes, pretty, fashionably dressed girls, and general frippery are not fawned over by most art historians, who think they are without substance.
Well, to that I say: Whatever! (Cue rotten tomatoes from said art historians.) Rococo works might not make me think about the fleetingness of life or catapult me to religious epiphany—that’s fine. Sometimes I just need to look at something pretty. I equate it to the occasional milkshake or indulgent shopping trip: you don’t want to overdo it, but every so often, it can just be fun to look at a visually gorgeous, lush, over-the-top Rococo painting like Fragonard’s The Shepherdess, right here in our own Museum.
The Neo-Decorative designers whose work is displayed at the very end of our feature exhibition, European Design Since 1985, would agree with me. They took inspiration from Rococo paintings, and created chairs, plates, light fixtures and other objects that drip with flowers, are covered in sumptuous fabric, or are delicately painted with foliage and petals—like Jurgen Bey’s floral St. Petersburg chair.
Have your own indulgent moment at the Museum: find The Shepherdess in the Gallery 8, and the Bey chair (and much more) in European Design Since 1985, located in the Baker/Rowland Galleries.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.