D.L. is an amateur collector who has inherited a rococo artwork. Rococo is a flamboyant French style of the 18th century, a reaction against the grand classic style of the Palace of Versailles. Notice the swirling lines of the frame. This is an indication of architectural placement inside a whole room design. Whereas a rectangular frame "free mounts" in an interior, a frame this shape is designed within a molded wall. The rococo interior was a total design, usually light, swirling, extravagant, expensive and pastel. Interior design integral to individual rooms, from rugs to ceiling, wall treatment to upholstery, had its birth in the early 18th century.
Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was rococo's elegant fashion leader, shifting the cultured taste and society's leaders from the formality of Versailles to Paris, where she reigned over intimate salons held in pastel and costly rococo interiors. To be fashionable was everything. A little known fact is that the rococo era saw the emergence of the first fashion magazines.
A most desirable costume in the early 18th century was the Watteau gown, significant in D.L.'s art. Wide panniers, or sideways extending hoops, under the gown emphasized a corseted small waistline; the skirt opened at the front to show an embroidered petticoat. Tight sleeves to the elbow exploded in lace; a d?©colletage was required. The back of the Watteau gown had a distinctive cape that dropped from the back of the collar to sweep the floor. As the gowns were impossible to move backward, the fashionable ladies of the era were prisoners of their own guise of attraction. The gowns were restricting and highly structured yet featured lowly stripes and effects borrowed from simple peasant gowns.
The Watteau gown was named after the era's famous painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), the author of the image of D.L.'s work. The titles of his paintings reflect the lighthearted yet lovelorn era: "Love in the Italian Theatre" and "Love in the French Theatre," and the title of D.L.'s image, "The Feast (or Festival) of Love," painted in 1718-19. D.L. has a print. Art historians credit Watteau with more fame now than he had in the 18th century, but Watteau influenced much more than the fine art world. More about why an 18th century image was reproduced in the early 20th century later.
Watteau was a sickly young artist, dying at the age of 36. He nonetheless established the genre of painting the frolics of aristocratic love in the open air. His paintings convey the fleeting quality of love, nature's seasons and time. Like the ethereal silk Watteau gown, often worn in his paintings, beauty has a light and impermanent touch.
Watteau's rococo influence did not die in the next wave of French Classicism in the late 18th century. Watteau has been revived three significant times in cultural history. First, by the inseparable brother-writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (last half of the 19th century), who wrote about all things fashionable in the 18th century in "Portraits intimes du XVIIIe Siecle." A second Watteau revival occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century, led by a group of Russian intellectuals, called "Mir iskusstva," or "World of Art," headed by Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes, with the artist Leon Bakst. The Russian group's interpretation of early 18th century French rococo revolted against the prevailing Russian realist style of painting. The lightness and curvilinear line beloved by Watteau found a new voice in Russia and spread back to France with significant gallery shows of graphic art and design in Paris.
European art, in the early 20th century, under the influence of 18th century French Revivalism in spirit, began a completely new synthesis in the art world, which is called Art Nouveau. Some art historians say Art Nouveau is the first new stylistic movement since the Medieval. Think of the bronze gates of the Paris Underground and you are seeing Art Nouveau.
By the time Art Nouveau reached artistic heights, America experienced the lesser of this aesthetic, a revival of French rococo style. Middle-class American women treasured little framed silhouettes of courtly ladies and courtiers. If D.L. remembers "Singing in the Rain," the movie features a 1927 "talkie" version of the craze for Marie Antoinette's love affairs, huge dresses and court style. The late 1920s was a hotbed of French style for the upper- and upper-middle-class home; the date of D.L.'s print is late 1920s. Although the tale is culturally rich, D.L. will not be: The print is worth $40.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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