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As an art historian, I have had plenty of students knocking on my office doors with the age-old question on their lips: what went wrong with Rococo that Neoclassicism came into the fore? And that is precisely what this post aims at addressing. It has long amazed art historians and museum curators alike.  

I have also come across students who are keen to know about Neoclassical art and the decadent Rococo style. While providing assignment writing service on a similar topic the other day, I decided to present my views on the evolution of Neoclassical and Rococo art forms. They both have close ties with Enlightenment, and you can discover more as you keep reading this blog.

18th-century socio-politics in the continent

It is important to delve a bit deeper into the socio-political context of the 18th-century. It will give us further insights into why Neoclassicism could easily dethrone Rococo as the most popular style of art and architecture in France and the rest of the continent. Here is a look into the socio-political scene in the 18th-century, the time of Enlightenment.

  • Society, technology, and politics have gone for a major upheaval when it comes to transformation. It is gradually seeping into the arts as well.
  • Louis XIV, the Sun King at Versailles, ordered for the construction of grand and opulent homes and decor in the 1700s.
  • However, the dominance of Rococo could still be seen in the salons and summer houses in and around Paris where the aristocrats resided right after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.
  • As the aristocrats came into being art patrons, all of them wanted their homes to be designed in the grand Rococo style that reflected their lavish lifestyles.
  • Stylish Paris salons in Rococo styles and their hostesses gained fame among the upper-class aristocrats, with most of them competing to throw the most lavish of parties for their honored guests.
  • As the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy in France, people began to reject the idea of opulence and grandeur for the privileged classes.
  • Neoclassicism became the newest attraction as aristocracy and grand ways of life were done away after the French Revolution.


Rococo and its increasing popularity


A popular style of the early 18th-century art and interior design, Rococo evolved using rounded, easy-on-the-eye shapes and lines. Although it reflected the inherent aristocracy in France back then, Rococo styles became famous among the upper-class of the Parisian society. Rococo rooms came into fashion. We are talking entire rooms done up in the classic Rococo style, with opulence being a key factor in the expression of art.

Rococo was everywhere –from polished and mirrored salons in Paris and right onto the canvases of artists with all the refinements and fancifulness characteristic to 18th-century France. The dominance of pastel colors, delicate and curving forms, light-hearted subjects and dainty figures dominated the Rococo style of art and architecture.

Parisian salons were mostly curved or rounded in shape to match the Rococo architecture. We can observe the use of opulent mirrors of polished brass and silver with glimmering light in the Rococo style. Rococo derives its name from ‘rocaille’ (meaning shell or pebble) and Baroque (denoting the extravagant style of art and architecture). One could say that Rococo uses the extravagance of Baroque styles in a more dainty and rounded manner. It is similar to the arrangement of pebbles in man-made or natural grottos. The style totally justifies the name as well.

Famous Rococo artists include Francois Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Gaspare Traversi, Francisco Goya, Giuseppe Nogari and Alexander Roslin, to name a few.

Rococo dominated the art scene from the late 17th century to mid-18th-century before giving way to Neoclassicism.

Advent of Neoclassicism


Neoclassical art looks at the unemotional and rigid forms of life. It is in stark contrast to the flowy and rounded style used in Rococo. The Neoclassical artists sparked a renewed interest in classical thought, which, in turn, influenced the development of critical thinking during French and American Revolutions. Neoclassicism influenced 19th-century academic art as well.

The visual characteristics of the Neoclassical style are emphatically linear in nature. It makes use of dark and strong, direct lights to show form and contrast. The presence of strong acidic colors to show balanced and orderly compositions was a strong hint at shunning the earlier Rococo style completely. Controlled brushstrokes and glossing over individual strokes in paintings in Neoclassical art forms stresses on the virtues of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations.

The primary characteristics of Neoclassical art displayed education, moral principles, athleticism, and discipline among its subjects, forms, and use of colors and shade techniques. Usually, Neoclassical art forms revolved around the classical stories of heroic acts by men. Women, on the other hand, are shaped with softer curves in Neoclassicism. Men take on hard and angular shapes, of course.

A blatant show of the deep-rooted gender discrimination could once more be seen in Neoclassical art where all things feline and delicate were assigned to women while men displayed the many examples of valor and heroism. The classical values of gendered roles for men and women in society are also reflected in the Neoclassical form.

Although it arose as a direct challenge to the already-outdated Rococo style, the Neoclassical style is also guilty of stereotypes. However, studying both the forms of art objectively, one can say that Neoclassicism came to be a more refined and developed form of art than Rococo.

Famed Neoclassical artists include Robert Adam, Jaques-Louis David, Anton Raphael Mengs, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Robert Smirke, Antonio Canova, and J.A.D. Ingres.


Amalgamation of Art and Enlightenment

The discovery of the town of Pompeii was one of the leading causes for the advent of the Neoclassical movement in art. The Greco-Roman influences came into being in all forms of art, including paintings, sculptures, and architecture. There are several classical allusions in Neoclassicism, even when showing scenes from contemporary society. The scientific and industrial revolution in the late 18th-century also influenced Neoclassicism.

Neoclassical artists rejected Rococo as decadent and aimed to celebrate the ancient values and discipline for the purity of form. In fact, some of the revolutionary artists in the neoclassical form, such as Thomas Gainsborough, drew a portrait of the son of an ironmonger and dressed him in blue. He broke traditions to use blue as the central color in his portraits, which was, in those days, quite unheard of.

Neoclassicism paved the way for amalgamation of art and enlightenment where artists came out to celebrate critical thinking rationale, discipline, and classical values through their works – be it paintings, sculpture or architecture.


Summing it up,

Neoclassicism in Europe came as a response to the grandiose Rococo style. Blending in philosophical aspects of the Enlightenment, Neoclassicism represented the rejection of all things that gave off an aristocratic vibe. The rise of sharp and linear forms in Neoclassicism as opposed to the flowy and rounded style in Rococo speaks volumes about how art evolved through the times of acute philosophical turmoil in Europe.

Art historians opine that Neoclassical art was somewhat of a breakthrough for the philosophical champions of the continent for it shines a light directly upon the values upheld during Enlightenment. Looking back, it is a historic moment for the evolution of art and philosophy in 18th-century Europe. It is also colored by gender bias as men depicted in Neoclassical forms are usually seen at the battlefields and women in homely surroundings. The contrast between Neoclassicism and Rococo thus demands further study in close association with the Enlightenment movement.


Author bio:

Shirley Brown, a Melbourne-based art curator, is associated with as a CPM Homework Helper. She assists students with their art history assignments when not managing her gallery in downtown Melbourne. She’s also an ardent supporter of animal rights, and volunteers at awareness drives every other weekend at various spots in and around the city.