Fluid and sensuous, the rococo style emerged in early Eighteenth Century France. Drawn from nature, with an extra fillip that gave it unabashed exuberance and opulent detail, rococo first appeared in Paris around 1730, under the reign of the young Louis XV, who returned the French court from Versailles to Paris.
In so doing, he helped turn the tide from the imposing magnificence and ponderous ceremony of the baroque under the reign of Sun King Louis XIV to the romantic and fancifully naturalistic of the rococo. Under Louis XV and his favorite mistress, Madame Pompadour, exquisite decoration became the norm. The sensuality of the new style reflected the prevailing spirit of the rather licentious court.
The recently mounted exhibition, “Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730′008,” now open at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, examines the style and traces it from inception through episodic revivals to its reinterpretation in the Twenty-First Century. The first to exclusively explore the rococo style, the exhibition includes 370 objects from the Eighteenth Century to the present day drawn from the museum’s own impressive collection and from a range of public and private collections.
Spread across international lines, the exhibit comprises beautifully made objects of elegance, ablaze with S-curves, asymmetry, scrolling, shells, putti and elements from nature. The splendid life of the French court necessitated splendid objects signifying one’s importance and taste. The French were the runaway arbiters of taste and design, and the complex forms and intricate naturalistic elements of rococo swept the court.
Rococo was adopted by visiting diplomats and tourists, who disseminated it well beyond the French border. Luxury objects in the rococo style ran to snuff boxes, exquisite metalware and jewelry, clocks, porcelain, furniture and textiles, drawings and prints, choice examples of which are on view.
Silver was a particularly apt material for the engraved cartouches, undulant lines and fluting that marked the rococo period. A case in point is the wondrous silver soup tureen wrought in the form of a shell with a fluted lid covered with realistic putti, crayfish and vegetables. The piece was made around 1735‱740 for the Duke of Kingston, under the direction of Juste-Aurèle Meissonier, a Turin-born master goldsmith who was appointed designer for the king’s bedchamber and cabinet in 1726. A 1740 gilt bronze candlestick by Meissonier is a feast of scrolls and lush foliate elements.
Meissonier’s creations epitomize the rococo style, and he was much in demand by French courtiers and clergy and for English, Polish and Portuguese clients. A collection of engravings after his drawings spread the rococo style around Europe and England. Thirteen prints and six of his drawings are on view.
A sinuous silver candelabrum from the museum’s collection was made in Paris between 1739 and 1740 by Claude Ballin II and is endowed with the elements of rococo: lush and lifelike foliage, S- curves and asymmetry. Ballin was the nephew of Claude Ballin, who was the master bronze maker for Louis XIV.
Another, a gilt bronze example alive with frolicking putti, three life-size birds, flowers and exuberantly graceful scrolling, was made around 1750 by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain. As dazzling as the piece is, Saint-Germain, a master craftsman, was better known for his clocks in the rococo style. Many of his decorative gilt bronze objects have been lost.
The Eighteenth Century snuff box was as prized a possession as any jewel, and as elaborate and decorative. For men and women of position, snuff boxes were de rigueur; the fancier, the better. There were snuff boxes for every occasion: day, evening, summer, winter, formal or informal. They were made of precious metals and minerals such as lapis lazuli, jade or tortoiseshell or gem encrusted, and more commonly available materials like horn. It was the fashion to wear or carry one or more, even three at a time. The Prince of Conti owned 800; as a bride, Marie Antoinette received 54. Several prime examples are on view.
Although rococo originated in Paris, the city of Nancy was and remains a monument to the style. Stanislas Lesczynski, deposed king of Poland and father-in-law of Louis XV, had acquired Lorraine by trading it for Tuscany. He set to building a city employing such artists as blacksmith Jean Lamour and architect Emmanuel Here, who indulged their imaginations to create the flamboyant buildings, soaring ironwork and astonishingly graceful fountains that mark the town. A display of Lamour’s ironwork on view includes two balustrades, a window grille, a vase and a balcony. There is a video of the objects in place as well.
A pair of gilt bronze chenets, circa 1745, bearing the Lesczynski arms is also on view.
The rococo swept through the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as England. Rococo in England was deemed “the French taste” and was not as desired by the English, except with respect to silver and other Continental luxury goods. The French Huguenot silver and goldsmiths in London created pieces in the rococo style far more lavish than anywhere else outside France. Smiths like Paul deLamerie, Paul Crespin and George Wickes were highly regarded, and some of deLamerie’s work was among the most elaborate of the period. A teakettle on pedestal with a spirit lamp, a coffee pot and a two-handled cup and cover by deLamerie on view demonstrate his talent.
Craftsmen influenced by the French creations produced their own masterful pieces in their own countries. A Venetian writing desk, circa 1760, flamboyant in gilt bronze and blue paint, resembles a large casket on wildly scrolled feet when closed. The top and the front panels open to reveal even more gilt scrolling, a fancifully fitted interior with drawers, shells and foliage.
A sedan chair made around 1760 in Granada, Spain, is alive with scrolling, paint and gilt, while a Stadholder’s carved walnut chair from the Dutch Court of Justice at The Hague, circa 1747, is upholstered in silk velvet and embroidered with the owner’s arms. It was made by Gerrit Hutte and Pieter van Dijck.
Rococo reached the American colonies in the 1750s, where it embellished furniture, silver, engravings and interiors with shells, scrollwork and naturalistic elements, particularly acanthus leaves. Exceptional rococo pieces came from Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia, with the latter the most prodigious center. A Philadelphia card table, circa 1770‱771, from the workshop of Thomas Affleck and a Philadelphia side chair, circa 1770, also from the Affleck shop, are among the best examples of American rococo furniture. Both are included in the exhibition, as is a handsome Philadelphia silver teakettle and stand, circa 1745‱755, by Joseph Richardson Sr.
New York rococo is represented by a gold and iron shoe buckle and a silver snuffer and stand by Myer Myers.
A finely carved mahogany and cherry piecrust tea table on view documents the introduction of English high-style rococo to the south by Scottish artisans. The table was made by the Scottish-born cabinetmaker Robert Walker working in northern Virginia prior to 1795, when he arrived in Charleston.
Like the tides, rococo has come and gone in waves of revival since the early 1700s. In late Eighteenth Century France, rococo was eclipsed by neoclassicism, but it emerged with a new strength in early Nineteenth Century England. The exotic flamboyance of the court under the regency and subsequent reign of George IV was a serendipitous setting for the rococo.
Rococo reappeared in the Nineteenth Century in the sensuous Art Nouveau objects of the fin de siècle revival. The sinuous and naturalistic were integrated into the work of such artists as Rene Lalique whose impressive Art Nouveau gold, enamel, amethyst and opal necklace, “Femmes-Insectes et Cygnes Noir,” from about 1900, is on view. The piece appeared at the Paris Exposition of that year. The necklace was a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Lillian Nassau.
Another Lalique object is a baisse-taille enamel, gold and diamond choker from 1897‱899. A glass and enamel Tourbillon vase from about 1925 is illustrative of Lalique’s integration of the natural and the flowing qualities of rococo with the geometric. The Paris Metro, designed by Hector Guimard, expresses the height of Art Nouveau. Emile Galle in France and New Yorker Louis Comfort Tiffany also took from the rococo and recast it in their glass and jewelry. A miniature shoe made before 1903 by Russian jeweler Faberge in bloodstone, gold, diamonds and silver also evinces the recurrence of the rococo.
In America, rococo revival parlor furniture caught on in New York and the deep South, where craftsmen like John Henry Belter, Alexander Roux and Julius Dessoir produced extravagant furniture and decorations.
The enlightening exhibition has been arranged to show the elements of the rococo style that have persisted to the present day. For example, a mid-Twentieth Century Italian art glass handkerchief vase by Fulvio Bianconi produced by Venini is a construction of S-curves, sensuous line and asymmetry. A 1966 green glass sconce by Dale Chihuly demonstrates the heights to which the rococo can aspire. It is an abstract collection of sea creatures that draw the eye, as is his 1982 White Sea Form group, also on view. The Twenty-First Century is represented by work by Marcel Wanders, Tord Boontje and Ted Muehling, who all integrate the naturalistic rococo characteristics of asymmetry, theatricality and sensuality in their work.
“Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730′008” was organized by Cooper-Hewitt curators Sarah D. Coffin, Gail S. Davidson and Ellen Lupton, along with guest curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel. Davidson said the concept of the show stemmed from her assessment of the Cooper-Hewitt’s exceptional collection of Eighteenth Century ornamental prints and drawings. After reading about the origins of Art Nouveau and considering the rise of French nationalism after the Franco-Prussian War, the essence of rococo seemed a natural.
The exhibit delineates the bursts of rococo that have occurred after most periods of classicism. Interestingly, Davidson notes that the “organic curvilinear line differed” in each country and in each century.
The exhibit remains on view through July 6 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum at Two East 91st Street. For information, 212-849-8400 or www.cooperhewitt.org .