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Rococo vs. Neoclassical Art

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Rococo vs. Neoclassical Art
Karina Smith
Western Governors University
November 25, 2013

Rococo vs. Neoclassical Art Periods
Over the years, works of art have developed and varied greatly across genres and time periods. From the cave paintings of the Paleolithic era to the abstract expressionism and Pop Art of the 21st century, we have seen styles of art evolve and develop. These styles and periods of art sometimes reflect past artists and styles and other times introduce an era of completely new art genres and styles. Two different art periods that succeeded each other is rococo and neoclassicism. Rococo is a style of art that began in the early to mid-18th century and was closely followed by the neoclassical art movement.
Rococo art originated in France in the early 18th century and was itself an evolution of the earlier style of baroque art. Rococo art emphasized elaborate, detailed, and ornamental elements in sculpture and architecture, and more realistic representations in paintings. Coming off the era of baroque art, which was very much influenced by religion and endorsed by the Catholic Church, rococo art thrived in a time where secularism was becoming a more dominant theme in social attitudes. This Age of Enlightenment saw a shift toward loosened morals and a light-heartedness in the social climate that was, in turn, reflected in the art of that time period. Some characteristics of Rococo art is light, airy colors and delicate, curling themes. In fact, the root word for rococo comes from the French word “rocaille” meaning “shell work” (MindEdge, 3.16). The subjects of Rococo art were usually people depicted in a light-hearted manner and frequently contained themes of indirect eroticism, or elements of love and romance, such as cherubs.
Following this art period, a new art movement emerged: Neoclassicism. In contrast to the way rococo art developed, basically as an evolution of the style before it, neoclassicism was a totally new and different era. Neoclassicism saw a revival of classical styles and influence from ancient Greek and Roman art, architecture, theatre, and literature (MindEdge, 3.17 ). This neoclassicism art movement borrowed many elements and themes, not only from earlier societies, but also from earlier art periods such as the Renaissance. The social climate during this time was much more somber and realistic. Coming off the American and French revolution, artists shifted their attitudes toward art from light and airy themes and colors to a more serious dark tone with a move toward political themes and subjects. Neoclassical artists used a lot of sharp colors, employed techniques such as chiaroscuro, which contrasts light and dark shading to achieve the illusion of depth (MindEdge, 3.17), and generally depicted realistic characters in bold colors against dark backdrops.
There are more differences than similarities between these two art periods. In the same way that rococo art sought to do away with the baroque paintings and their religious themes of saints, the divine, and religious iconography by focusing on fantasy and the pleasures of life, the neoclassical artists tried to distance themselves from the detached characteristics of rococo art. As a result, the two main elements that shaped neoclassicism turned out to be wistfulness and the romantic sentiments of discarding the current social problems. These factors resulted in the striking differences between these two styles of art.
An example of the differences in artwork styles is seen when comparing the rococo work of art The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and the Neoclassical masterpiece Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David. The Swing features delicate, coiling tree branches, many curves evident in the ruffles and lace on the subject’s dress, and the techniques of light and shadows. The subject matter is also typical of rococo art and depicts a woman allowing her concealed lover a peek under her dress as her husband stands oblivious in the background. All those characteristics, the techniques, colors, and subject matter are visual trademarks of the rococo style. In contrast, Oath of the Horatii presents the subjects in a much more realistic manner using dark shadows and bold colors in the foreground. The subjects in this painting are just as divergent as the style and techniques of the two artworks. Depicted in this painting are three brothers taking their swords from their father, and in doing so, making an oath to defend Rome demonstrating civic loyalty and self-sacrifice (MindEdge, 3.18). The political theme in this painting exemplifies the characteristics of neoclassical art and is a classic demonstration of the shift in social attitudes during that period. The nature of the two paintings, including the characters portrayed and the stories they tell, could not be more different, yet they provide a striking example of the shift from the prevalent rococo art toward neoclassicism, as well as, the social attitudes that accompanied it.
Neoclassicism went on as the leading art movement and preceded romanticism, which was yet another shift away from the classically inspired art styles and an early 19th century response to the restraints of neoclassicism (MindEdge, 3.18). Regardless, we still see the effects of neoclassical influence around us in modern times. Such American landmarks as the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial are manifestations of lingering neoclassical style in our world today. In the 21st century neoclassicism has also seen somewhat of a revival with some public buildings in the United States being built in the neoclassical style as recent as 2006, for example, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee (“Art 101”, 2011).
In conclusion, we can see that many of the successive styles of art were either a continuation or modification of an earlier style, or an attempt to break away and create a completely new era of artistic styles that more accurately reflect, not only the artists personal styles, but also the social context of that specific period in time.

References
Art 101: What is neoclassicism. (2011, May 6). Retrieved from http://mashrabiyya.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/art-101-what-is-neoclassicism/
From leisure to virture: Revivalism and the neoclassical. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.radford.edu/rbarris/art216upd2012/neoclassicalrevolutionF09.html
MindEdge. (2012). Humanities through the ages. Retrieved from http://wgu.mindedge.com/.

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