Rococo and Neoclassicism: A Comparison

After the reign of Louis XIV, aristocrats moved high society into the town homes of urban centers where they cultivated a style of lighthearted elegance.  Femme savants, or learned women, drove the norms of taste in which artifice was considered supreme and sincerity or enthusiasm was in bad taste.  

In contrast, Enlightenment ideals challenged the culture of the aristocrats and fueled the revolutions that erupted in France and America.  The philosopher Voltaire wrote of the selfish privileges of the nobility and the church.  He protested against government persecution in matters of freedom of thought and religion.  Another philosopher, Rousseau, was convinced that man should return to a "natural state".  He favored humanity's ability to feel and discern what is "real" or "natural".  He is credited with the formation of a taste for the "natural" in art and a turning away from the artificial and frivolous touted in the Rococo.

Neoclassicism is therefore a natural result of the new ideas of the Enlightenment.  Artists and patrons express a renewed interest for the subjects and styles of ancient Greek and Roman art.  There is an emphasis on rationality and geometric harmony.  Rome and Greece served as models of enlightened political structures: representation rather than the rule of princes.  Paintings championed traditions of liberty, civic virtue, morality and sacrifice.


Antoine Watteau,  Pilgrimage to Cythera,   1717.  Oil on canvas, 4'3" x 6' 4 1/2".  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera,  1717.  Oil on canvas, 4'3" x 6' 4 1/2".  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

In Pilgrimage to Cythera, Watteau depicts a group of extravagantly dressed aristocratic lovers on a mythical journey to the Cythera: Aphrodite's island of eternal youth and love.  The painting is credited with creating the genre of fete-galante: paintings that depict the outdoor entertainment and amusements of French high society.



Jacques-Louis David,  Oath of the Horatii,  1784.  Oil on canvas, 10' 10" x 13' 11".  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784.  Oil on canvas, 10' 10" x 13' 11".  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Jacques-Louis David became the Neoclassical painter of the French Revolution.  He believed that the subject of a painting should have a moral.  In Oath of the Horatti, three young men, the Horatius brothers, have been chosen as champions to settle the dispute between Rome and the neighboring city of Alba.  They raise their swords as the they swear to defend Rome.  The moral of this painting is in line with ideals of the Revolution: patriotism and sacrifice.

Kleiner, Fred. “Rococo to Neoclassicism: the 18th Century in Europe and America” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp.726-753.