Musings: Femininity in Rococo Art

Dutch Dollhouse Culture 1-3

Swept off their feet by the Rococo, the gens du mode of an 18th century fashion-conscious society lapped up the lightness of this style. Favoured by men and women alike, the Rococo sung like a lark – enchanting with its aristocratic taste, suitability for secret interiors and delighting a circle of courtly patrons. Something worth noting? The ladies were having a moment.

It was all very much a case of be still my beating fan! When it came to the subject matter, we see contemporaries – female. No bawdy bar scenes, but, beauties among gallants. These women of the moment, fresh from the period and abundant in their frills featured in works of a certain sensibility – paintings, which were frivolous, coquettish and dreamt up as scrumptious delicacies: The fondant fancy, as it were, of the visual arts.


Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767, 81 cm x 64 cm, Wallace Collection.

In the works of Fragonard and Boucher we see a parade of the delectable: Pastels, powders, blush and bosom; cascades of silk, preening misses, intimate toilettes and pampered lapdogs – glimpses that any lusty youth would’ve no doubt coveted. These paintings were the pin-ups and a saucy turn to polite conversation and, appear to present a view of society through pink tinted spectacles.

The interesting point is the consumption of this froth. Not only was it popular, but, it was also inconspicuously girlish – the stuff of fantasies. I find the criticism levied at the Rococo particularly tantalising: Contemporaries and modern critics have not failed to notice just how feminine these works were. This formulation of the ‘feminine’ predates feminism (my camp) and very much operates along the line of ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’. The feminine qualities of the Rococo were seen in its delicacy, its pretty colours, maidenly concerns and uncontainable curves.


A 1793 contrast between French fashions of 1793 and ca. 1778, showing the large style changes which had occurred in just 15 years.

Was this ‘feminisation’ of cultural production seen as a threat? Yes and no. It was the fashion, there was no contesting that –  gentlemen keen to make an entrance donned wigs and foppishly swanned about in the daintiest of footwear, whilst ladies were equally enchanted by works which appeared to take the fairer sex as muse. At the same time, there were those who flouted the Rococo for its flaunting of women’s sexuality. Whether you saw it as debauchery or a bit of fun, its fascinating to compare society’s views with the works in question.

During this time, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) and François Boucher (1703 – 1770) were having their moment in the sun: Privy to courtly commission, these two gentlemen were at the very heart of the habit – presenting scene after scene in accordance with the new taste, l’art de la mode. A private art of sheer pleasure was being patronised by the aristocrats, which, Professor Jennifer Milam associates with currents of Enlightenment thought contemporary tot the period. As private morals relaxed Madame de Chãtelet’s sentiment that the court had “nothing else to do in the world but to seek pleasant sensations and feelings” prevailed in aristocratic society.

Freer thinking allowed for freer expression and discussion of human sexuality when it came to debating ‘the merits of a life of pleasure’. Enlightenment thinkers frequently debated on the role and nature of women, allowing ‘weaker sex’ theory to be a crux of argument in the coming centuries. This would see women not only as sources of pleasure but as sexually aware beings instigating a split between the feminine ‘frivolous’ and the masculine ‘sober’; the feminine ‘immoral’ and the masculine ‘moral’.


Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance, c.1770, oil on canvas, 70 x 89 cm., Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Source: images/jean-honore-fragonard/girl-with-a-dog.jpg!Blog.jpg [accessed 25 August 2015].

The female body had always been… problematic. Especially, when that body was seen to be erotic and sexual – the source of pleasure and temptation. This triggered a fear in the rhetoric where a woman’s sexuality could be unbridled, tempestuous and – perish the thought- dangerous. So what about the presentation of erotic, sexualised women in the Rococo? Fragonard’s Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance (c. 1770) is a case in point:  Here, we can see the parallels discussed so far over the sexuality of women. Fragonard’s woman is in a state of undress; going on her provocative pose, passivity and pertness – one could even see her as a candidate for the ‘ideal’ 18th century mistress. In his book The Nude, Kenneth Clark observes the ‘compact’ and ‘manageable’ female form termed ‘the petite’ in France. Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance certainly fits the bill!

The central element to this painting, however, is the inclusion of a toy-like, pampered dog used to comment on the ‘playful’ and ‘toying’ nature of its ‘mistress’. This interplay between flesh and fur and the intimacy between woman and ‘favoured’ pet allows for the perception that women were, in a stripped back sense, instinctual and emotional. Whilst it could be argued that this aspect of woman is celebrated in Fragonard’s painting, her overt sexuality could also be condemned and dismissed as purely a distraction. In a sense, this particular painting is presenting woman as being childlike and not at all serious, rather, frivolous and diversion…

I shall be continuing this series exploring further paintings by Fragonard and Boucher, to illuminate perceptions of women and the desired female body in the Rococo period.

Sources Used:

Clark, Kenneth, The Nude (Penguin Books, 1956).

Currie, Dawn, Anatomy of Gender: Women’s Struggle for the Body (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992).

Hyde, Melissa, Making Up the Rococo: François Boucher and His Critics (Getty Publications, 2006).

Jones, Jonathan, ’Sex and the century: why the art of the Enlightenment was so saucy’, The Guardian, 4 January 2013, art-saucy [accessed 20 August 2015].

Perry, Gillian and Michael Rossington, Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-century Art and Culture (Manchester University Press, 1994).

‘Rococo Aesthetics: Women, Lapdogs and Sexual Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Art’, The University of Sydney, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, News & Events, 29 May 2014, 2228.html?newsstoryid=13546 [accessed 01 August 2015].

Ryle, Robyn, Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration (SAGE Publications, 2014).

Scott, Katie, The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-century Paris (Yale University Press, 1995).

The Court Journal: Court Circular & Fashionable Gazette (Vol. 5, Alabaster, Pasemore & sons, Limited, 1833).

Willette, Jeanne, ‘The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles’, Art History Unstuffed, 23 August, 2009, http:// [accessed 01 August 2015].

Thank You-2

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