Musings: The Concept of “Femininity” and the Rococo Style

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With the rococo, given the social climate contemporary to that time in history, you cannot help but notice that the scenes and embellishments demonstrate the nuances of taste, decoration and aesthetic influenced and informed by women. It was the Earl of Shaftesbury who, in, 1713 denounced the Rococo style as “a revolting form exalting Sensation at the Expense of Reason” [1] and this criticism lies in its intrinsic values as an overtly ‘feminine’ [2] art. It has been argued that Rococo painting appeals to the ‘sensualist’, made manifest in the libertine and his female counterpart, the courtesan in the period [3]. Free indulgence and pleasure correspond to the softness, painterly flounces, roving pastels and sumptuous surface textures inherent to Rococo arrangements.

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The Lock, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1779.

Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) for instance is a painting of indulgent flattery, where the soft lighting, delicate colouring, fluid, loose brushstroke and billowing fabrics indicate confection over substance. Here, the woman is placed as the object of desire and courts the affections, admiration and womanly praise of her lover. This scheme subverts the model of masculine power and control, favouring the colours and qualities of women’s fashions, which, were reflected by male contemporaries of the court circle. Equally, when we look upon boudoir scenes, particularly those of Boucher, there is a decided artificiality to his “porcelain heads” [4] and delicate interior schemes.

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The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767.

His handling of the paint is not dissimilar to the application of makeup practised at the time [5], covering his work with a powdery surface and cosmetic hues through white and pastel ground. The decorative arts and ornamentation were theoretically associated with women in principle and multiple elements of the Rococo typically belong to the feminine domain, such as an intense devotion to fashion. This being said, the influence of women on the Rococo becomes synonymous with effeminacy created by the ‘female touch’ and it was Denis Diderot who critically commented on the period’s ‘petites femmes’ and affected ‘petites maitres’ [6]. Women’s persistent presence in the art of the Rococo could stem from contemporary theories of “Gender Complementarity” [7] whereby intrinsic female characteristics soften masculine vices, creating a pictorial harmony, delicacy and sensibility in painting.

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The Proposal, 1736-93, Louis Marin Bonnet.

A common perception of women was of her ‘gentleness’ and in the 18th century Baron de Montesquieu made this argument from ‘their very weakness’ [8]. Saint-Gabriel felt that rather than being driven by male- domination and war, France needed to be “under the goodness of the governance of the ladies” [9] so as to promote a more peaceful society. I would argue that this belief along with women’s position and placement in society inform painting style and the Rococo’s embrace of a female-centric aesthetic in catering to taste.

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Madame de Pompadour, François Boucher, 1756.

From this it could be argued that women were on the ascent. In expressing themselves in a well- established patriarchal system [10], the presence of women in painting attests to their movement in court circles, involvement with the network of Salons and prevalence in society through gaining positions of influence. Madame de Pompadour’s patronage of the arts and her social documenting through portraiture mark her out as one of the mistresses able to assert rank and connoisseurship and, in so doing, shape the Rococo as a movement. Boucher paints Madame de Pompadour (1756) at the height of the Rococo, testifying to her level of accomplishment and ability in rising from the bourgeoisie to officiate. In this painting, Madame de Pompadour serves as a national emblem, lavishly clothed in her ‘robe à la française’ demonstrating her conspicuous consumption, expenditure and leisure.

The comfortable rococo interior which she inhabits is of her own taste, as she was able to afford and accumulate objects d’arte and other luxuries such as the silk furnishings. Here, she is at ease and the impression given is that of a leader, with the success and nonchalant demeanour appointed to those at the highest strata of society, a state that had been typically reserved for the male sex. Madame de Pompadour is presented in this way, aligning herself as a woman with the liberal arts and intellectual faculties, signified by the books and letters placed in the room.

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A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728.

This portrait also recalls the existence of women in relation to the intelligentsia and salon scene in enlightened Paris, indeed, the French salon in the early 18th century was a space where, in a male-dominated society, men and women could congregate for intellectual discourse. Landes writes on how matters of “taste and pleasure” [11] allowed women to assume authority in the environs of the royal court, with the dissemination of the salon giving women further opportunity to realise elitist aspirations. Madame de Pompadour founded a salon at Étiolles and Boucher’s portrait reminds the viewer of the hostessing role which women were allowed to play in commanding a room under the salon umbrella.

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The Progress of Love: Love Letters, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1772.

The Rococo aesthetic was a reflection of the period’s taste for display and exhibition fostered by the wealthy. A freer cultural environment around these circles allowed for a more playful, teasing art which toyed with shallow concepts of wit, beauty and charm. To this end, rich, beautiful, fashionable women figure in Rococo painting as by their very nature they embody the contemporary vogue for luxury and appearance, pertaining to a type of muse-like vanity, pomp and circumstance. Using gendered discourse, it becomes evident that a particular class of women were on the rise, implying the obsession of men who wished to hang them on their walls. Such a position in society and the salon offered women a role beyond being seen as the mere property of men.

Through the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard, it becomes apparent that women were a source of feminine intrigue, promoting the appreciation of aesthetic beauty and celebrating the pleasures offered by the body. However, background male voyeurism and societal pressures appear to reduce women on canvas to ornamental, decorative elements serving to enhance the overall beauty of an interior as possessions. To attain eminence and reverse traditional convention as in the case of Madame de Pompadour, a woman would have to use her powers of seduction, which, in turn created a grey area between propriety and whoring. The suspicions of men and their attitudes towards women sees them ultimately confined rather than liberated by the art which they created, as the overtly ‘masculine’ revolt of the neoclassical demonstrates. Something, which we will no doubt explore another time.

Read about Pauline Bonaparte’s risqué sculpture  here…
Take a tour through the National Trust’s West Wycombe here…
See how ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ women appeared in Medieval Art here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

  1. The Earl of Shaftesbury, quoted in Gutwirth, The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p. 3.
  2. J. Milam, Historical Dictionary of Rococo Art, p. 270.
  3.  Aspiring to la Vie Galante: Reincarnations of Rococo in Second Empire France (New York University: ProQuest, 2008), p. 52.
  4. I. Walther and R. Suckale, Masterpieces of Western Art: A History of Art in 900 Individual Studies from the Gothic to the Present Day, Part 1 (Taschen, 2002), p. 356.
  5. M. Hyde, ‘The “Makeup” of the Marquise: Boucher’s Portrait of Pompadour at Her Toilette’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2000, pp. 453-475.
  6. A. Appel, ‘Jean-Marie Leclair: Seduction and Rococo Art’, artsjournal.com, 25 June, 2013, http:// http://www.artsjournal.com/palace/2013/06/jean-marie-leclair-seduction-and-rococo-art.html [accessed 12 August 2015].
  7. H. Zundel, S. duPont, E. Olsen, M. Rondinelli, ’Women’s Involvement in the French Salons (Early 18th Century)’, 2011, https://sites.google.com/a/wisc.edu/ils202fall11/home/student-wikis/group4 [accessed 2017].
  8. D. Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 7.
  9. ibid.
  10. ‘Feminism in Literature Essay – Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries’, enotes, http:// http://www.enotes.com/topics/feminism/critical-essays/women-16th-17th-18th-centuries [accessed 2017].
  11. J. Landes, Women in the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), p.24.

Thank You-2

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