Extravagance in revolutionary times: The ladies of the Rococo
By Gabriella Sotiriou
The Rococo was a period fuelled by a constant threat of paradise lost. Scenes of whimsical ideals known as fête galante, a genre depicting men and women in nature engaged at romantic play, in which clothing was essential, were produced by three central artists - Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau. Their scenes of pastoral ease and leisure scattered with symbolic classical references reflected the newly enlightened society and the emergence of the educated bourgeoisie. The centre of culture, fashion and art moved from the royalty of Versailles to Paris, a city dominated by the salons and cafés of middle-class society. The period saw the combining of aristocratic dress with costume, mirroring the newly found irresponsibility of the élite. Women’s fashion of the period included large dresses such as those seen in these paintings that were designed and made so that they cost twenty times what a skilled worker of the time would earn in a year.
It was through the salons and cafés that fashions of the time spread, propelled by fashion magazines and prominent individuals such as Madame Pompadour - mistress of Louis XV and fashion trendsetter throughout the early eighteenth-century. Pompadour was a patroness of the decorative arts and of the philosophers of the enlightenment and is recognised today as a champion of French pride; qualities that she certainly sought to visually encourage through the means of her dress. This painting of Madame Pompadour by Boucher encapsulates the sense of grandeur in its details. The pastel pink of her dress was synoptic of the Rococo in its delightful playfulness, emphasised further by the bubbling ribbons that are scattered across the bodice, skirts and sleeves. The sleeves themselves are billowing and Boucher is able to convey the intricacies of the lace and the sheen of the satin. The new silhouette is highlighted in the exaggerating of proportions in the delicate head, hands and feet which in turn exaggerates the volume of Pompadour’s gown.
The extent to which Madame Pompadour’s clothing influenced the people of Paris is seen in Boucher’s painting The Breakfast, more so in the figure of the small girl in the right hand corner than the older woman in their satin gowns. Clasped in the grip of her fist is a doll that bears remarkable resemblance to Boucher’s paintings of the royal mistress. Awkwardly frontward facing, the doll draws attention away from the main scene in some sense. Noticeably dressed in a grander fashion, the beauty of Madame Pompadour was clearly something that was recognised greatly in the period itself and her popularity is encapsulated in this pointed featuring of her image in this painting.
The dress worn by Madame Pompadour in this painting by Boucher was undoubtedly influential. Fragonard reinterprets this very gown in his infamous painting The Swing (1767), an erotic painting cleverly disguised by the whimsicality of the rococo landscape and more specifically the pink dress. The Swing, like most fête galante paintings is abundant with symbolic features, namely the swing itself which brilliantly represents the fatalistic abandonment of the time and the desire of high-class society to throw caution to the wind. The stage-like spotlight of sun that floods through the trees bounces off the gown, displaying the satin fabric that partly explains the cost of gowns in this period. The bow scattered bodice of Boucher is repeated in this scene, the lace underskirts billowing around the woman creating a wonderfully frothy and dynamic image. Fragonard does not disguise the fact that clothes and their meaning is what matters most here. The shepherdess style hat is tilted in such a way that it shrouds most of her face in shadow and yet leaves the entirety of the dress in the spotlight of the sun. The beauty of this dress and the contrasting shadowed vegetation highlight the clothing and in turn the importance of clothing and the status associated with it in the society of the eighteenth century.
The clothing of this era and thus of this genre of painting was dominated through the activities of the élite. A somewhat strange delight of dressing like common folk emerged amongst the middle class, encouraged by Marie Antoinette, whose influence on the Rococo style was even greater than Madame Pompadour. Renowned for her great interest in fashion and more notably her extreme extravagance, Marie Antoinette set this ideal of the common shepherdess or milkmaid through her enjoyment of dressing in costume. She would often don the clothing of a dairymaid, a pastime that went so far as to see her commission the building of her own personal dairy at her palace Le Petit Trianon. These Rococo versions of lower class dress feature heavily in rococo painting such as in Fragonard’s The Shepherdess (1750-52), where a middle class woman is seen wearing a highly exaggerated interpretation of the dress of a lower-class woman. However, despite complying with the details of shepherdess dress it still features the expensive fabrics that are seen in images of Madame Pompadour. This interest in the pleasures of pastoral life shows the extent of the ‘myth and fairytale, festivity and fantasy, theatre and music’ that was epitomised in the paintings of the elegant women of the Rococo.
The dresses made for and worn by the ladies of the Rococo are emblematic of the changes in society. The newly found ease of life for the middle class is seen in these images through the mythical landscapes, statues that appear to come to life and through the elaborate dress of the figures that combines a sense of the élite with that of the costume of common man. Wolfgang Menzel describes the Rococo in 1859 as a time that represented ‘empty and meaningless ornamentation’, a feeling that was certainly shared by the lower classes of Paris and one that was expressed in the French Revolution in 1789. The revolution sought to punish those of a higher class, meaning that figures expressed in the paintings of Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau would be guillotined within the same century. The ideals of the Rococo refused to respond to the growing tensions in Paris. The extravagance of these ladies of the Rococo remained steadfast as a style and the Rococo itself still reigned over architecture and decoration. It was only the strength of the unwavering revolution that finally brought it to its knees and to its grave.
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