Although we saw a rise in the middle class during the Baroque era, in the beginning of the 18th century monarchies ruled Europe. Their influence shaped the architecture and the art of the Rococo period. Architecture became light and feminine, with curved lines. The art of the period highlighted the frivolous lifestyle of the aristocrats. Many aristocrats pursued leisure as a lifestyle and created a culture of luxury.
This was evident in French art of that time. Francois Boucher, a prolific artist of the time, honed his art in Italy before returning to Paris in 1731. Upon his return, his art had tones of mythological influences. The setting of Girl Reclining was a favorite of his. Girl Reclining (Louise O’Murphy) is one of three that I found with different models. The showing of skin was tantalizing, heightening the sense of romantic intrigue. In this piece, one can practically feel the fluffiness of the pillow, the caress of the silk and velvet against the skin.
As the middle classes started to rise in numbers, there began a shift in the middle class. They became more and more aware that the taxes that they paid supported the expensive aristocracy, whom did nothing to contribute to society except to lead a frolicsome life. The middle class soon started to question the rule of monarchy and the dogma of the Catholic Church. They felt that their voice and opinion was equally as important. Individualism started to rear its head. Anything that smelled of aristocracy started to be ridiculed.
John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera as a satire to the lifestyle of royal courts. By creating a musical, he ridiculed Italian opera, which was very popular with the royal court. With popular tunes of the times, lyrics were changed to convey his message within the piece. He dramatized the common man without judging their moral lapses. The show was an instant hit, the equivalent of a rock opera today.
Across the Atlantic, the colonist of America started to notice the shift, now known as the Enlightenment, toward individualism and the common man. Art shifted from one of frolicking play and romantic intrigue, to pieces that conveyed moral virtues, patriotism, and Roman ideals.
Who better to convey these newfound principles than the “Father” of the United States of America? Gilbert Stuart, the most prestigious portraitist of his day, painted many portraits of George Washington. The Lansdowne portrait is one of the most iconic of all.
Stuart surrounds Washington with items that convey a Roman setting – red velvet draped on the golden table, the Grecian columns outside the window. While the setting shows wealth, it is not luxurious as in the Rocco period. It is more subdued. Washington’s outstretched hand welcomes one to want to be in his presence.
Stein, Perrin . “François Boucher (1703–1770).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bouc/hd_bouc.htm (October 2003) Accessed February 25, 2016.
Harris, Beth and Zucker, Steven. “A Beginners Guide to Rococo Art.” In Monarchy Enlightenment. Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/rococo/a/a-beginners-guide-to-rococo-art. Accessed February 22, 2016.
Zucker, E.. Cedars, S.R. ed. “The Beggar’s Opera Study Guide”. GradeSaver, 21 July 2013 http://www.gradesaver.com/the-beggars-opera Accessed February 25, 2016.
Unknown. “George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart.” http://teacher.depaul.edu/Documents/SmithsonianNationalPortraitGalleryWebpageonLansdownePortrait.pdf. Accessed February 22, 2016