The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw an increase in scientific and philosophic advances. Both the Baroque and Rococo styles reflect these changing times, although the Rococo style is much less religiously oriented than Baroque. These styles were also characterized with more color and more emotion than previous styles, especially in Baroque, where violent scenes are not uncommon. There are, however, differences in the two styles.
The Baroque style reflects the times. As advances swept the world, people began to be less and less devoted to God. Subjects became less and less religious in nature. For instance, Vermeer’s The Geographer shows a scientist. Other subjects included soldiers, self portraits (as Rembrandt painted) and scenes of classical gods and goddesses. There were religious paintings, however. Peter Paul Rubens painted The Raising of the Cross at this time. Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstacy of St. Teresa depicted a religious theme. This was the result of the Inquisition and the Catholic church’s attempt to retain it’s vast influence in the face of burgeoning scientific advances that directly contradicted some of the church’s teachings.
In Rococo art, however, there are almost no religious subjects. While some churches were decorated and built in the Rococo style, there is almost no evidence of religion in painting. This, too, is a reflection of the times. Rococo was in vogue during the eighteenth century, known as The Age of Enlightenment. Divine right of kings was generally disestablished, and secularism and rationalism prevailed. Rococo art was on a whole more frivolous and optimistic than Baroque art. Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera portrays of the day aristocracy in a scene from classical mythology. This piece is imbued with more grace than, say, Ruisdael’s Extensive Landscape With Ruins. The landscape in Pilgrimage is also less realistic. It is more fanciful, as opposed to the stark realistic quality of Extensive Landscape. The frivolity of the times is evident in Frogonard’s The Swing. There is no frolicking in Baroque art. The closest thing to it is Leyster’s The Last Drop, and that’s not really a frolic.
Rococo style also reflects the satirical bent of the times. Hogarth’s series of paintings, Marriage a la Mode captures this humor. It is wholly unlike the Baroquian view of life. Rococo art finds humor in life, and makes fun of it. This is stark contrast with the Baroque concept of vanitas. In Baroque art life is fleeting, empty and futile. The artists of the Rococo period painted life that was exuberant and enjoyable.
While the Baroque style focused mainly on Europe, Rococo enjoyed a sense of the exotic. Figures from the East began to be seen during the Baroque period, but this mainly served to introduce the East. The Mughal ruler Akbar imported European art , but Eastern art didn’t really catch on in Europe until the Rococo period. One of the most dominant Eastern imports during the Rococo period was the pagoda. Sir William Chambers even built one in Kew Gardens.
While many scholars believe that Rococo is merely a refinement of Baroque, it seems that there are two distinct styles. While there are similarities, the themes and the general attitude of Rococo would suggest that it is, in fact, independent of Baroque.
Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Modern Art (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 346.