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Art Nouveau, the New French Rococo

Brown Art Review’s Parsa considers the differences between two fascinatingly similar movements and the legacies that they’ve left on the art world.

Art Nouveau, the New French Rococo
Parsa Zaheri

Parsa Zaheri

April 26, 2024
5 Minutes

What comes to mind when you think of Art Nouveau? Perhaps you think of asymmetrical lines, bright colors, and floral patterns. And, what comes to mind when you think of the French Rococo? Most people would say asymmetrical designs, pastel blues and pinks, and natural motifs of flowers and plants. Now, hold on a second. Don’t these characteristics seem to share a strangely significant amount in common? Although the French Rococo and Art Nouveau are over a century apart in history, there is a fascinating amount in common between these two art movements. So, it’s time to dawn your finest robe à la française and take a stroll through the French formal garden to discover how and why these art styles are so alike. 

Firstly, let’s unpack the history and context of both the French Rococo and Art Nouveau. The French Rococo was an art movement from about 1700-1770 that emerged out of the Baroque Era, which is why some art historians refer to the Rococo as the “Late Baroque.” Rococo comes from the French word “rocaille,” which essentially means “shell-work,” referring to the ornate fountains and grottos that were often decorated in stucco and resembled shells. The Rococo shares a fair deal in common with the Baroque. For example, both art movements feature significant ornamentation, asymmetrical diagonals, and immersive compositions with the frequent use of art techniques, such as foreshortening and trompe l'oeil. The Rococo retained all of these Baroque features but jettisoned the seriousness and spirituality of the Baroque in favor of more whimsical, frivolous, and often salacious scenes. 

Art Nouveau began in France, hence the French name but transformed into an international style as well. In fact, Art Nouveau was known as the “Vienna Secession” in Austria and “Modernisme" in Spain. And, wouldn’t you know, something similar occurs with the Rococo. The Rococo began in Paris in the early 1700s and soon spread to other European countries, including Italy, Germany, and England. In fact, two of the most recognizable Rococo artists, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Thomas Gainsborough, actually hail from Venice and Suffolk respectively. Art Nouveau emerged in the late 1800s as a response to the Second Industrial Revolution’s increase in mechanization and dreary factories and manufacturing plants. Art Nouveau was especially shaped by the English poet and artist, William Morris, who greatly inspired the movement’s artistic idealism and craftsmanship. Morris’s influence on Art Nouveau can especially be seen in this quote from his book, Beauty of Life, saying, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This sentiment captures Art Nouveau’s desire to ensure that all works of craftsmanship, not just traditional works of art, were both beautiful and functional, including silverware, glassware, and furniture. 

William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1858. (Image: The Tate Gallery)

Now, we can get to comparing the styles. To allow for a detailed comparison, we’ll focus on comparing just two works of a similar subject matter: Nicolas-René Jollain’s Hyacinth Changed Into a Flower with Alphonse Mucha’s Princess Hyacinth. Both works portray the Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus (Hyacinth). Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan prince and lover of Apollo. However, Apollo had competition for the love of the boy, as Hyacinthus was also loved by Zephyrus, the God of the West Wind and Thamyris, a Thracian singer. The rest of the Greek myth essentially plays out like an ancient version of The Bachelor. In the end, Apollo wins the love of Hyacinthus. However, the story does not end there. In Ovid’s interpretation of the myth, Apollo and Hyacinthus eventually have a “friendly contest with the discus” (Ovid, 162). Apollo throws the discus; Hyacinthus eagerly rushes to catch the disk, but the discus strikes the ground, bounces back upwards, and strikes Hyacinthus with a fatal blow to the head. Apollo sees what has become of his lover and in a truly poignant scene, Apollo wishes death upon himself to be with his lover. However, Apollo cannot die due to his immortal nature, so Apollo decides to instead turn Hyacinthus into a flower, which becomes the Hyacinth flower.

   Nicolas-René Jollain, Hyacinth Turned Into a Flower, 1769. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Jollain’s oil on canvas work displays a slightly more somber subject matter than most Rococo works. That being said, scenes from ancient mythology were abundant in the French Rococo, which we can clearly see in the works of François Boucher, for example. Jollain’s painting depicts the moment when Hyacinthus has died and is beginning to turn into a flower or multiple flowers in this case. The painting is clearly a product of the French Rococo, which we can see from the pastel red of Apollo’s blushing cheeks and the bucolic landscape behind the pair. Jollain also seems to make a candid attempt at conveying Apollo’s sorrowful emotion, but the way that Apollo places his hand on his forehead makes it seem like he’s about to say something along the lines of “Darn, I did it again!” (Hyacinthus is not the only case of Apollo’s lover turning into a plant. Daphne and Cyparissus, for example, turn into a laurel tree and cypress tree respectively.)

Princess Hyacinth, 1911 - Alphonse Mucha - WikiArt.org
Alphonse Mucha, Princess Hyacinth, 1911. (Image: Mucha Foundation)

Mucha’s poster “Princess Hyacinth” ostensibly depicts the same Hyacinth as Jollain’s work, except Mucha chooses to depict Hyacinth as a Spartan princess instead of a Spartan prince. Mucha’s work is interesting because, despite depicting the same subject as Jollain’s work, Mucha departs from the French Rococo style in a few notable ways that show us the differences between Art Nouveau and the French Rococo. Mucha’s decision to depict a traditionally male figure as female shows Art Nouveau’s interest in the feminine and the female form. This can be seen in the artworks of Gustav Klimt, such as The Kiss, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, or Judith and the Head of Holofernes. This can also be seen in the posters of Jules Chéret and Mucha, who feature female figures in the vast majority of their posters. The Rococo also featured female subjects often, which we can see in Boucher’s Venuses or Odalisques, but did not shy away from male subjects like Art Nouveau. Another key difference is that Art Nouveau departs from telling a narrative through the work. For instance, in Jollain’s painting, we can see that Hyacinthus has died because of his cadaverous complexion and his extreme pallor. However, Mucha’s poster just looks like a woman sitting on a chair. Some of the decorative ornaments allude to the Greek myth. For example, the hearts reference the love story, and the flowers allude to the Hyacinth flower. However, Mucha’s poster is much more detached from the Greek myth than Jollain’s, and Mucha is more interested in depicting a beautiful woman than depicting a story or narrative. Finally, the medium of the two works is most certainly different. Jollain’s is a traditional painting, whereas Mucha’s is a lithograph, which was an early method of printmaking. The difference in medium leads nicely into the question of why the French Rococo and Art Nueavea look similar but different as well. 

The main reason that Art Nouveau and the French Rococo look so similar is because the philosophy and desires of the two movements aligned quite well. The purpose of French Rococo artworks was mainly to impress and entertain guests at French salons. The Enlightenment was sweeping through Europe in the 1700s, and art gave salon guests some lighthearted topics to discuss. People do not often realize the intersections between the Rococo and the Enlightenment, when, in fact, Voltaire’s portraits were all Rococo artworks; many Rococo painters also made portraits of Benjamin Franklin while he was US Ambassador to France. Thus, one of the purposes of the French Rococo was to stir up conversation. The other purpose of Rococo artwork was to paint a positive depiction of the French aristocracy. We need to remember that private patrons were the main figures sponsoring Rococo art, and this is the reason that the French Rococo was allowed to be so frivolous and lascivious—the public did not have to see it! For example, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing was commissioned by Baron Baillet de Saint-Julien because the Baron wanted a painting of himself looking up his mistress’s skirt, which is what we get in The Swing. The 1st and 2nd estates of France, the clergy and the nobility, were really the ones with the wealth to fund art at the time, so French Rococo art was meant to flatter the aristocracy. We can also see this in Jean-Marc Nattier’s portraits. Nattier was famous for painting court ladies as allegorical goddesses, as Rococo women enjoyed seeing themselves as such.

File:Jean Marc Nattier - Adélaïde of France as Diana - Versailles.jpg
Jean-Marc Nattier, Marie Adelaide of France as Diana, 1685-1766. (Image: Web Gallery of Art)

Now that we’ve seen the historical circumstances that led to the French Rococo, we can take a closer look at Art Nouveau. Interestingly, Art Nouveau was actually aimed at a middle-class audience. This comes as a surprise to most people because of its lavish look, when, in fact, the late 1800s saw a rising middle-class with more disposable income and the latest fashion trends on their minds. Art Nouveau always had the purpose of being both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing, which led the style to appear in everyday locations. Overall, the commercial success of the middle class in the late 1800s led to the style we see in Art Nouveau and why we see these beautiful designs of this movement at French train stations and on posters of cabaret or music halls. The most intriguing similarity between the French Rococo and Art Nouveau is that both were perceived as feminine. For instance, the French Rococo is sometimes seen as a "feminized" version of the Baroque style, and there is no doubt that Art Nouveau had a strong interest in the feminine form.

Regardless of whether you see Art Nouveau as the New Rococo, one cannot deny that the two art movements have a significant amount in common. This just goes to show that it is not necessarily the background of the patron that drives the style of a work but their ambitions and goals. This would explain why the middle-class art patrons of Art Nouveau sought a similar style as the aristocratic French Rococo. 

(Cover Image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771-1773., The Frick Collection)

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