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(This is an  abridged fragment of Maria Rzepinska Siedem wiekow malarstwa europejskiego. The translation is mine).



Jean-Honore Fragonard The Swing 1767

In the eighteenth century, freethought and fashion for atheism in society led to the secularisation of painting. This does not mean that  religious art disappeared altogether. Churches and monasteries were still built and there was still a need for religious paintings and decorative art. But what is the most original and most creative in painting of the eighteenth century is of worldly nature. The spirit of sacred solemnity vanishes from religious paintings. Artists lose interest in ancient myths which had been the subject of art for centuries.


Jean Marc Nattier The Lovers 1744

Mythology became merely an aesthetic pretext. In comparison with the seventeenth century, the Rococo style of painting is less serious. It is also less inventive in terms of technique. Rococo is the last historical style, compact and uniform, covering all artistic disciplines, costume, life-style, and the arrangement of urban space. It did not last long and new trends emerged around 1760, stemming from a different aesthetic attitude, as well as from new social and moral tendencies. Some historians consider Rococo to be the last phase of Baroque but the former is different from the latter in many aspects, including asymmetry and caprice as aesthetic principles and a radical  change in the treatment of colour. Historians argue whether Rococo emerged in in France or Italy, with Borromini often being considered as the precursor of this new style. However, there is no doubt that interior decoration and Rococo painting are an expression of French culture, strictly speaking the culture of French aristocratic salons. Rococo is closely associated with the leisure class – a social class with a sophisticated and refined taste.  There is neither populism nor naivety in Rococo, whereas they often can be found in Baroque.



Antoine Watteau Pilgrimage to Cythera , 1718–1721


Rococo is the style of a social class at the top of its power.  Women played a particularly important role in the society of the eighteenth century. Painting, furniture and interior design are all feminine.  Rococo is the style of grace rather than strength and dignified gravity. It is significant that this epoch gave us more female than male portraits.





Francois Boucher Diana Leaving the Bath 1742


The time of artistic hegemony of Italy had passed. France dictated how people dressed and what they thought in Europe.  It is France that gave the world Watteau, Boucher, Chardin and Fragonard. The French language became the common language among educated classes. France is the home of Rococo, and there the feminine character of this style was particularly strong. In painting, colours became brighter while darker shades  disappeared. Tenebrism was rejected as unbecoming and old-fashioned; graceful demeanour, dance, flirt, carnival – everything that served hedonism – came to the forefront. Portraits of members of the court and the great allegorical paintings with courtly themes were still painted, but they were considered anachronistic.





Jean-Honore Fragonard The Stolen Kiss, late 1780s


The quarrel of Poussinists and Rubenists ended with the victory of the latter. French painters opted for continuing the tradition of the sensual, lush and colourful Flemish painting, re-interpreting it in an original way. What is most interesting in the painting of this time is the emphasis on the life of the rich and elegant groups of the French society who were shown as being more interested in charms and pleasures of existence than in wealth and social position. Changes in architecture influenced to a certain extent the style of painting which became more private, graceful, intimate, and devoid of rigid ceremonialism and pomposity. Small cozy interiors, charming salons and boudoirs dictated a particular range of themes, figures, and formats. In addition to oil painting, pastel drawing was also very popular. Artists used a range of pastels that were bright and chalky, with artwork often resembling oil painting. Baroque’s limited palette of chromatic pigments and a wide range of colours was replaced in Rococo by light, bright and cool colours, with a lot of white, pearly and pigeon shades, and a wide range of tones of blue, from azure to pervenche.




Jean François de Troy Declaration of Love 1731


New colours were used, including violet, peach and willow-green – sometimes bleachy and greyish, sometimes clean and cheerful, but almost always bright. A new form of painting emerged, namely paintings painted on canvas and fixed on the wall, shaped to fit the architectural space, often capricious and irregular, placed as overdoors or between the windows or mirrors.




Nicolas Lancret La Camargo Dancing, c. 1730


Painters often used the oval form for portraiture, which was not used before. The artists, even of the prominence of Boucher, were not averse to painting fans, crating designs for screens, furniture or upholstery. In the sixteenth century, painters show little interest in architecture or sculpture, preferring decorative and applied arts. The fashion for the Chinese art and culture, which was triggered by the interest in porcelain and lacquerware, found its fullest expression in applied art although it could also be found in some easel paintings. In Boucher’s paintings, for example, we can find Chinese motives such as local characters, clothes and pagodas, although they are often far from being realistic.


Francois Boucher Chinese Garden (detail) 1742

Theatre was particularly popular. All social groups enjoyed all kinds of performances including comic opera, ballet, farce, pantomime and vaudeville. In Paris, alongside the French comedy, the Italian comedy was also highly popular. The latter, banished during the reign of Louis XIV, reappeared in France  in 1716, during the period of Regence. The Italian commedia dell’arte served as a source of inspiration for some of the most interesting French paintings of the time. The return of the Italian actors to Paris rekindled the interest in the mystery and the beauty of masks and costumes, and the characters of the Harlequin, Mezzetino, Il Dottore and Colombina.  Important motifs were the traditional “four masks of Italian comedy” (described by Goldoni in his memoirs), as well as from the Venetian carnival.



Nicolas Lancret Actors of the Comedie-Italienne

The themes from the theatre and ballet often appear in the paintings of Gillot, Watteau and Lancret. These painters not only paint objects from theatrical performances in their physical form but they also treat masks, lipstick, wigs and various forms of disguise to convey meaningful subtexts which are not always cheerful. These objects changed the formula for painting the human figure which became dissociated from the ancient model.




Antoine Watteau Pierrot, 1718–1719



The landscape in Rococo paintings is theatrical, imaginary and tapestry-like rather than realistic. Nature in Rococo is pastoral and idyllic, and never harsh, menacing or mysterious. The emphasis is on what is carefree, erotic and playful in Nature, poetry and theatre. People were preoccupied with the quest for happiness. Hedonism and eroticism were among the dominant motifs of the eighteenth-century culture. The new sensitivity of artists was displayed in its clearest form in the paintings of Watteau who is a Rococo painter par excellence.




Antoine Watteau The Shepherds c.1717



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Costume in art

In modern societies, only the poorest wear clothes solely to get protection from elements. All other social groups treat clothes as a medium to send a message to others about one’s identity, social status and aspirations. People are free to wear what they want and they often use that power to engage, seduce or provoke. Governments regulate only what its agents wear although strict penalties apply to breaches of regulations on uniforms worn by the police and the army.

In Europe, the erotic element of dress can hardly be overestimated and clothes have always been worn as much to cover the body as to reveal it. Eroticism of costume is even present in religious art which provides evidence of Christianitas being close to humanitas. It is quite surprising to see so much nudity in pre-Reformation religious painting. What is being celebrated here, the divine or the human?



Joos van Cleve The Holy Family, about 1525 


In traditional societies, strict rules apply to what one can wear in public. In such societies, costume is believed to have magical qualities. Individuals do not have discretion as to what to wear as the rules related to dress were supposedly declared once and for all by God. You are what you wear and no dissent is tolerated.

Traditional Judaism and Islam are iconoclastic and they have prescriptive and proscriptive rules on dressing of particular severity. As there is no divine sanction for colour, embellishments and patterns from nature, people often wear clothes covering almost all their bodies, and only white and black colours are acceptable.




 Lucien Levy-Dhurmer Evening Promenade, 1930

In Europe, art bifurcated at Reformation and costume also reflects this phenomenon. Rococo, with its extravagant skirts and barely covered bosoms, is limited to Catholic countries. With the exception of the Calvinist Dutch Republic, Reformation – being iconoclastic – stifled artistic expression in visual arts. Pre-Raphaelites are no match for Impressionists.

Reformation introduced puritanism into people’s lives. Paradoxically, even today some paintings from several centuries ago would be considered too risqué even in our permissive times.




 Jean Honore Fragonard Young Woman Playing with a Dog, between 1765 and 1772


In the second part of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century, extravagance in costume reached absurd levels. In England, during the Restoration, women used the seductive power of costume to its full potential. James Robinson Planché writes in History of British costume that

Charles II’s beauties were the very reverse of their mothers in dress as in demeanour. The starched ruff, the steeple-crowned hat, the rigid stomacher, and the stately fardingale were banished with the gravity and morality of their wearers. A studied negligence, an elegant deshabille, is the prevailing character of the costume in which they are nearly all represented.

Puritanic sobriety and austerity gave way to ostentatious display and flamboyancy in shapes and colours but it all ended with the ascendance of the Prince of Orange, a Protestant, to the throne as William III in 1689.

In France, frivolous gaiety took many shapes, including elaborate pastoral simplicity of noble men and women pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses. The French Revolution destroyed this world. It all started with Rousseau who initiated a new trend in culture and politics by claiming that civilisation has corrupting power. His ideas became reality during the French Revolution. Gone were fetes champetres and fetes galantes, replaced by republican austerity and simplicity. Napoleon chose to copy the Romans in costume, furniture and architecture. The end of feudalism marked the end of the world as theatrum mundi and people behaving as if acting in a play, with appropriate costumes.



 Francois Boucher The Toilet



 Nicolas Lancret La Camargo dancing

Revolution in politics was also a revolution in costume. King Louis XVI was executed wearing the simplest possible garment. He was stripped of all the vestiges of power and died as citizen Capet.



The standard simplicity of masculine costume worn today dates from the French Revolution, writes R. Turner Wilcox in The Mode in Costume.

The nineteenth century was a period of conservatism in costume and mores, particularly in England while the beginning of the twentieth century was also the beginning of a period of costume becoming simpler, more practical and more functional until almost everyone wore denim trousers. Jeans are nowadays worn by men and women, rich and poor, and young and old.

James Laver writes in The Concise History of Costume that a fundamental change occurred in the 1960:

[young men] no longer care about formality and are no longer concerned to “dress like a gentleman”. In other words, the idea of gentility which kept men’s clothes almost static for the last 150 years is no longer accepted; and this represents a real revolution in manners.


Costume plays a special role in art because it gives the artist an opportunity to show his craft. For that reason, the history of art is also the history of costume and this phenomenon can be illustrated by the following paintings and other art objects:




Woman of Willendorf, between 28,000 and 25,000 BC


Sumerian Statuette, from the Temple of Abu, Tel Asmar, c. 2700 – 2600 BC

persian archers

Persian Archers, Susa, fifth- fourth BC


King Tut and his wife Ankhesenamun, c. 1332–1323 BC 


The snake goddess, from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 BC


So-called Athena Pacifique, c. 130-90 BC


Girl from Verona, Italy. Roman copy of a Greek original, 1 century


Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, fourth century AD

Mosaic of Theodora’s Procession with Retinue, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546 CE
Sclavinia, Germania, Gallia, and Roma, bringing offerings to Otto III; 990.

Limbourg brothers The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry c. 1412 and 1416




Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Raphael The Mass at Bolsena (detail), between 1512 and 1514 
François Clouet King Charles IX of France, 1566.
 Hans Holbein Henry VIII, 1509
Unknown Portrait of Elizabeth I , 1588
Robert Peake the Elder (attributed) Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England, c. 1600
Peter Paul Rubens The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, 1610 

Frans Hals , Cavalier soldier, 1624


Rembrandt Portrait of a Woman, 1632

 Anthony van Dyck Portrait of an Unknown lady, 1634-35
Anthony van Dyck Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard Stuart, 1637/8

Diego Velázquez Infanta Margarita Teresa in White Garb, 1656




Frans Hals Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse, 1664


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Young Lady in a Tricorn Hat, c. 1755/1760

 Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767


Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750

Francois Gérard Madame Recamier, 1802


Philipp Otto Runge, The Hülsenbeck Children, 1805-06


Carl Spitzweg, TheWidower, 1844






Dominique Ingres Mme Moitessier, 1856




James McNeill Whistler At the Piano, 1858–59





Mother and Children


Pierre Auguste Renoir Mother Strolling with her Children, 1875

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1883
Georges Seurat A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877
Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862 
Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1872-73
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874
Claude Monet La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876
Vincent van Gogh Portrait of père Tanguy, 1887
Mary Cassatt Margot in Blue, 1902
Boldini, Lady admiring Fan
Joan Miró Portrait of Enric Cristofol Ricart, 1917
Grosz Grey Day, 1921
Marc Chagall The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914
Tamara de Lempicka Portrait of the Duchess de la Salle, 1925
Erte Charleston Couple
Balthus Thérèse Dreaming, 1938
Adolf Wissel, Peasant Family from Kahlenberg, 1939
Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger ?
Felix Nussbaum Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, 1943
Diego Rivera Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943
Edward Hopper, Conference At Night,  1949

John Brack Men’s wear 1953

David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970–71

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