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The Rococo movement started in France and spread all throughout Europe, lasting almost all of XVIII century. This gracious and charming style was extremely popular until the 1770s, where it slowly lost space to a new movement called the Neo-Classicism. During this period, the aristocrats – an elite group exclusive to people born to it – were proclaiming their riches and buying art to higher their status was a way of doing it, even if the population was starving.
With a decorative characteristic, Rococo is elegant and full of detail. In 1753 the English artist William Hogarth said in Analysis on Beauty, that the waves of a line and the curves in an S from the Rococo are the base for beauty. Rococo is considered lighter and more intimate than the movement before it. The artists would use flowers, bows, shells and any other curvy decorative figures to adorn the paintings.
It is believed that the name of the movement was given as a joke by a student of Jacques Louis David around the 1790s when Rococo’s reputation was already descending. It would be a term that joined the French word racaille (from the extravagant ornaments reminding shells, found in some fountains) and Baroque. Today the term is well accepted and has lost its mocking quality.
This movement began as a rejection of the Baroque formality and grandiosity, even though they sometimes carried similar themes. Both had the same patrons, which may have come as some relief for the patrons, for the Rococo has much lighter subjects than the dark metaphors and story-lines of the Baroque. But, later on, the artists are criticized for lacking serious subjects in their art, mainly because of the highly decorative manner of this movement.
France, the leading country for Rococo, had three main artists: Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honore Fragonard. All of them touched on the subject of romantic love, many times unlawful. For example, Fragonard’s commissioned piece The Swing II portrays a forbidden and erotic love story. The mistress is being pushed on the swings by her husband while being watched by her lover who is in the bushes. She throws her delicate shoes in the air, symbolizing that she is flirting. Boucher also shows how artists at this time have an obsession over love in his painting A Shepherd and Shepherdess in Landscape.
In 1717, Watteau painted a delicate and romantic scene in The Embarkation for Cythera. This is one of his most prestigious paintings and a mark of the progress of the movement. It shows many couples flirting, having fun and listening to music in a beautiful landscape, portrayed theatrically – a characteristic some Rococo painters attribute to their paintings. Watteau avoids using any specific references, so the work keeps a universal and timeless sense.
Boucher caused a scandal in 1751 when he painted a nude portrait of 14-year-old Mademoiselle O’Murphy. She later becomes King Louis XV lover, gains his trust and was able to rule as if she were Queen. At this time, women had the option of being a mistress, and it was seen almost as a career, in which the goal is to seduce the most powerful man. The Rococo paintings reflected the naturalness of this as if there were no moral punishment or consciousness.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted frescos using a theatrical and an opera-like style, with exotic clothing. In Undine, he put curtains to reveal his frescos, like the curtains in a theater. In A Young Woman and a Macaw, Tiepolo paints a portrait of a Russian Empress called Elizabeth Petrovna. The image is extravagant and bold, showing itself as exotic and luxurious as the partially nude Empress holds a wild bird.
Germany, Grand Britan, and Austria mainly produce decorative art and architectural projects. Most sculptures created at this times were delicate porcelain pieces meant for decoration, but some artists would still work with marble, like Étienne-Maurice Falconet and his sculpture Cupid.
The Rococo art was romanticized and idealized. The paintings show beautifully dressed men and women, with layers of expensive fabric, perfectly comfortable and clean in the middle of the woods. The aristocracy would spend exuberant amounts of money on superficial things to keep their status, while the people of France would suffer and pay high amounts of taxes.
In 1789, the French revolution started and marked an end to the aristocracy, and with it the mercenary. The light eroticism of the Rococo art would soon lose its relevance and open up to a new art with more profound meaning.