Cythera Regained? The Rococo Revival in European Literature and the Arts, 1830-1910

Cythera Regained? The Rococo Revival in European Literature and the Arts, 1830-1910

Cythera Regained? The Rococo Revival in European Literature and the Arts, 1830-1910

Cythera Regained? The Rococo Revival in European Literature and the Arts, 1830-1910


This is the first comprehensive study of the Rococo Revival in nineteenth-century European literature and the arts. Much has been written and published about the Gothic and Classical, Renaissance and baroque revival styles, but little more than specialist articles or monographs have dealt with the revival of eighteenth-century Rococo. One reason for its relative critical neglect may be the fact that it is not concentrated in a single country or a single art, in a single period or a single creative artist, but rather dispersed across different arts and cultures, fluctuating in intensity and importance at different times between 1830 and 1910.

The book examines developments in France and Germany, Austria and England, as well as contributions from America and Russia. Its two halves comprise, firstly, a thematic account of literary examples of the Rococo Revival organized into perpetual modes: theatrical, oriental, pastoral, and musical. The second half is chronological, tracing shifts in cultural ambience between 1830 and 1910 in manageable stages of twenty years each, dealing with different types of phenomena: critical perspectives, the decorative arts, painting, music, and literature.

Initiating each of the perceptual modes, the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) projects an underlying gravity, a sense of transience and duality, and it is these features that mark him off from later Rococo artists, and affect the nineteenth-century’s response to Rococo. As one of several historicist styles in an eclectic century, the Rococo Revival alternates between the poles of Aestheticism and Decadence. While its most characteristic mode is that of pastoral, the style manifests itself less in any large-scale architectural achievements, than in the decorative and so-called “minor” arts. Its critical image correspondingly shifts, as it is refracted in turn by Romanticism and Realism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. The rise of Mozart, too, as aesthetic and musical icon, both influences the Rococo Revival, and is in turn quickened by it.

Apart from more familiar instances such as Paul Verlaine’s poetic cycle, Fêtes Galantes(1869), and the art-historical studies in French XVIII Century Painters (1873-74) by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, the sense of any overarching pattern and aesthetic framework to view individual works of the Rococo Revival has hitherto been lacking. In the poetry, prose, and drama of Gautier and Banville, Mörike and Pater, Bierbaum and Hofmannsthal; in silverware and porcelain, furniture and ironwork; in the visual art of Menzel and Monticelli, Beardsley and Somov; in interior decoration at Belvoir Castle and Wrest park, Potsdam and Karlsbad, the Liechtenstein Palais and Linderhof; in the music of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, the most successful works of the Rococo Revival emerge from an inventive and creative synthesis between past and present. The period between 1890 and 1910, indeed, marks the most international and interartistic florescence of the Rococo Revival, signaling a widespread and variegated revival of interest, rather than any accidental coincidence of merely local, isolated, and episodic phenomena.

All readers drawn to the literature, arts, and culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and especially to period styles and interartistic relations, will be engaged by this study, which also includes some sixty-nine illustrations together with an index and an extensive bibliography.


Indiquez de quel golfe on se rend à Cythère …
Beau pays! Jusque-là quel sentier faut-il prendre?
Sous quels cieux fleurit-il, cet empire du Tendre?

     —Charles Coran, “Watteau à propos de
L’Embarquement pour l’Ile de Cythère” [1846]

[Show us from which bay we may journey to Cythera …
Land of beauty! Which path must we follow there?
Beneath what skies does this realm of tenderness flourish?]

Wer öffnet mir die verriegelten Pforten
zu dieser Welt der blassen Nüancen,
der Madrigale und Medisancen?

     —Richard Schaukal, “Rokoko” [1896]

[Who will unlock for me the barred gates
to this world of delicate tints,
of madrigals and malicious tongues?]

PERHAPS THE MOST CAPTIVATING SINGLE WORK in Spirit of an Age, an exhibition of nineteenthcentury paintings from Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, shown in early 2001 in London and Washington, was The Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci (1850–52) by Adolph Menzel (1815–1905). In the shimmering atmosphere of the Prussian king’s Rococo palace, heightened by a chandelier’s reflections in a large wall mirror, the music-loving monarch plays his flute, surrounded by courtiers and accompanied by the composers C. P. E. Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz. Menzel’s 1850s celebration of a scene from the 1750s emphasizes the decorative, graceful, and interartistic features of the Rococo style. Similar qualities emerge forty years later in quite a different painting.

Amid the treasures of the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg hangs a small, relatively neglected work, The Painter before the Easel (1891), by the French Realist Pascal Adolf Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929). Seated on her high stool at the Louvre, a young woman artist in late nineteenth-century costume copies details onto a fan from the large canvas at her side. That canvas is Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684– 1721) Rococo masterpiece, L’Embarquement pour l’Ile de Cythère (1717), his name visibly confirmed on the lower edge of its frame. Here, the distance between scenic trigger and artistic execution has widened to nearly two centuries, but the accent is no less typically Rococo, if intra-artistic, in its inclusion of an artwork within another artwork, at once incorporating the act of painting.

In literary terms, the poems from which the epigraphs above are drawn appear at similar stages in the nineteenth century to the paintings by Menzel and Dagnan-Bouveret. Both the French and German poets raise questions about a possible return to the world of Rococo, represented by the idealistic realm of Cythera, and by a sophisticated interior world of objets d’art. Coran, in the poem from his collection Rimes galantes, addresses Watteau in person to elicit the secrets of his art, now so prized by bankers for its aura of luxury, but whose subtleties can be appreciated only by a . . .

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