Two significant styles dominated Western art in the eighteenth century – Rococo and Neoclassicism. Both styles were heavily influenced by earlier developments in art history. The Rococo style was inspired by Baroque precedents, while the Neoclassical movement was indebted to Ancient Greece and Rome.

Rococo was mostly associated with France and the final heyday of the French aristocracy before the revolution. This frivolous style – sometimes described as “Baroque gone mad” – was particularly in tune with the years of extravagance and excess during the reigns of Louis XV (1715–74) and Louis XVI (1774–92).

There was a sudden lightening of the tone in French society at the start of the eighteenth century. The War of the Spanish Succession ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, bringing to an end the almost continuous warfare during the seventy-two-year reign of Louis XIV from 1643 to 1715.

The death of the Sun King in 1715 offered liberation from the stifling formality of his court at Versailles. The aristocracy moved back to Paris, where Rococo reflected the new taste for a lighter and more delicate decoration suitable for the more comfortable and intimate interiors of town houses.

The social centre of Europe was Paris and the Rococo style is synonymous with three French artists – Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The playful eroticism, soft tones and elegant forms of their paintings provided the perfect accompaniment to the interiors for which they were intended.

Rococo interiors were decorated with playful curves and naturalistic motifs derived from shells and plants. The word is a combination of the French rocaille (stone or pebble) and coquilles (shell), due to the Rococo love of shell-like curves and the use of small stones to decorate the interiors of grottoes.

This feminine approach reflected the tastes and social initiatives of women, who held some of the highest positions of power in Europe in the eighteenth century. These included Madame de Pompadour in France, Queen Anne in Great Britain, Maria Theresa in Austria, Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great in Russia.

Although the style spread to Venice and Britain, Rococo was not widely popular in Russia, where its intimate nature was not particularly well suited for a young and rapidly expanding empire. In Russia, Rococo formed a bridge between Baroque and early Neoclassicism, which successfully adapted many Rococo elements.

The best examples of the Rococo style in Russia are the Chinese Palace and the Rollercoaster Pavilion at Oranienbaum. Designed by Antonio Rinaldi in the 1760s, they reflected the growing interest in the personality, feelings and intellect – from where it was only a short step to the rational works of Neoclassicism.

Rococo was the style of refined luxury and the uniqueness and singularity of an object took precedence over its functional value. The interiors of the Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum were intended for intimate meetings of a few close friends, rather than grand receptions or large and noisy crowds of courtiers.

Antonio Rinaldi continued to employ Rococo stylistics when designing the interiors of the Gatchina Palace and the Marble Palace, which were built in the Neoclassical style for Count Grigory Orlov, the lover of Catherine the Great. The same applies to such other prominent representatives of early Neoclassicism as Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe and Georg Friedrich von Veldten.

Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe designed the parquet floors of the Eastern and Western Chinese Studies of the Grand Palace at Peterhof in the Chinoiserie style, which was one of the versions of Rococo. Georg Friedrich von Veldten employed such typical Rococo elements as representational motifs and floral ornamentation in the house of another of Catherine’s favourites, Alexander Lanskoi (now in the Agate Rooms in Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk Palace).

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