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» » Rocaille, the History of an Ornament

Rocaille, the History of an Ornament

March 26, 2021 | Galerie Atena

19th Century Gilt Bronze Inkwell in Rocaille Style

Gilt Bronze Inkwell in Rocaille Style, Circa 1880


Rocaille ornament, often referred to in opposition to the antique, appeared in the Baroque Europe and developed to the point of transforming the very structure of furniture and objects. The items in the collection of Galerie Atena, designed between 1720 and 1890, highlight the extraordinary vigor of this ornamental grammar and its power of renewal for more than a century. The spontaneity of an inspiration free of symmetry and formal rules is visible in carved furniture, while the extreme sophistication of the compositions is revealed in small pedestal tables, clocks, lighting and collectibles.


Early 18th Century Venetian Giltwood Wall Mirrors

18th Century Venetian Rococo Giltwood Mirrors

Porcelain Gueridon Table in Rocaille Style

Sevres Porcelain Gueridon in Rocaille Style

Louis XV-Style Clock

Louis XV-Style Clock: Allegory of Time by Gilles Laine in Paris


What Does the Word "Rocaille" Mean?


Rocaille, in Western architecture and decorative arts, is an ornamentation developed in the 18th century and characterized by sinous foliate forms inspired by nature (shells, rocks, foliage, scroll motifs...).


Rocaille is the title given to a print made in 1737 by the French architect and engraver Claude Augustin Duflos le Jeune (1703-1770), after François Boucher. This print is the only one of a series of four prints, that does not include any human representation. Instead, it features a sophisticated assemblage of shells and plants, with a garden in the background. The composition is asymmetrical, exuberant and picturesque. Each element is inspired by nature but transformed by the artist's imagination.


Baroque-Style Giltwood Mirror
Large Baroque-Style Giltwood Mirror With Rocaille Decoration (Detail).

Rocaille took its name from the mixture of rock and seashell that was used to create a picturesque effect in grottos. But the interest for shells in France in the 18th century was also due to the development of natural history collections and cabinets of curiosities, filled with rare and singular objects: fosils, lightning stones, stuffed animals, shells, herbariums, among many others... Artists were inspired by the most picturesque shells and those with the most irregular forms, such as the Murex - used to extract purple, or the Chicoreus.



What is the Rocaille Style ?


Rocaille style was a French style of opulent decoration, composed of an abundance of curves, counter-curves, undulations and elements modeled on nature, that appeared in furniture and interior decoration during the early reign of Louis XV of France (1723-1750). The exuberant compositions featured shells, geological elements, flowing acanthus, falling foliage and floral motifs crafted of wood, bronze and Meissen porcelain. It began in about 1720, reached its peak in the 1730s, and came to an end about 1770, when it was replaced by Neoclassicism.


Italian Baroque-Style Giltwood Vitrine

Italian Baroque-Style Giltwood Vitrine, Circa 1850

Giltwood Fire Screen in Louis XV-Style, Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré Collection

Louis XV-Style Fire Screen With Shell (Detail)

Giltwood Fire Screen in Louis XV-Style, Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré Collection

Louis XV-Style Giltwood Fire Screen, Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré Collection


Rococo movement, overloaded with ornaments, spread to Central and Western Europe. In France, the artists who practiced it - the ornamentalists Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1695-1750) and Jean Bérain (1640-1711), the sculptors and chiselers Jacques Caffieri (1673-1755) and Jean-Claude Duplessis (c. 1690-1774) created original models, full of fantasy and picturesque, going against the haviness and formality of Louis XIV style.


Rocaille style spread to England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bavaria and Austria by the mid-18th century. In England, it influenced the Chippendale style (1754-1770). In Germany, it became popular thanks to François de Cuvilliés (1695-1768), a French-trained architect and ornament designer, who produced in Munich masterpieces of the Bavarian rococo. In Italy, the Serenissima adopted Rococo style in a theatrical way, visible in the decoration of this pair of giltwood Venetian mirrors. In Spain, Austria and Bavaria, the late Baroque exacerbated asymmetry and sinuous curves.


19th Century English Tortoise Ink Stand
English Inkwell With Rocaille Decoration Marked "Patent London", Circa 1870


In France, by contrast with other European countries such as England, Rocaille style was established until the revival of Neoclassicism and Greek style. Rocaille aesthetic was then replaced by the new phylosophy of a "regeneration of the arts" inspired by Rome, Herculaneum and Athens.


After the neoclassical episode, rocaille style was revived by the historicist movement, which found its inspiration in the past eras. The styles of the Ancien Régime - Louis XV style in particular, were widely imitated during the Second Empire. From the middle of the 19th century, craftsmen and cabinetmakers designed pieces of furniture and objets d'art in Louis XV style, such as this giltwood fire screen, intricately carved with rocaille and foliate decoration, or this pair of rocaille sconces, richly decorated with flowing and asymmetrical foliage.


Pair of Rocaille Sconces in Gilt Bronze

Pair of Rocaille Ormolu Sconces, Napoleon III Period

Louis XV-Style Corner Consoles, Set of 2

Louis XV-Style Corner Console (Set of 2), Circa 1850

Napoleon III Gilt Bronze Clock in Rocaille Style

19th Century Ormolu Clock in Rocaille Style With Cupid and Shells


Rocaille in Furniture and Objets d'art Decoration


Fashionable from the 1720s, rocaille spread to all fields, but it found its most striking expansion in goldsmithing, tableware, ceramics and interior decoration. Baroque productions of Meissen manufactory are a perfect example for ceramics. For silverware, rocaille ornaments adorn shell-shaped boxes, candleholders and sconces, andirons, chandeliers, snuffboxes... These small objects, as well as drawings and prints, contributed to the success of the style.


Pair of Gilt Bronze Candlesticks in Louis XV Style

Rocaille-Style Candlesticks With Butterflies, Insects, and Abundant Scrollwork


Ovoid Lantern in Louis XV Style

Ovoid Lantern in Rocaille Style, Napoleon III Period

In furniture, rocaille decoration must create astonishment. Asymmetrical, sinuous, curved, it is composed of shells and other jagged natural forms, winged cartouches, shell-shaped palmettes, openwork shells, mascarons and scrolling feet. Commodes, consoles tables and desks are decorated with exuberant cartouches, falling foliage, scrolling foliate and gadrooned leaves. This decor was widely imitated in the 19th century, in order to create Louis XVI or Louis XV-style interiors.


Pair of Louis XV-Style Console Tables With Marble Top

Louis-XV Style Consoles With Naturalistic Seashells and Scrolling Acanthus, Circa 1860


Rosewood and Marquetry Desk in Louis XV Style

Marquetry Desk in Louis XV Style With Flowing Foliages, Satyrs and Ram Heads