Rococo

Hubert Robert

Hubert Robert was a French Rococo painter famous for his landscapes and “capricci,” or imagined architectural scenes, especially ruins. In fact, Diderot nicknamed him “Robert of the Ruins.” 

   View of Ripetta    (1766)   by Hubert Robert .  École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts  (Paris, France). 

View of Ripetta (1766) by Hubert Robert . École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Paris, France). 

So how do you tell if it’s a Robert? Well, you already got the gist of what makes a Lorrain a Lorrain. So now imagine being “inside” a Lorrain painting. Getting a close-up of the buildings that are always just out of reach in a Lorrain. Compare this painting above, View of Ripetta, with Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba.

Robert’s painting is almost a mirror image, looking back at the port, not at the ocean. Robert takes the sunlight on Lorrain’s ocean waves and shows you instead the interplay of light and stone instead, focusing on the buildings themselves. Robert was especially interested in shadows and how they interact with architecture, so his paintings typically take place in the late afternoon, when shadows will be the most prominent.

Unlike a Lorrain, there typically is no grand vista in a Robert. And while Robert’s paintings have a mythic quality much like Lorrain’s, they are also a bit more grounded in reality. For instance, in View of Ripetta, Robert is offering a view of a real street in Rome, the Via di Ripetta (Robert made his start in Rome before painting for the French Court). You can clearly see the Pantheon in the center of the painting. However, it is an imagined Pantheon. The real Pantheon, which sits catty-corner to the Via di Ripetta, is not situated on a harbor. It’s the focal point of the Piazza della Rotonda. Here is a view of it by Piranesi:

Of course, Robert could have been painting the now-defunct port of Ripetta in Rome and just threw the Pantheon on top of it. Now you’re getting the sense of a capriccio. It’s all imagined anyway!

Now let’s do one more Lorrain and Robert comparison. 

   Ideal View of Tivoli    (1644)   by Claude Lorrain. New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA).

Ideal View of Tivoli (1644) by Claude Lorrain. New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA).

Huge, idealized, Italianate landscape with small figures in the foreground, set at sunset? It’s a Lorrain! Note the ruined temple in the distance…

   Banquet in Temple Ruins    (1795)   by Hubert Robert. Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT). 

Banquet in Temple Ruins (1795) by Hubert Robert. Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT). 

Bam! You are now inside that temple – “inside” the Lorrain! This painting by Robert still hints at a greater landscape beyond, but the focus is on the building itself. It’s also very much a painting of its time, with a little “fête galante” inside the ruined temple. If we went “inside” this painting, we’d probably end up with a Fragonard!

You may, of course, run into Roberts and Lorrains that don’t play by these rules. But as a general rule, if you see a painting that is “about” the architecture, it’s a Robert. If you see a painting that is “about” the landscape, it’s a Lorrain.

Thomas Gainsborough

So how do you tell it’s a Gainsborough? Look for full-body portraits in the tradition of van Dyck. Like van Dyck, Gainsborough managed to take potboiler commissions of forgotten nobles to new artistic heights, with delicate Rococo colors and airy brush strokes. Also like van Dyck, Gainsborough employed many of the same or similar backdrops over and over again in his paintings (lots of decorative vases, balconies, rock formations, thick-trunked trees and velvet curtains that weirdly seem to pop out of the landscape). In fact, he often had the backgrounds done before he put the figures in – before he was even commissioned – which gives them a bit of a “floating” quality that one might see in a movie with low-budget CGI (I’m lookin’ at you, Gods of Egypt!).

   The Honorable Frances Duncombe  (c. 1777) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Frick Collection (New York, NY).

The Honorable Frances Duncombe (c. 1777) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Frick Collection (New York, NY).

With all due respect to Sir Thomas, imagine him for a moment as a glorified school photographer, and all that landscape behind the lady Duncombe as that weird felt background you sat in front of for your school picture. Basically, if you’re looking at a Rococo van Dyck, chances are, it’s a Gainsborough. Of course, it could be a painting by Gainsborough’s arch-nemesis, Joshua Reynolds, or even one by George Romney, but we’ll come to them another time.

Note how similar the two family portraits below are. One is by Gainsborough and one is by van Dyck.

Can you tell which? They are essentially the same composition, with families “floating” in front of a broad landscape, anchored only by a pillar and so much randomly billowing velvet! Or maybe it’s some sort of apparating satin, it’s difficult to tell. It’s not uncommon for an artist to emulate his forebears, and there is no doubt that Gainsborough found his muse in van Dyck. If you are looking at these two family portraits and wondering who is who, here are two tips that have nothing to do with painting technicalities: 1) Look at the clothes. The one to the left is a Gainsborough (The Baillie Family (c. 1784) at the Tate; the one on the right is a van Dyck (Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary (1631-32) at Buckingham Palace). You can pretty reliably pick out what clothes are from the 18th century and which are from the 17th. Things get less ruffly, billowy and silken as you march through time, especially for the men. 2) Look at the colors. If you see mustard, it’s almost certain to be a Baroque painting. Only in the 17th century – and maybe the 90s (see photograph below) – did people actually think they looked hot in mustard.

Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Gainsborough’s main rival in the Royal Academy was Joshua Reynolds, who painted similar “Grand Manner” portraits. So how do you tell a Reynolds from a Gainsborough? Sometimes it’s not easy! Despite having a better reputation than Gainsborough in his own day, Reynolds, unlike Gainsborough, was no draftsman. In fact, it was rumored that Reynolds couldn’t draw a lick. His paintings tend to be far less airy than Gainsborough’s, with important people striking important poses. His paintings also tend to be a bit darker, earthier-toned (read: drabber) than Gainsborough’s (whose own reputation, incidentally, has almost inarguably eclipsed Reynolds’ over the past two hundred years). If you’re really in a pinch trying to figure out who is who, know that Reynolds experimented with red pigments (esp. carmine) that faded during his own lifetime, giving many of his early portraits ghostlike faces, as seen in the painting below:

   Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond  (1758) by Joshua Reynolds. Goodwood House (Chichester, UK).

Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1758) by Joshua Reynolds. Goodwood House (Chichester, UK).