Baroque v. Rococo Art: What's the Difference?

Triumph of Venus, François Boucher courtesy of Artsy

Since the first time I watched The Way (2010), I have wanted to visit the iconic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela located in Galicia, Spain. This cathedral is massive, with many detailed sculptures surrounding the building. Its interior, however, is even more extravagant. The inner walls are covered from top to bottom with ornate,  intricate embellishments. Walking through the halls of the cathedral, visitors feel as if they are approaching the gates of heaven—its elongated corridor with massive arches, leading to an altar adorned with golden lighting and delicate designs, evokes celestial imagery.

 

In neighboring France, the salons of Hôtel de Soubise show similar elegant interior designs. In every room of this Parisian hotel, the ceiling and walls are covered in gold, elegant pattern work,  equipped with massive windows to welcome natural lighting. Meanwhile, the statues placed atop the hotel’s exterior pillars and roof appear vaguely similar to the Galician cathedral’s facade.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela via Wikimedia
Salon Oval de la Princess, Hôtel de Soubise via Wikimedia
Salon Oval de la Princess, Hôtel de Soubise via Wikimedia

These two structures, though quite similar in extravagance, are, perhaps surprisingly, products of two distinct art movements. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is an example of a Baroque architectural design, while the Hôtel de Soubise is mostly known for its Rococo style.

 

How do these two movements differ, and why do they appear to be faintly similar?

 

Because the Baroque and Rococo periods occurred consecutively,  it is no wonder the two are easily confused. Both Baroque and Rococo pieces feature ornate designs and plenty of gilded accents to elevate their elegance and sophistication. Yet, despite their similarities, the two movements distinguish themselves in their own ways. Baroque art is known for its “serious, more provocative style,” while the Rococo style is described to have a “sense of lightness and playfulness.”

 

Baroque originated in Italy during the 17th century and continued to the early 1700s. The movement began as a way for artists to express and promote their Catholic faith, especially during the spiritually tenuous Protestant Reformation. During this time, church architecture appealed more to the pathos of regions, preferring emotionally stirring depictions of heavenly icons.

Saint Jerome Writing (1605-1606)
Saint Jerome Writing (1605-1606) courtesy of Saatchi Art

Typical Baroque style architecture often included “bold massing, colonnades, domes, and painterly color effect” with overly extravagant designs using vibrant materials such as bronze, gildings, marble, and stucco present in both exterior and interior parts of the building. It also included “a main axis or viewpoint” with intersecting sightlines as the immediate focus. In the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the main axis creates a cross with the altar at the end as the central focus. Upon entering these grand structures, visitors were filled with admiration and a sense of divinity.

 

These Baroque styles are evident in paintings as well. Baroque paintings are described as “using deep colors, dramatic lights, sharp shadows, and dark backgrounds.” An example of these descriptions can be seen in Caravaggio's Saint Jerome Writing (1605-1606). Caravaggio’s use of crimson red on the robe, the lighting that focuses on Saint Jerome, and the painting’s dark background, the resulting composition has a dramatic effect—despite the fact that Saint Jerome is simply performing a regular task.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa Lorenzo Bernini
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini courtesy of The Collector

In addition to architecture and painting, baroque sculptures are also quite pleasing to the eye. Like any Baroque medium, its primary concern is to represent biblical scenes or figures, with an emphasis on emotional expression and movement.

 

Baroque sculptures are quite melodramatic and theatrical as if someone hit the pause button during a climactic moment of a scene. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, an Italian artist, sculpted The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-1652). Bernini depicted Saint Teresa as her heart was about to be pierced with the fiery arrow of Divine Love. Additionally, this sculpture, as well as other Baroque works, is a complete rejection of straight lines. The way the clothing is illustrated in this sculpture creates an illusion of movement as if it is dancing with the wind.

 

Unfortunately, every great art movement comes to an end—but it marks the beginning of another. As the Baroque movement faded, a new art movement emerged, originating in France. This art style was eventually dubbed the Rococo movement, alternately referred to as the Late Baroque period. Despite its status as a distinct era, Rococo is somewhat similar to Baroque, with its “elaborately decorated shapes, scrolling curves, and illusions of dramatic motion.” However, unlike Baroque, Rococo works are mostly associated with the interior, and for the purpose of intimate viewing among wealthy aristocrats.

Rococo interior via Art in Context
Rococo interior via Art in Context

The term “rococo” derives from the French word rocaille—an “elaborate ornamentation with pebbles and shells, typical of grottos and fountains.”  This art form rose to prominence after the death of King Louis XIV, as the French court returned from Versailles to their homes in Paris, France. The Palace of Versailles was known for its Baroque style; however, once the aristocrats vacated the palace, trends shifted to focus on softer designs and interior decoration. Unlike that of the Baroque period, Rococo art is a “symbol of style and luxury” and thus steered away from religious depictions, mainly focusing on secular riches. Rejecting the serious style of Baroque, Rococo is more “light, frivolous, and whimsical”—this is present in every medium.

 

During the emergence of Rococo art, many aristocrats kept their exterior Baroque architectural homes while renovating their interiors to match the new movement. Rococo's interior design included “new plasterwork, murals, mirrors, furniture, and porcelain,” and incorporated lighter colors. Hôtel de Soubise in Paris is a perfect example of Rococo architecture. The interior is elaborate and intricate with its gold accents, pastel blue ceiling, and murals on the wall.

The Swing f
The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard courtesy of Artsy

Rococo art extends beyond interior design—its playfulness and lightness can also be seen in paintings. The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is one example of  Rococo painting. This piece depicts softer colors and graceful curves that illustrate daily life and courtly love. The painting’s subject is a carefree young woman, enjoying herself on a swing. Despite its light-hearted appearance from a modern perspective, the painting was seen as too risque and erotic at the time. Read the article on the ArtRKL website or watch a brief explanation on ArtRKL TikTok for a deeper dive into The Swing.

 

Even though the  Baroque and Rococo movements are both known for their ornate designs and golden accents, works from each of these two periods are quite distinct from one another. Baroque art is known for its structure and seriousness that focuses on religious figures, while Rococo artwork is secular, light, carefree, and more intimate. From this, we can take the simple fact that although two things may be quite similar on the surface—the smallest details can be the very thing that highlight its unique character.


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