The Rococo style dominated the arts, architecture and design during the reign of Louis XV of France (1715-1774); it started in France and Italy, then expanded to most of Europe.
1. Watteau and his fêtes galantes (1710-1730)
Commonly accepted as the creator of the movement, Jean-Antoine Watteau designed a new kind of genre scene, named fêtes galantes, which represented young couples dancing or making music in parks, with a coy eroticism. Watteau immediately gained success among the nobility, especially after the death of King Louis XIV, who had imposed a devout morality in the Court at the end of his reign. By now, freed from the watchful eye of the King, the aristocrats - led by the Regent - looked for happiness and pleasure, as depicted by Watteau. For the first time in modern history, art was made only to please, whereas previous movements were charged with a Christian morality of repentance or austerity. This new paradigm flourished under Rococo, which was the expression of the libertine spirit in painting.
Watteau and his main followers Pater and Lancret represented the first stage of the style, which lasted until the 1730s.
2. Boucher and the golden age of Rococo (1730-1760)
The golden age of Rococo started with the maturity of the artists born in the 1700s, such as Carle Van Loo, Natoire, and Boucher, the most famous painter of the style. The sketched eroticism of Watteau now became apparent. Indeed, following the path of Lemoyne and Jean Raoux, their subjects taken from the Greco-Roman mythology were principally a pretext to show depictions of passionate love (with the subject of Venus and Adonis) or nudity (with countless representations of Venus and Artemis), which they highlighted with bright and warm colours, and a luxurious vegetation made of flowers and grapes.
Apart from their mythological scenes, which were included under the title of "history" painting, they made numerous pastorales - genre scenes of lovers in the countryside - and humoristic compositions with fat and naughty putti (little cupids). These artworks served as decorative panels, especially as dessus-de-porte (above the door), in royal or noble palaces.
In France, these artists were largely patronized by Madame de Pompadour, the official mistress of Louis XV, who bought many pieces to embellish the palaces of Versailles and Marly (destroyed by Napoleon). They also looked abroad to sell their artworks, notably to Frederick II of Prussia and Augustus III of Saxony, who battled to get their best paintings.
On the other hand, Spanish monarchs preferred to call Italian painters directly to their Court, due to the lack of good painters in the country at the time. Thus, Giaquinto and Tiepolo both crossed the sea to work in Madrid, where they produced numerous frescos and large canvas for Spanish palaces. However, Italian Rococo was more a continuation of Baroque - with some innovations - than a break from the Baroque style as pronounced as in France, since its members remained mostly focused on biblical subjects and painted with less exuberance than their French counterparts.
Lesser patrons essentially commissioned their own portraits, as prices had reduced thanks to the diffusion of pastel, which also shortened the time of production. Since the triumphal journey made in France by the Venetian Rosalba Carreira in 1720, the prevalent type in portraiture was to idealize the sitter, or to represent him in the guise of divinities or allegories. Her most famous followers were Quentin de la Tour and Perronneau. Oil portrait painters also followed in her steps; the most successful in France being Nattier, who painted all the French aristocracy under the traits of allegorical characters.
3. Fragonard (1760-1780)
Finally, the last stage of Rococo (1760-1780) was dominated by Fragonard and his followers Lafrensen and Schall, who painted with an easy brush stroke which gave to their works an unfinished aspect. They were smaller in size in order to be easier to engrave and exhibit in private cabinets. Indeed, many of these works were too explicit to be shown to the public, although engravers widely spread their reproductions. Incidentally, Fragonard remained outside of the French Academy and Salon.
The Rococo style came to an end in the 1780s due to its frivolousness and it appeared as a symbol of the aristocratic decadence and corruption. The rising bourgeoisie favoured instead the severe neoclassical style embodied by David, which triumphed with the French Revolution. Besides, the pejorative term of "Rococo" is said to have been coined by Quays, who was perhaps the most resolute proponent of Neoclassicism.
Nevertheless, even at its climax, the movement was never completely dominant, since several painters - lead by Chardin and Oudry - pursued the Dutch realist tradition. However, the movement did not have much influence on English painters, with the possible exception of some of Hogarth's output.