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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Rococo

Rococo is the name for one of the great international ornamental styles of the eighteenth century. In its departure from classical order and symmetry, the Rococo scorned the rule and the compass in favor of embellishment that required skillful freehand rendering and an imagination that transcended the bounds of academic convention. The emphasis was on naturalistic ornament, either carved or engraved. The style originated in Italy, flourished in France beginning in the 1730s, in England in the 1740s, and in America in the 1750s.

The American adoption of the Rococo focused almost exclusively on the style’s ornamental motifs—shells and rocailles, scrollwork, acanthus leaves, and other flora and fauna, often in symmetrical compositions. These were enthusiastically applied, by many leading urban craftsmen, to architectural interiors, engravings, silver, furniture, and other domestic equipage.

The Rococo crossed the Atlantic via three principal means: engraved designs in print series and books, imported objects, and immigrant artisans. The influence of prints and books was limited, that of imported objects is hard to document. Specialized immigrant artisans, whose skills were required to execute the intricacies of the style, did most to disseminate the Rococo in America. In the 1750s and 1760s, a veritable wave of highly skilled and ambitious young craftsmen, most of them London trained, emigrated to America, drawn by the demand for their abilities and by opportunities for personal and social advancement.

Only in and around the major cities were the necessary ingredients in place to cultivate the development of an American Rococo style: designs, patrons, artisans, and materials. The most fertile areas of American Rococo design were Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia, all seaports and all linked as closely to London as to each other. By the Rococo era, Boston was entering the twilight of her colonial dominance, and the city’s expression of the taste was the most conservative of the four. Examples from New York are quite rare, doubtless because a large percentage of them were removed by departing Loyalists or destroyed in the disastrous fires that accompanied the occupation of the city. In thriving Charleston, the greatest city in the South, the Rococo flourished, but there was a considerable reliance on imported goods. Philadelphia, approaching the apogee of her ascendancy and wealth, was the largest city in the colonies. Her prosperity and culture attracted immigrant craftsmen uniquely qualified to provide Rococo ornament to her richest citizens. Predictably, the city became the Athens of America and the arbiter of the new style.