An emphasis in artistic subject matter on the aristocracy and the carefree luxury of the aristocratic lifestyle is perhaps the key, defining element of French Rococo art. The word comes from the French rocaille (meaning rock or stone, but here indicative of a valuable gem or pearl). Rococo art seeks to lavishly display the opulence of wealth, social status, political power, and all of the benefits assigned during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the French aristocracy. This is the extreme opposite to the plain, honest art style of the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch Baroque genre paintings. This period of art history discards humility and piety, and replaces saintly martyrs or biblical heroes with contemporary persons of social rank and privilege.
This was maybe the beginning of French predominance in the art world. France was, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, the world leader of artistic style. The nation rose in influence under the reign of Louis XIV, also known as the "Sun King," who claimed Divine Right Kingship and associated himself with Apollo, appealing in one stroke to both the doctrines of the Catholic religion and the traditional beliefs of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. His reign was historic as probably the longest enthronement of any single king in modern European history; he was king for over 72 years. Here he is seen painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud, standing proud in magnificent and enormous robes bearing the French symbol of the fleur de lis. An old professor of mine said it best when he observed this painting and commented, "What legs!"
It was Louis XIV who first moved his capital from the city of Paris to the Palace of Versailles, the building which, like no other structure during that time, defined the Rococo Period through its extravagant decorativeness and over-the-top stock of precious finery. Versailles is where French Rococo reached its height, and it was from there that the next three generations of monarchs would reign in lavish opulence, whilst their people, the lower class and peasants of France, grew increasingly unhappy over the failing economic situation of the country.
The French nation soon plummeted into debt from the aristocracy's lifestyle of excess. The magnificence of the Palace of Versailles became to the lower class a constant reminder of the aristocracy's irresponsible spending and ineffective government. France's participation in the Seven Years' War brought the nation's economy to even more desperate levels. To compensate, heavier taxation was placed upon the populace. Attempts to reform these oppressive tax laws were vetoed. Meanwhile, the rich aristocrats and royal noblemen continued to expand in wealth and prosperity, but they gradually fell into disfavor with the general public.