Two styles prevailed in European art of the eighteenth century: rococo, associated with the reign of French king Louis XV (1715–1774), and neoclassicism, which emerged mid-century. The term rococo is a combination of the French word rocaille—a style of ornament with an elaborate, often asymmetrical conflation of natural elements, especially plants, stones, and shells—and the Italian word barocco, which refers to the baroque style, characterized by exuberant ornamentation and dramatic action. Artists of this era favored a palette of light hues; they frequently alluded to contemporary dance and theater; and particularly in the realm of decorative arts, they borrowed elements from Chinese art that was being exported to Europe. These traits led to the characterization of rococo art as lighthearted and fantastical, despite its continued consideration of sober, moral subjects—such as the Virgin’s Purification in Corrado Giaquinto’s painting at the center of this gallery—and its studied attentiveness to tradition.
Neoclassicism, a style based on the art of ancient Greece and Rome, developed in tandem with archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii toward the middle of the century. The availability of extensive new evidence of the arts of antiquity—coupled later in the century with the scholarly writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), who distinguished styles in the art of different ancient civilizations—triggered a demand for greater accuracy in the visual representation of ancient subjects. Artists responded to this necessity by importing into their compositions classical forms and objects that they had seen in ancient collections or knew through prints. Young collectors from northern European countries sought to expand their knowledge of antiquity by traveling through Italy on an extensive trip known as the Grand Tour. While visiting ancient sites and museums, they purchased antiquities and contemporary art for their burgeoning private collections.