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European Art: Eighteenth Century  
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Neat divisions do little justice to the diversity of styles, artists, and characters that fermented during the eighteenth century in Europe. During this period, men whom we would now call homosexuals, such as Johann Winckelmann, Horace Walpole, and William Beckford, were at the forefront of public taste, championing respectively the fresh interest in Classical, Gothic, and Oriental styles.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Baroque style dominated. Tastes shifted from Baroque's depersonalizing spaces and grandiosity to the more lighthearted, warmer, and more intimate Rococo style. This shift in taste was accompanied by a growing interest in interior decoration, especially the elaboration of the boudoir, not least at the Court of Versailles.

In the second half of the century innovations in interior décor, spearheaded by Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale, established a popular Neoclassical revival. The century also saw the triumph of Enlightenment values and of scientific knowledge, as well as growing secularism and feminism, which culminated in the fervor of the French revolution and a new spirit of democracy.

Connoisseur Personalities

From the gay point of view, one of the most fascinating aspects of eighteenth-century art is the crucial positioning of great "connoisseur" personalities, many of whom were homosexual. These men, especially Winckelmann, Walpole, and Beckford, managed to influence public taste in a way not seen before, despite the fact that they had difficulty concealing their homosexuality.

Although the heterosexual Lords Burlington and Chesterfield established the taste for Italian art, they were easily trumped by Johann Winckelmann, whose influence was such that he was dubbed the father of both art history and archaeology. In addition, however, Horace Walpole reclaimed Gothic as an artistic and literary style; and later, William Beckford championed the interest in Orientalism that was initially given impetus by multi-lingual translator William Jones.

Beckford, England's wealthiest man, whose affair with his younger cousin William Courtenay caused him to be outcast from English society, established a mania for collecting from Europe's vast treasure house of art to which he had privileged access.

Winckelmann's case is especially noteworthy since his idealized love of young men fundamentally changed the way art was subsequently conceived. He and his followers placed the young male nude at the absolute pinnacle of beauty.

Antoine Watteau

The ascendancy in the early decades of the century of painters such as Antoine Watteau, originally Flemish but working in France, is important as evidence of the trend away from the Baroque towards a more scaled-down, intimate, individual style full of charm, sensuousness, and grace.

At this time, painters felt a new sense of freedom to pursue their individual interests, outside of any school or party line. Hence, Watteau's style tends to elude categorization. His paintings complemented the frivolous intimate "boudoir" style. He specialized in the fêtes galantes (scenes of gallantry) with graceful settings and consummate draftsmanship, which exerted a charm that was not always fully appreciated until a century later.

Art historian Michael Levey characterizes Watteau as the tubercular artist of the bitter-sweet, comparable to Mozart in music and Keats in poetry. His work has a melancholy mood as he was fond of painting sad clowns, or the commedia dell arte, which suggests his affinity with society's rejects and misfits. His Embarkation for Cythera (1717) best exemplifies this languorous, nostalgic mood, where time seems inexorable.

Walter Pater, perhaps sensing a parallel sensibility to his own, one that we would now read as gay, described Watteau as "always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure or not at all."

Rococo Style

During the century, the frivolous roseate style of the Rococo became popular, particularly in France. Above all, Rococo emphasized grace, color, lightheartedness, and gaiety--as in a studied lack of seriousness that might now be interpreted by gay audiences as unashamedly "camp." The style was provocative and sometimes so excessive as to become merely "chic" and superficial.

In décor, rococo was characterized by numerous mirrors, gilt-edged panels, ribbon framing, elaborate scrolls, and cornucopias with a flowing movement. As a decorating style, it flourished especially in Bavaria, and the Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich (1734-1739) by François Cuvillies is a perfect example.

Rococo reached its zenith of frivolity with Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Happy Accidents of The Swing (1776), with its cunning eroticism where the man seated on the left points into the girl's billowing skirts as she gaily swings upwards. Even the foliage in this painting looks like frilly underwear.

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Three important "connoisseur" personalities (top to bottom):
1) Johann Joachim Winckelmann in a portrait created by Raphael Mengs shortly after 1755.
2) Horace Walpole.
3) William Beckford.

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