Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695 –1750) is recognized as a creative genius behind the French Rococo style. He first published his influential Livre d'Ornements (Book of Ornaments) in 1734 and then again in 1748. These small booklets were circulated among countless craftsmen and artisans who applied Meissonier’s designs to decorative artwork such as ceramics, metalwork, marquetry, and textiles.
This sheet, from the later edition, shows a small fanciful scene beneath the design for a silver candlestick. This small view is an early French interpretation of a capricci, fantastic architectural landscapes then popular in Italy. The design could have been applied to a small item, such as the lid of a snuff box.
Meissonnier trained as a silversmith in his hometown of Turin, where he absorbed the experimental atmosphere beginning to permeate the arts in Italy, and developed an inventive design vocabulary that broke with the formal and grand style of the preceding century.
The miniature view is composed of a tangle of interior decorative elements—cornices, volutes and crests—used with a license that deliberately flouted architectural conventions. The overblown C and S curves which comprise the scene are no longer ornamental, as in the candlestick above, but are momentous architectural forms in their own right. This foreshadows the maturing Rococo impulse to legitimize its characteristically ‘frivolous’ motifs through their integration into structural forms.
Similar to contemporary Italian capricci which appropriated architectural vocabulary to express pure fantasy, Meissonier’s design liberates ornament from the demands of realism. However, his design differs from the typical views of architecture in a state of ruin, by its portrayal of a complete and thriving environment. The work is typically Rococo in its synthesis of artificial and natural forms, and was an exercise in imagination on the part of an immensely prolific designer.
You can read more about Meissonier and Rococo in our publication Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730-2008 available at shop.cooperhewitt.org