Knock-out of the mouse RXRalpha gene was previously shown to result in a hypoplastic heart ventricular wall, histologically detectable in 12.5 dpc fetuses. We show here that a precocious differentiation can be detected as early as 8.5 dpc in ventricular cardiomyocytes of RXRalpha(−/−) mutants. This precocious differentiation, which is characterized by the presence of striated myofibrils, sarcoplasmic reticulum and intercalated disks, is found after 9.5 dpc in about 50% of RXRalpha(−/−) subepicardial myocytes. In contrast, wild-type subepicardial myocytes remain morphologically undifferentiated up to at least 16.5 dpc. A similar precocious differentiation was observed in 9.5 dpc subepicardial myocytes of several RXRbeta(−/−) and RARalpha(−/−) mutants, as well as in vitamin A-deficient embryos. The proportion of differentiated subepicardial myocytes almost reached 100% in RXRalpha/RXRbeta double null mutants, indicating a partial functional redundancy between RXRalpha and RXRbeta. This differentiation defect was always paralleled by a decrease in the mitotic index. In addition, subepicardial myocytes of RXRalpha(−/−), RXRalpha(−/−)/RXRbeta(−/−) or vitamin A deficient, but not of RXRbeta(−/−) and RARalpha(−/−) embryos, were often flattened and more loosely connected to one another than those of WT embryos. Thus, retinoids are required at early stages of cardiac development to prevent differentiation, support cell proliferation and control the shape of ventricular myocytes, and both RXRs and RARs participate in the mediation of these functions.