Baroque (1600-1750)

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ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art

The term "baroque" is used by art historians to describe European painting, sculpture, and architecture created in the period from about 1600 to 1750. When first applied to the visual arts, at the very end of this period, "baroque" conveyed a rather negative attitude. It suggested bizarre or simply bad taste. Only in modern times was the term freed from such unflattering associations. It is used to describe art produced in the period between the end of the Renaissance in the 1500's and the beginnings of modernism in the later 1700's. The baroque period is very rich and diverse. So no single term can accurately describe all of the art produced in these years.


The diversity of baroque art is the result of several factors. The first is geographical. Renaissance culture originated in Italy about 1400. It gradually spread from Florence throughout much of Europe. Baroque art appeared almost at the same time in nearly every European capital. In the early 1600's, artists of several nationalities working in different countries created works of great originality. These included artists from Spain, France, and the Netherlands as well as Italy.

There were shared preferences among artists from different nations with respect to subject matter and style. But there were also significant differences. In each country there was a considerable variety of styles from which to choose. An earthy realism that copied life was one choice. Another was a more refined manner that revived the classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome and of the Renaissance. A dramatic, emotionally charged style that sought to represent the supernatural was yet a third. Choices of subject matter frequently went hand in hand with such choices of style.

Religious beliefs and practices played perhaps the greatest role in the various expressions of baroque art. The Reformation of the mid-1500's divided Europe into Catholic countries and Protestant countries. In most Protestant countries, including Germany and England, art was considered an unnecessary luxury and was suppressed. But in one Protestant country, Holland, an entirely new kind of art was created. It was based on the routines of everyday life. But it still followed the Calvinist doctrine of banning images that depicted religious subjects. In Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, and France, it was different. Painters and sculptors continued the long-standing practice of using biblical stories as their primary subject matter.


The first painter who might be called baroque was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio, as he was known, worked mostly in Rome. There he painted a number of large canvases that depicted religious subjects from the New Testament. His subject matter remained traditional. But his realistic treatment of the human figure and the setting was radically new. In such paintings as The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1602), Caravaggio set the story not at the time of Christ but in his own time. The costumes of the figures as well as the architecture and furnishings of the interior setting are based on contemporary Roman fashions. Sometimes the figures in his paintings can be identified as his friends. The only element in Caravaggio's religious paintings that suggests a divine presence is his use of tenebrist light. This is a sharply contrasting spotlighting that resembles stage lighting.

Caravaggio's realistic depiction of biblical stories was very different from the approach taken by his contemporary Annibale Carracci. Carracci's paintings return to the clarity of design and balanced composition of such High Renaissance artists as Raphael. Most of Carracci's paintings were of religious subjects. But his most famous works were the frescoes on the ceiling of the Farnese Gallery in Rome (1597-1605). They illustrate mythological scenes from the writings of the Roman poet Ovid. Many of the figures are based on classical statues or the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo. They appear lifelike. But they are so idealized they could never be confused with real figures in real settings.

A third approach to art was taken by Pietro da Cortona. He excelled as both an architect and a painter. He painted the large ceiling fresco The Triumph of Divine Providence (1633-39) in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome. It is a dazzling composition of loosely arranged, colorful figures that swirl freely overhead. In style as well as in subject, this is far removed from the realism of Caravaggio or the timelessness of Carracci. Cortona's Triumph is, in fact, a representation of the supernatural. It is an imaginary vision of the ascent to immortality of a living person, Pope Urban VIII Barberini.

One artist who seemed to capture the spirit of his time in all its diversity and vitality was the sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. His statue David (1623) was done when he was still a young man. It expresses most of the characteristic features of baroque art. Its pose imitates sculpture from the ancient past. But it is also very realistically rendered. Like many works of art from this period, it represents one moment in a continuous action. In this case it is David hurling a stone from his sling at Goliath. Finally, it draws the spectator into the action. It makes him or her an active participant in the story being told.

Bernini preferred sculpture. But he also designed a number of architectural projects that contribute to the magnificence of Rome. Chief among these was his completion of the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica. The basilica is the most important church in the Catholic world. He sculpted a number of works for the interior of the great church. And in the 1650's he designed and built the enormous open square that stands in front of it. This square, or piazza, consists of two curving colonnades that are shaped like arms that reach out to gather in the faithful. This is a symbolic gesture that Bernini noted in writings that accompanied his plans. Walking through St. Peter's Square today, one still experiences the majesty, the authority, and the self-confidence of the baroque popes.


Spain also experienced a Golden Age during the 1600's. In art as in literature, a simple and humble realism emerged just after the turn of the century. In Seville and Madrid, painters and sculptors created works so lifelike that at times one cannot tell the difference between art and reality. Sculpture in particular frequently blended the two. Statues were made of carved and painted wood, rather than the white marble used in Italy. They often were clothed in actual garments.

The greatest Spanish artist of the period was Diego Velázquez. Velázquez began his career in Seville as a painter of scenes of everyday life. While still a young man he moved to Madrid. There he was appointed court painter to King Philip IV. His masterpiece was The Maids of Honor (1656). It depicts the artist himself at work in his studio on what seems to be a portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa, daughter of the king and queen. Servants attend the little girl. The family dog rests by her side. And the furnishings of the studio are precisely detailed. Among the framed paintings that hang on a dark rear wall is a mirror in which the likenesses of Philip IV and his queen are recognizable. When a viewer stands in front of the painting, he or she occupies the same space as the king and queen. Art and reality are so perfectly blended that the experience of looking at this picture is positively magical.

Catholicism was a powerful influence in Spanish life of this period. So paintings of religious subjects became ever more popular. Velázquez' contemporary Francisco de Zurbarán specialized in painting realistic portrayals of Christ and the saints. The figures are highlighted with sharply contrasted tenebrist light that gives them intense spiritual power.


Baroque art in France was for the most part an expression of the values of the French crown, especially of King Louis XIV. The great palace of Versailles (1669-85) was built by Louis a few miles outside of Paris as a symbol of his absolute authority. The design of the palace and of the surrounding parkland is the product of a rational and rigidly disciplined approach that echoes the king's control of government. The architecture and the painting and sculpture that decorate the palace are purely classical in style. They convey a sense of the orderly and timeless truths of the king's political policies.

Not every artist in France was content to work for the government. Many painters chose to leave the country rather than place their creativity in the service of politics. Indeed, the two greatest French painters of the baroque period, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, spent their entire careers in Italy. Both artists turned to the gentle Roman landscape for inspiration. Claude, as he is known, painted the poetry of the lovely countryside. He populated his paintings with grazing flocks of sheep and picturesque ruins of ancient monuments.

Poussin depicted some of the same features of the Roman countryside. But his paintings were intended to do more than delight the viewer. He used the classical setting as a stage for presenting the drama of human history. His paintings instruct as well as delight. The purpose of his art was to elevate the mind to its highest and most moral state.

The Netherlands

In the northwestern part of Europe, political and religious differences led to the division of the region then known as the Netherlands into two independent states. The southern provinces were called Flanders. They were made up of present-day Belgium and part of northern France. In the 1600's Flanders was part of the Spanish Empire. The northern provinces, known as Holland (the present-day Netherlands), broke away from Spain at the end of the 1500's. They established an independent democracy that was one of the first of its kind.

Flemish Art
The art of Flanders in the baroque period continued to reflect the religious beliefs of Catholicism and the rigid class distinctions of Spanish society. Peter Paul Rubens expressed the values of this culture better than anyone. His painting The Adoration of the Magi (1624) depicts the birth of Christ as an aristocratic pageant. It has none of the simplicity usually found in Nativity scenes. Instead of humble shepherds in a rustic stable, there are splendidly costumed Magi in a grand setting offering expensive gifts.

Rubens' younger contemporary Anthony Van Dyck specialized in painting portraits of members of the same upper class that would have appreciated the material finery of The Adoration. Van Dyck was so successful at flattering the aristocracy that his works were in demand in all the courts of Europe, especially England. The ladies and gentlemen in his pictures are always taller, slimmer, more elegant, and more graceful than they were in life. Some of the artist's methods are still used in fashion advertisements today. The pointed beard and mustache worn by many of his male sitters remain known as a Vandyke.

Dutch Art
Life was very different in the northern Netherlands during this period. Along with political and economic freedom, the Dutch insisted on religious freedom. Catholicism was abolished as the official religion. Most of the population followed the Protestant teachings of John Calvin. Calvinism left no place for art in religious practice. But the art of painting did not disappear in Holland. Instead the arts flourished, with an increasing number of painters turning to Dutch life itself for their subject matter.

Jan Vermeer specialized in painting the interiors of simple middle-class households in his native town of Delft. There are no biblical or mythological subjects in Vermeer's paintings. So we are not distracted from their plain compositions and pure colors. A work such as Woman Pouring Milk (about 1660) is surprisingly modern in its simple design and its reflection of the mood of the artist's own daily life.

Other Dutch painters specialized in outdoor scenes, in landscape, in still lifes of flowers, fish, or fruit, or in portraiture. Frans Hals painted only portraits. A comparison of his informal likenesses with the society portraits of Anthony Van Dyck reveals the deep cultural differences between Holland and neighboring Flanders in this period.

The greatest Dutch artist of the baroque period was Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt spent most of his life in Amsterdam. There his imagination and curiosity led him to explore a far wider range of subjects than did most of his contemporaries. He painted many biblical scenes but not for churches or as aids to religious worship. He painted them as imaginary records of significant moments in human history. Human feeling in all its mystery and complexity is the true subject of his work.

Many of Rembrandt's most moving paintings are portraits--most of individuals, some of groups, and many of himself. His Syndics of the Cloth Merchants' Guild (1662) is a group portrait of five Amsterdam businessmen. It is typical in the way it creates unity out of informality. It preserves the individuality of each member of the group. But it knits their personalities together into a coherent whole. The soft coloring, mellow light, and sketchy brushwork of Rembrandt's paintings contribute to the sense of unity found in his work. These are personal elements that distinguish him from other artists of his time. But Rembrandt's interest in capturing a fleeting moment and his emphasis on the inner life of individuals who share their thoughts and moods with the viewer are characteristics found throughout baroque art.


In geography and culture, England has always remained apart from the rest of Europe. Like many Protestant countries, England was suspicious of the power of visual images. Painting all but died out during the 1600's. Architecture, on the other hand, flourished in London after the Great Fire of 1666. St. Paul's Cathedral was rebuilt by Christopher Wren not in the Gothic style of the old cathedral but in the up-to-date baroque manner. Its plan and interior remain recognizably English. But its impressive facade and stately dome are based on the architectural styles of Paris and Rome. Like so many works of art from the period around 1700, St. Paul's speaks a truly international language, pronounced, however, with a distinct regional accent.

John Varriano
Mount Holyoke College
Author, Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture

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