Return to There and Where Art
Baroque Art has its roots in the Counter-Reformation which was launched by
the Catholic Church to oppose the Protestant revolution.
In the mid 16th century Europe was experiencing the first skirmishes of
the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that culminated in the
devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This was perhaps the worst
war in European history with about 8 million deaths (proportionately
equivalent to perhaps 80 million today), severely depopulating vast
swathes of central Europe. The events in Europe during the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries are scarcely covered in English school history
because during this period England was involved in its own revolutions,
from the Reformation to the English Civil War. The devastation that swept
Europe was followed by the Plague which was even worse.
In 1545 the Hapsburg and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was
optimistic that a compromise could be found between the Protestants and
Catholics. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was initially convened
to mediate between the Protestant and Catholic theologies.
When the Council finally ended it issued a string of decrees opposing
Protestantism and declaring that Protestants were “anathema”: cursed and
excommunicated. This laid the foundations for the subsequent
wars. However,the Council also decreed that art should be a vehicle
for communicating the message of Catholicism to the masses.
The 25th, and last, session of the Council decreed that:
“And the bishops shall carefully teach this, that, by means of the
histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or
other representations, the people are instructed, and confirmed in
remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as
also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because
the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon
them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by
means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes
of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may
order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be
excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety.”
This decree led artists back to the early years of Christianity and
to revisit the classical forms of architecture as well as to produce
a profusion of images of religious themes. The essence of the new
style was to produce a dynamic story of religious events.
The new approach to art began with architecture. Baroque
architecture was an evolution of Renaissance architecture but it was
embellished with a mass of classical motifs and sought to present a
building as a unity, even if this involved spurious volutes and scrolls
that had no functional role. One of the first Baroque architects was
Giacomo Della Porta (1541?-1604) who designed the church "Il Gesu".
These early, ecclesiastical Baroque buildings appear almost normal to
modern eyes because they became a norm for architecture into the
The new artistic style became named “Baroque”, from the Portuguese
'barocco' meaning, 'irregular pearl or stone'. It was a derogatory
term devised by those who thought the new style was imperfect.
The Baroque is divided into two, and sometimes with the inclusion of “Late
Baroque”, three periods.
Early Baroque, c. 1590 – c. 1625
High Baroque, c. 1625 – c. 1660
Late Baroque (overlaps and includes Rococo), c. 1660 – c. 1725
Dutch art between 1590 and 1700 is often also called "baroque" but
although it shared technical achievements with the general, European
baroque, it differed in style and, most importantly in content. (See Dutch
Baroque painting became highly popular as a result of the work of Annibale
Carracci and Michelangelo de Caravaggio.
Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)
In 1582 Annibale Carracci, his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico
Carracci shared a studio in Bologna called Academy of the Desirious, later
called the Academy of the Journeying (Accademia degli
Incamminati). They worked together on paintings until the
1590s. In 1595 Annibale and Agostino travelled to Rome where they
completed a commission to decorate the Villa Farnese and later the Farnese
Carracci was producing religious paintings throughout the 1590s. His altar
painting, “The Virgin Mourning Christ”, is perhaps the most
famous and has all of the elements of drama and naturalism desired
by the Catholic Reformation.
Michelangelo de Caravaggio (1573-1610)
Michelangelo da Caravaggio came from a small village near Milan and joined
the studio of Simone Peterzano. He went to Rome in the mid
1590s. His dramatic approach to religious art was exactly what was
required by his patrons. One of his most dramatic paintings is
Notice the chiaroscuro (light and dark contrast), it verges on tenebrism
(extreme contrast), this technique had been pioneered by the Renaissance
Guido Reni 1575-1642
Guido Reni was born in Bologna and apprenticed from the age of nine in the
studio of Denis Calvaert. At twenty he moved to the Carracci studio
in Bologna and in 1601 travelled to Rome to join the Carracci brothers
working on the Farnese Palace in Rome. In 1604 he started to work
independently, being patronised by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati and
later, from 1607-14 he was patronised by the Borghese family.
He was extremely popular for his portraits of saints and holy scenes.
His painting of St Michael the Archangel shows Satan being defeated. In
this picture Reni uses a slightly more colourful palette, perhaps
influenced by Caravaggio and he was deliberately abstracting the
beauty of the archangel in the fashion of Raphael. The model for
Satan is the Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphilj whom Reni believed had
Annabale Carracci, Reni and their followers adopted a programme of the
idealization of and beautification of nature in art. This became
known as the neo-classical or academic movement in art. Perhaps one
of the greatest masters of this approach was Nicolas Poussin.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy and became apprenticed as an artist
at a young age. He ran away to Paris at eighteen and joined the
studios of some Flemish artists. He was later employed by Giambattista
Marino, the court poet to the Medicis, and joined Marino's
household. In 1624 he was asked to join the household in Rome.
Whilst in Rome Cardinal Barberini became his patron for a series of
Poussin was true to the guiding principles of the Baroque, using
realistically painted images to further the Catholic Church.
His “Ordination” is one of a series of seven sacraments.
One of Poussin's most famous pictures is “Et in Arcadia Ego”, which means
“And I am in Arcadia”. This has three, concerned looking
shepherds poring over a tomb. A wise looking woman places her hand
on the shoulder of one of the shepherds as if to reassure him.
Over a century later Poussin was to become a major influence on the
later revolutionary neo-classical artists such as Jacques-Louis David.
Claude Lorrain (1600-82)
Claude Lorrain was the pre-eminent landscape painter of the early 17th
Century. He was born in the Duchy of Lorraine, part of the Holy
Roman Empire. He was orphaned at the age of 12 and moved to live
with his older brother Jean Gellée, who was an artist. In the
early 1620s Claude moved to Rome where he became a servant in the house of
the painter Agostini Tassi.
He briefly returned to Lorraine in c. 1625 then moved to Rome permanently.
He painted commissions for ambassadors and the rich and famous, including
Pope Urban VIII. Landscape was not considered to have a moral
purpose by the Catholic Church of the Counter Reformation so Claude
incorporated religious figures and classical themes into his landscapes.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Born in Germany to a Calvinist father, his family moved to Cologne in
1578, his father died in 1587 and in 1589 the family moved to Antwerp
after it had been captured and depopulated by Hapsburg forces. Rubens was
raised as a Catholic.
At the age of 14 he started his artistic apprenticeship and by the age of
21, in 1598, he became a member of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke as a
In 1600 he travelled to Italy. One of his first commissions was for an
altar piece, “St Helena with the True Cross”.
Rubens was in demand for portraits.
In 1608 Rubens moved to Antwerp and established a studio. In 1609 he
became court painter to the sovereigns of the Low Countries: Archduchess
Isabella and Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria. His most famous
pupil was Anthony Van Dyck.
Rubens has a reputation for painting rather plump ladies which has led to
the term “Rubenesque”
Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641
Anthony Van Dyck was perhaps the most famous of Rubens' pupils,
particularly in England. Van Dyck was born in Antwerp. At the
age of ten he was studying with Hendrick van Balen and by 1615 he had set
up an independent studio with Jan Brueghel the Younger. In 1618 he joined
the Antwerp Guild of St Luke and was the chief assistant to Rubens.
In 1620 he was invited by the Marquesse of Buckingham to spend four months
in England. In 1623 he moved to Italy for six years, being largely
based in Genoa but travelling widely in the country, studying the masters
and performing commissions for local aristocrats.
In 1632 he was invited to England by Charles I to be the “principal
painter in ordinary to their majesties”. He was paid a retainer of
£200 a year and further paid for each picture.
The Spanish Golden Age
Between 1519 and 1554 the Hapsburg Empire ruled much of Europe and
was based in Madrid. This was the start of the “Spanish Golden Age”
when a Spanish-German superpower conquered a global empire. On his
death Charles V divided the empire into two Hapsburg dominated empires:
the Spanish and Holy Roman Empires. The two halves were frequently allies.
Diego Velazquez 1599-1660
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599. At
the age of eleven he was apprenticed to the artist Francisco de Herrera in
Seville then moved to the studio of Francisco Pacheco at the age of 12 and
married his daughter Juana in 1618. In 1622 he moved to Madrid and
rapidly rose to become the official court painter by 1623.
In 1628 Velazquez met Rubens, who stayed in Madrid on a diplomatic mission
for seven months. In 1629 he went to Italy for 18 months and studied
the masters. As a court painter he recorded important state events
such as the Surrender of Breda.
Perhaps one of his greatest works was “Las Meninas”, shown below:
“One of the infantas, Margaret Theresa, the eldest daughter of the new
Queen, appears to be the subject of Las Meninas (1656, English: The Maids
of Honour), Velázquez's magnum opus. However, in looking at the various
viewpoints of the painting it is unclear as to who or what is the true
subject. Is it the royal daughter, or perhaps the painter himself? The
answer may lie in the image on the back wall, depicting the King and
Queen. Is this image a mirror, in which case the King and Queen are
standing where the spectator stands? Are they the subject of Velázquez's
work? Or is the work simply a court painting?” Wikipedia
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-1682
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in Seville (or nearby). His father was
a surgeon barber and both of his parents died when he was young. He
was raised by his aunt and uncle and apprenticed to the artist Juan del
Castillo at a young age. In 1642 he moved to Madrid and was
influenced by Dutch Art and Velazquez. The Dutch influence is
evident in his “Holy Family with Dog”.
In 1645 he returned to Seville and married Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos
and they had 11 children.
He produced numerous religious paintings of saints and the holy family but
also some charming pictures of everyday life. Murillo co-founded the
Seville Academy of Fine Arts in Seville. It was a strictly Catholic
institution and the members had to swear to Catholic orthodoxy by
declaring: “Praised be the most holy Eucharist and the Immaculate
Conception of Our Lady”.
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