Baroque Art

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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 nineteenth century.

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 Art)

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 Palace.

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 “Doubting Thomas”.

Notice the chiaroscuro (light and dark contrast), it verges on tenebrism (extreme contrast), this technique had been pioneered by the Renaissance artist Correggio.

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 slandered him.

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 paintings.

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 master.

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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