The Art of the Baroque

[ Baroque ] [ More Baroque ] [ Artemisia Gentileschi ] [ Leyster ]

Baroque art exploded in the late 16th century, some of it as part of the Counter Reformation's splendid church construction and decoration. Artists, sculptors, architects worked to make the House of the Lord worthy of His presence. "One of the persistent characteristics of the new style in visual arts...was a heightened sensuality combinded with spirituality" (Witt, et al. 143). The Baroque era produced art that was "spacious and dynamic, brilliant and colorful, sensual and ecstatic, opulent and extravagant..." (Tansey and Kleiner 818). Art historians define this period as a "great" or "golden" time. By the end of the 17th century, the flamboyant style of the Baroque gave way to the neoclassical. The word baroque comes from either the Italian (barocco, meaning contorted) or the Portuguese (barroca, meaning rough of irregular.) The hallmarks of the Baroque era included "movement, vitality, and brilliant color...presented to achieve maximum emotional impact..." (Witt, et al. 144).

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614)

El Greco was celebrated, in 2004, with a major exhibition of some of his most famous works at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. He forms a bridge between High Renaissance art and the Baroque. His style is hybrid of influences reflecting early training in Byzantine iconography, to his apprenticeship in the Venetian workshops of Titian and Tintoretto, to the Baroque's experimentation with light and color, to the intense, emotional spirituality of Philip II's militantly Catholic Counter Reformation Spain. He should be, as Ms Trilling informed me, placed in the Mannerist school, though El Greco seems to defy all labels. The Mannerists--evident in El Greco--proclaimed the artist's right to individual interpretation and creative fervor. Departing from nature, they composed complicated, complex, artificial, fanciful, even fantastic, works marked not by balance and harmony but by restlessness, exaggeration, affectation. El Greco's elongated, distorted human figures can be identified as Mannerist. Born in Crete in 1541, then a Venetian colony, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco, traveled to Venice, then to Rome where Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, also defined by Ms Trilling as a Mannerist rather than a Renaissance work, offended him with its carnal, writhing bodies. He moved to Spain in 1577, where he hoped to find work decorating Philip II's recently completed Escorial. In the latter effort he failed, but it was in Spain that he completed his most significant works. In Toledo, the center of Spain's leadership in the Counter-Reformation, El Greco found his home.

The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586)

Here is The Burial of Count Orgaz, painted in 1586 for the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo where El Greco settled in his adulthood and did his most stupendous works. Count Orgaz was a 14th century knight and benefactor of the Church, shown in El Greco's imagination as being buried by Saints Stephen and Augustine who miraculously descended from heaven to lower his body into the sepulchre. The earthly figures are realistically portrayed, reflecting El Greco's gift as a portraitist; the heavenly figures are depicted as elongated, exaggerated, ethereal, and undulant--almost swimming amongst the clouds. The earthly figures look up; the heavenly figures look down, linking heaven and earth. Suffusing the painting, as it did much of El Greco's work, is his fervent piety and intense religiosity. His intent is mystical, spiritual, ecstatic, devotional. Art historians associate his work with contemporary Counter Reformation ecstatics such as St. Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.

< >

The View from Toledo

El Greco painted the more familiar View from Toledo in 1600. Here, sky, earth, and air take on unearthly tones of light and movement that seem to be the product of an intensely personal experience and artistic language" (Witt, et al. 144). Here, his "sense of movement and use of light" anticipate the later Baroque (Tansey and Kleiner 814).


Caravaggio (Michelangelo Meriso, 1573-1610)

"All evidence suggests that Michelangelo Merisi--street brawler, gang member, murderer and...great painter...--was quick to anger" (Benfey 17). According to legend, he murdered his opponent after a particularly contentious tennis match. His new biographer, Francine Prose, comments on his "'theatrical, compassionate, alternately and simultaneously comic and tragic' spirit, as well as his 'short life and shorter fuse'"(Prose, quoted in Benfey 17). "The unconventional life of this great painter was consistent with the defiant individualism of his art" (Tansey and Kleiner 835) His association with lowlifes and social outcasts may help to account for his "unglorified and unfashionable" views of the Renaissance themes of beauty and decorum--for Caravaggio, it was always a human reality that engaged him (835.)

The Death of the Virgin

Caravaggio went to Rome as a rebellious teenager. His bottled up anger exploded into his paintings as he tried purposely to shock his audience. His The Death of the Virgin, portraying the Virgin Mary as a "dead, bloated, old woman" seemed unnecessarily "harsh and brutal" to contemporary viewers (Witt, et al. 145). Here, his "unorthodox realism finds full orchestration..." (Tansey and Kleiner 838). The Virgin "is unceremoniously laid out..., her body swollen...and feet uncovered [...considered indecent at the time] (838). And yet, art historians note the "simple, honest, unadorned piety" of the mourners (838). The painting was considered scandalous.


The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

The "stark contrast of light and dark was...[a]...feature of Caravaggio's style that...shocked...and fascinated his contemporaries" (Tansey and Kleiner 837). The Calling of St. Matthew is one of three scenes he painted for the Cantarelli Chapel in Rome. It "demonstrates the psychological reality he could draw from a simple scene.... [I]n a Roman tavern, filtered light falls from the oiled paper in the window onto the bare walls.... Another, stronger light slashes across the top third of the canvas" (Witt, et al. 145). The light falls upon the face and uplifted hand of Jesus Christ who enters the room accompanied by Peter. Levi (who will be come Matthew) looks up, wondering, "Is it I?" Caravaggio's revolutionary contribution, seen here, is to locate the scene in a tavern of non-idealized, normal men. Christ and Peter intrude upon the tableau suggesting a divine presence in the earthly setting.

Hilary Spurling recently reviewed the newest biography of Caravaggio, commenting
that his art was a "reckless mix of myth with unadulterated realism.... [It]...stunned
and appalled ...[his]...contemporaries. Caught at the turn of the 17th century between
an increasingly degenerate Mannerism and the sumptuosity of nascent Baroque, he was a
practicing modernist more than 300 years ahead of his time" (19).

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Born a Protestant, Rubens was raised a Catholic, and his deep faith infuses his paintings. His art combines the characteristics of the High Renaissance and "the revolutionary naturalism of Caravaggio" (Witt, et al. 146). Rubens created a uniquely distinctive, optimistic, visually rich view of the world. Commercially and financially successful, Rubens presided over a prolific studio, earning credit for a large number of paintings and sculptures to which he added "final approval and finishing touches" (146). Rubens rubbed shoulders with the greats of his era, Charles I of England, Marie d'Medici of France, to name two, and carried out diplomatic missions as well as becoming one of the great Baroque painters. Like Raphael, he achieved both fame and fortune, fulfilling "the Renaissance claim for the preeminence of the artist in society" (Tansey and Kleiner 849).

The Raising of the Cross (1609-1610)

Rubens painted The Raising of the Cross as part of an altarpiece for the cathedral in Antwerp. The influence of Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio are palpable in the "athletic, muscular figure of Christ" as the "massive...figures struggle to raise the cross" (Witt, et al. 146). Against the dark, stormy background, light falls in from the left focusing on the face and limbs of Christ. You will recognize the familiar triangular construction of the painting from its use by Michelangelo and Leonardo. Rubens' work, however, dispenses with the Renaissance commitment to order and symmetry, emphasizing instead energy, vitality, and movement. The painting "seethes with power" that comes from "geniune exertion" and is filled with "human sinew taut with effort" (Tansey and Kleiner 848).


The Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseille (1622-1625)

One of Rubens most important clients was the Queen Dowager, Marie d'Medici, widow of Henri IV, for whom he painted twenty-one canvases celebrating her life. Indeed Rubens' Marie d'Medici works served to transform "an inglorious, occasionally unscrupulous, and not too beautiful individual into a woman of splendor..." replete with allegorical and mythological figures you can identify (Witt, et al. 147). In this painting, art historians comment that Baroque artists, like Rubens, spent a considerable amount of their energies in glorifying their royal patrons as well as in decorating their churches. Certainly here, one can see the honor done to royalty


The era of the Baroque witnessed an artistic explosion in the North (similar to but different from that of the Catholic Reformation described above.) Calvinist artists reflected the sober restraint of their Protestant faith in the same way that the artists of the Catholic Reformation reflected their renewed faith in their flamboyantl use of light, movement, and color. Art flourished in the Low Countries, "sober and restrained" as they were, to the extent that "almost every family owned at least one work of art" (Witt, et al. 147). Painters earned commercial and financial success in the market place, without a particular patron or benefactor.

Pieter Brueghel, the Elder (1525-1569)

Pieter Brueghel's dates make him really too early for the Baroque, but I put him here anyway. He, like many northern artists continued to depict the interaction between nature and human beings. He painted scenes from daily life. Other northern artists took a similar delight in the beauties of their Dutch countryside, as well as in portraiture and sumptuous still lifes. Although he studied in Italy, Breughel's sojourn there does not seem to have profoundly influenced his art. Carrying on in the traditions of North and its carefully accurate representations of nature, Brueghel painted scenes from daily life,

The Peasant Dance

Additionally, as seen in the reproduction to your left, he celebrated "the commons" rather than the elites. He examined village life and its amusements honestly--"all is not well in this rustic paradise" (Tansey and Kleiner 805): The dancers have their backs to the church, a fight seems to be brewing among the drinkers to the left, the piper wears a peacock feather (symbol of vanity) in his cap, two lovers kiss unashamedly in the background. The festival celebrating a saint's day has degenerated into a "pretext for people to indulge their lust, anger, and gluttony" (805).

A Brueghel work recently identified and under conservation at the Prado Museum is his
The Wine of St. Martin's Day, painted in 1565 for a private patron (Kimmelman C1).
< >
The site, which shows the painting, has an
interactive feature that allows the viewer to "zoom in." Take a look!

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Rembrandt (look at his dates) benefited from the spiritual essence of the Protestant Reformation and the determination of the Dutch to achieve their freedom from Spain. He "used painting as a method for probing the states of the human potraiture and in his uniquely personal and authentic illustrations of the scriptures" (Tansey and Kleiner 857). Even though the Calvinist, Dutch Reformed Church abjured religious art, Rembrandt's is that of a believing Christian, a "poet of the spiritual..." (857). Like other artists of the Baroque, his method involved "refining light and shade into finer and finer nuances..." (857). Rembrandt was a master of of manipulating light and shadow in terms of direction, intensity, distance, and texture...he could render the most subtle nuances of character and mood, of persons and scenes..." (857).

The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (1662)

One of Rembrandt's most famous paintings, The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, presents the subjects interrupted from their deliberations by an intruder (the viewer.) The men seem caught in a completely natural moment in real time with their "alert faces, ... and their white collars and broad-brimmed hats. Each is an individual; each face exhibits age, experience, and reserve" (Witt, et al. 148). Rembrandt shows sympathy and understanding towards his subjects, seen in his careful, meticulous attention to details of costume and demeanor. Through his external depiction, he explores the internal life, "with its pain, power, and pride" (148). Like Rubens, part of his genius lay in in "the unity of composition achieved by light and the revelation of surface features, textures, and colors..." (148). According to Palmer, et al., "Such men conducted the affairs of Holland, in both commerce and government..." 149). Note their "sober black cloaks...clean white collars..., and rich table covering..." (149).

The Night Watch (left) The Anatomy Lesson (right)



Go to Baroque Art, page 2


Benfey, Christopher. "The Artist as Outlaw." The New York Times Book Review. September 30, 2005.

Kimmelman, Michael. "When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity." The New York Times: The Arts.
December 14, 2010.

Palmer, R. R., et al. A History of the Modern World, 10th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Spurling, Hilary. "In His Own Image" The New York Times Book Review, 02 October 2011.

Tansey, Richard and Fred Kleiner. Gardner's Art through the Ages, vol. ii, 10th ed.
Fort Worth, et al.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

Witt, Mary Ann, et al.The Humanities, vol. ii., 5th edition.
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.