What is Baroque?
Flourishing throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baroque style of art and architecture inspired wonderment through the use of ornate detail, tonal intensity, and an overarching sense of grandeur. The style arose in Italy, where it replaced the elegant contortions of Mannerism, and soon spread throughout the Continent. Its emergence had much to do with the Counter-Reformation – Pope Paul V was the first of a series of Catholic rulers to commission monumental works that parried Protestant austerity with dramatic appeals to emotion – although a distinctive Lutheran Baroque visual culture developed in the Germanophone world in the second half of the 17th century. By that time in France, the already lavish Baroque style evolved into the maximally flamboyant Rococo, with its gilded scrolls, trumpeting cherubs, and illusionistic ceilings, before giving way to the clean lines and rational symmetry of Neoclassicism. By the nineteenth century, Baroque art was broadly derided, with John Ruskin opining that it was “impossible for false taste and base feeling to sink lower”. Nevertheless, critics and collectors regained some of their lost appetite for the unabashedly sumptuous in the twentieth century, and interest in the Baroque era’s best work is stronger than ever.
Characteristics and Style
Baroque painting most typically depicted Biblical and mythological allegories on a grand scale with strong contrast between light and shadow, richly saturated colours, a compelling evocation of activity, and sumptuous brushwork. Quintessential sculpture of the era is likewise larger-than-life and dynamically expressive, often suggesting both vertical and vortical movement, and is meant to be viewed “in the round” rather from a single, ideal vantage point.
At its best, Baroque art provokes passion, awe, and reverence, in sharp contradistinction to the more cerebral, classically-inflected work that defined the High Renaissance a century before and the Neoclassical period a century later.
Baroque in Britain
While the Baroque style is commonly thought of as a Continental phenomenon, British painters, sculptors, and architects were among the epoch’s leading figures. Painters of note included William Dobson, Peter Lely, and John Michael Wright, the latter of whom enjoyed patronage from the royal court before anti-Catholic sentiment intensified in the wake of the “Popish Plot” hoax of 1678. Among the first British sculptors to adopt the Baroque style was Nicholas Stone the Elder, whose impressive statuary can be seen in London’s Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren was the leading English Baroque architect, who rebuilt 52 churches and many secular buildings following the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Impact/Legacy of Baroque Art
While the Baroque style fell into disfavour for many generations, it has exerted a profound influence on many later artists and architects. The Baroque Revival, also known as the Edwardian Baroque, was an extravagantly embellished architectural style throughout the British Empire in the decades of prosperity and expansionism leading up to the Great War. Among the many and diverse contemporary works that have been described as “neo-Baroque” – defined by the Florentine art and semiotics scholar Omar Calabrese as “a valorisation of forms that display a loss of entirety, totality, and system in favor of instability, polydimensionality, and change” – are Frank Stella’s La vecchi dell’orto (1986); John Currin’s The Farm (1997); and Adriana Varejão’s Green Tilework in Live Flesh (2000).
Strong contrast between light and shadow, richly saturated colors, a compelling evocation of activity, and sumptuous brushwork
The work of the original Baroque masters can be seen in museums throughout the world, notably the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, whose palatial main buildings boast many magnificent Baroque elements.
Timeline & History of Baroque
- 1563The Council of Trent concludes, calling for the creation of directly emotive ecclesiastical art.
(left) The Council of Trent representing in a painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento
- 1620Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes epitomises the artist’s foregrounding of female protagonists.
(left) Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1620. Courtesy: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence © Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi
- 1626Gian Lorenzo Bernini receives the patronage of Pope Urban VIII and begins his half-century project to embellish St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
(left) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Self-Portrait, c.1623
- 1631Francisco de Zurbarán paints his largest composition, the great altarpiece of The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
(left) Francisco de Zurbarán, The Apotheosis of St. Thomas of Aquinas, 1631. Courtesy: distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing
- 1638Nicholas Poussin paints The Rape of the Sabine Women, now among the treasures of The Louvre.
(left) Nicolas Poussin, The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1637–38.
- 1669Louis XIV resolves to completely renovate Versailles and puts Charles Le Brun in charge of every aspect of its opulent decoration
(left) The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, France.
- 1726The Dresden Frauenkirche is designed by George Bähr; it will become an outstanding example of the seemingly oxymoronic Lutheran Baroque style.
(left) The Dresden Frauenkirche. Courtesy: Netopyr/Wikipedia
- 1732Work begins on the Trevi Fountain, which at 50 meters in width will be the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and perhaps the most famous fountain in the world
(left) Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy. Photo: Thomas Wolf
- 1750Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, sends her nephew on a tour of Italy; upon returning, he is appointed Royal Director of Buildings and begins to shift French architecture toward Neoclassical ideals.
(left) François Boucher, Sketch for a Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, c.1750. Courtesy: Waddesdon Manor. Photo: National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
- 1785The sensation of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii at the Paris Salon firmly cements the supremacy of Neoclassical painting in Europe.
(left) Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1785. Courtesy: Musée du Louvre
Who are the Baroque Artists?
Hundreds of different artists made substantial contributions to this movement. Among the most important painters and sculptors of the age were Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italy); Charles Le Brun, Nicolas Poussin, and Jean-Baptiste Tuby (France); Adam Elsheimer, Johan Liss, and Balthasar Permoser (Germany); and Diego Velázquez, Claudio Coello, and Pedro Roldán (Spain). The Netherlandish- and Belgian-born masters of this era, including Rembrandt, Johanees Vermeer, and Anthony Van Dyck, developed distinctive styles and are discussed in greater detail on the pages for the Dutch Golden Age and the Flemish Baroque.
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