The Origins in Rome
T he Baroque, which was born in Rome around 1600 largely in response to the art of Caravaggio, spread rapidly to northern Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands. A sequence of eleven lots in this December’s Evening sale illustrate the drama, emotion, colour and visual impact inherent in the best works of this new style, from the emotionally powerful, starkly lit Christ on the Cross by Francisco de Zurbarán, painted in Spain around 1635-40, to the more subtle yet visually rich treatment of the Baptism of Christ by Nicolas Poussin from 1648.
Being mentioned in the same breath as Caravaggio would have been anathema to Poussin who reviled everything about the art of Caravaggio, a man, he said, who had been born ‘to destroy painting’. Notwithstanding Poussin’s criticism at the time however, there can be no doubt of Caravaggio’s positive influence on the art of the entire 17th century and beyond.
Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross is one of the most explicit examples of the tenebrism that punctuated Spanish art soon after 1600. The pared back, solemn, religious intensity of this work accorded perfectly with the dictates of Counter-Reformation Europe. The dramatically lit figure of Christ set against a jet-black sky and just the merest hint of a landscape far below is as remarkable for its sheer simplicity as it is for its emotional intensity, specifically designed to compel the spectator to prayer.
The Rise of Realism
Almost Zurbarán’s exact contemporary, the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera took a similar approach to painting. Ribera made a speciality of painting male saints, half-length, starkly lit against a dark backdrop. Throughout his career he painted several series of twelve canvasses depicting the apostles.
This sale includes two apostles, St Judas Thaddeus from the very beginning of his career, circa 1619; and St. James the Greater from near the end, circa 1646. Ribera’s skill in the painting of flesh was perhaps unsurpassed and his paintings are as dramatic for their overall visual effect as they are for the extraordinary realism they exude through the artist’s consummate skill and powers of observation.
Moving Through Europe
In 1636, King Philip IV of Spain commissioned a series of more than sixty paintings to decorate his new hunting lodge outside Madrid, the Torre de la Parada. The resulting canvasses, painted by Peter Paul Rubens and his studio and of which lot 19, Diana and her nymphs hunting, is a prime example.
The works perfectly illustrate how the Baroque manifested itself in Flanders and the north; rich, diverse colouring; flowing drapery; expressive brushwork; and a powerful sense of movement.
Poussin & The French Baroque
The Baroque reached France largely through the art of Nicolas Poussin who had absorbed so much of what was happening in Rome from the moment of his arrival in the city in 1624.
In its quieter spirit, not to mention its far smaller scale, his Baptism of Christ, dating from his second Roman period and painted in 1648, strongly contrasts with the drama of the Zurbarán and Rubens. It is however such a synthesis of such a variety of influences, from Raphael to Guido Reni, as to genuinely be considered a little masterpiece of the French Baroque style.