Art Dictionary

Baroque Art

Peter Paul Rubens,

Peter Paul Rubens, "Leda and the Swan", detail
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

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No other epoch in the history of European art is as fraught with contradictions as the Baroque period. Nevertheless, this style of art—often denigrated as »bombastic«—is once again receiving increased attention.

»The fortunate invention of an allegory imbues a painting with more value than even Titian´s brush could achieve . . .« (Johann Georg Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste . . ., 1771–74)

The Baroque has become the focus of renewed interest of late. Rubens and Rembrandt have been celebrated in major exhibitions for which no historical occasion was needed. Such long-forgotten artists as the »Italian Hogarth« Gaspare Traversi and the Prague architect Johann Blasius Santini have been rediscovered. The time appears to have come for a reassessment of a style that is still dismissed by many as over-ornate today.

As a label for an era, the term »Baroque« was an invention of the nineteenth century. It was not until then that the notions and prejudices about the seventeenth century that continue to prevail today began to emerge. Yet many of the characteristic features of Baroque painting trace their roots to the Renaissance and persisted into the age of classicism: the principle of illusionism—the illusory expansion of space in which monumental wall and ceiling painting appears to eradicate the boundaries to real architecture—was practiced to perfection. Ancient Greek and Roman gods and heroes were regarded as bearers of mythological meaning who elevate actual objective references to a higher sphere of historical and mystical reality. The visual language of allegory and the humanist passion for the encryption of messages associated with it began to play an increasingly important role.

New was the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). In churches and palaces, architecture, sculpture, painting, and ornamentation blend together to form a coherent whole. The palace and its gardens provided a setting for festivities lasting for days, celebrations in which the ruler was glorified in magnificent pageants consisting of triumphal marches, masquerades, dancing, tournaments, hunts, and fireworks displays. While historical subjects—sacred and secular—had previously predominated in painting, the range of themes now began to expand. Apotheosis and the statesman´s portrait, landscape, genre, still life, and caricature became the dominant forms of the era. Common to all of them is the consistent allusion to something beyond the anthropocentric image of the world. Thus what is glorified in Baciccio´s apotheosis of Saint Ignatius is not the saint himself but the Jesuit order. Charles le Brun´s depiction of Chancellor Séguier exhibiting the highest honors of his office on his triumphal march emphasizes the ideal of the absolute state rather than the Chancellor as an individual. Hyacinthe Rigaud´s famous portrait of Louis XIV is regarded as the very quintessence of the artistic tendencies during the reign of the Sun King. Although the human figure does not disappear entirely from the landscapes of Annibale Carracci or Nicolas Poussin, these works differ from their predecessors in that they do not present nature as the setting for human activity but as an object worthy of representation in its own right. The everyday scenes depicted in genre painting always contain some moral or universal lesson, and the sensuous appeal of the still life is often a vehicle for an uplifting message. In the medium of caricature, the painters of the Carracci School held up a distorting mirror to the image of the ideal Renaissance man and thus subject it to ridicule.

Baroque is regarded as the last pan-European style. It appeared in its most striking forms primarily in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, southern Germany, and Austria. New print reproduction processes rapidly made an abundance of pictorial inventions widely available and opened the door to a lively international exchange of ideas. Rubens, for example, employed entire engravers´ studios which popularized his compositions throughout Europe. Such prominent painters as Rembrandt also devoted themselves to printmaking and used the medium to produce pictorial creations in their own right. Aside from the standard techniques of etching and engraving, new inventions such as mezzotint and aquatint also became increasingly popular.

Italy was the source of the most important formal and stylistic manifestations and developments in Baroque art. Rome was a cosmopolitan center and a magnet for such European artists as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Adam Elsheimer, Paul Bril, and Peter Paul Rubens. Caravaggio´s Roman style of painting, with its characteristic rough, light-and-dark contrasts and the vigorous three-dimensional modeling of his figures had a revolutionary impact. Landscape and space are often only subtly suggested. The immediate proximity to the viewer and the radical naturalism he achieved in this way influenced artists throughout Europe. The Bolognese School, represented by Annibale Carracci, his brothers, and his academic followers, had a different yet lasting effect on the development of the Baroque style. The clarity and harmonious serenity of their altar paintings and the idealized nature in their »heroic landscapes« also represented revolutionary new developments.

Painting experienced a period of particularly splendid bloom in Spain. The traditional emphasis on classical iconography was abandoned. Dominant forms included the portrait, the religious, historical narrative painting, and the devotional image. Equally important was the growth of genre painting, to which such painters as Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo contributed veritable masterpieces. Velázquez´s portraits of members of the royal family are among the most noteworthy Spanish works of the period.

The Golden Age of Dutch painting coincided with the Baroque era. Peter Paul Rubens caused a stir in the Catholic South with his monumental creations for the nobility and the Church. In the Calvinist North, Rembrandt developed his sensitive chiaroscuro effects to the pinnacle of mastery. Using a wide range of different resources, these two painters expanded the range of possibilities for representing human moods and feelings. In countless drawings and studies, they depicted people, natural phenomena, everyday images, scenes from mythology, religion, and history in numerous variations and states of intimacy and ecstasy and in natural or emphatic attitudes. Under the influence of the bourgeois patrician class, Dutch painters began to specialize. Outstanding examples of specialization in painting are the portraits of Frans Hals and Anthonis van Dyck, the landscapes of Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen, the allegories of Jakob Jordaens, the still lifes of Willem Claesz. Heda and Willem Kalf, and the genre scenes of Adriaen Brouwer, Jan Steen, Gerard Terborch, and Pieter de Hooch. Jan Vermeer´s interiors, masterpieces of directed light and color harmony, represent the crowing glory of the age.

14.09.2006 Monika Wolz

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