An overview of Baroque art

September 27, 2007 at 7:34 am 19 comments

For the past few days, I have reading up a little bit about Baroque art, and since no more poems flow from my parched cerebellum, I decided to put up a summary of my explorations here.

Baroque Art

Baroque was born in Italy, and later adopted in France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain. The critics of the late nineteenth century applied the term baroque to the art of the period stretching from the late 16th century to the middle of the 18th century. This genre was primarily associated with the religious tensions within European Christianity that rose from the division on Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In response to the Protestant reforms of the early sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church embarked in the 1550s on a program called Counter Reformation (or Catholic Reformation). The Catholic Church as a part of this program used representational art that was intended to be doctrinally correct as well as visually and emotionally appealing so that the largest possible audience could be influenced. The Council of Trent (1545 – 63) demanded that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate instead of the educated. Due to this, baroque art tends to focus on Saints, Virgin Mary and other Biblical stories. Landscapes, still life and genre scenes were also quite common, however, and were predominant in Spain and the Netherlands.

Baroque art also uses the selective illumination of figures out of intense dark shadows. Such use of light also serves the purpose of heightening of the dramatic effect, another characteristic feature of Baroque art. The representation of an event in baroque art was done by depicting the most dramatic point. For example, Michelangelo shows his David composed and still, but Bernini’s baroque David is caught in the act of hurling the stone. Baroque art was aimed at evoking emotion and passion as opposed to its predecessor, Renaissance, where rationality was the more prized. In general, baroque art exudes passion and is elaborate in its representation of the subject. It is often associated with textured, flowing robes.

In spite of its primarily Catholic impetus, not all Baroque art is religious. Delving on a few pre-baroque and baroque paintings, we will expound the intricacies of this genre of European art:

  • Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

This work contains all the elements of Renaissance idealism. The human form has reached its peak in anatomical and aesthetical idealism. The piece certainly has emotional content too. All Renaissance art does. But this emotion is, again, an ideal state – it is different from Baroque in its distance from the real mother-child love we see in our lives.

Virgin and Child with St Anne

  • Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni, Sistine Chapel (Adam)

Just like his David, Adam too is shown lying on the bare landscape just at the instant of creation, just before whole human story is about to begin.

Michelangelo’s Adam in Sistine Chapel

  • Leonardo da Vinci, La Joconde (Mona Lisa)

This work has elements that question the Renaissance norms. The painting is perfect. The divine appearance of Mona Lisa is a result of da Vinci’s masterful application of the sfumato technique. Yet, in spite of its apparent idealization, there is one aspect of this painting that is not Renaissance – Mona Lisa is not a divine character. The enigmatic smile (enigmatic because it raises questions) is where this painting transcends Renaissance.

  • Giorgione ‘a.k.a’ Giorgio Barbarelli de CastelFranco, Tempest

This painting inspires awe in art lovers even today. It is without doubt one of the finest works of art in the High Renaissance period, teasing the typical Renaissance elements with one very new introduction into the world of painting: mood! An uneasy anticipation of the idyllic being overthrown by an imminent storm has been portrayed.


  • Parmigianino Francesco Maria Mazzola, Madonna with the Long Neck

A mannerist painting showing a clear deviation from the idealism of Renaissance works. Not only is Madonna’s neck swan-like, but all the other depictions too stretch beyond plausible limits. The pillar in the background is longer than usual. Madonna’s fingers are long and slender. The leg of an angel in the foreground, too, is longer than the norms. The whole painting has longitudinally stretched. The inspiration is perhaps drawn from the twisted violence/pain of the Laocoon figures that were unearthed in the early 16th century. The frame even has a mass offset. The whole group of angels is shown crowd appearing on the left. This exaggerated, off-center, elongated style is an attempt to personalize the concept of beauty, something that was not seen in the European artists before.

Madonna with Long Neck

  • Tintoretto ‘a.k.a’ Jacopo Comin, Last Supper

Exceptional treatment by one of the last great painters of Italian Renaissance. The focus on Christ is achieved by angular lines (most notably, the table) instead of the traditional Cartesian depiction of co-ordinates. We also see elements of Baroque in the use of light. Tintoretto’s painting is quite unlike a standard Renaissance work because of another reason as well – it shows the divine and the human intermingle almost as equals.

Last Supper

  • Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, David

This sculpture is completely Baroque. The tension in David as he hurls the stone is absolutely real.

Bernini’s David

  • Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus

A Christ without halo! A beardless, content Christ in an animated conversation. Again, completely Baroque! This is probably the painting that started the first post-Renaissance era in European art. The extent of lack of convention in this painting is disturbing to a mind that is used to the Renaissance notions.

Supper at Emmaus

  • Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin

My personal favourite! His use of theatrical lighting in this manner was hitherto unknown in the world of painting. Also, he treats a very hard reality of life: death, and depicts it without the slightest reference to divinity. Baroque painting has completely set in.

Death of the Virgin

  • Diego Velázquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs

The Baroque art of Spain emphasized another side of life altogether. With Velázquez, la vie quotidienne came inside the realm of art. His implementation of chiaroscuro too, like Caravaggio, is totally naturalistic, but his subjects are more pleasant.

Old Woman Frying Eggs

  • Diego Velásquez, Las Meninas (Maids of Honour)

This is one the most celebrated group paintings in baroque art. The subject of the painting seems to be Princess Marguarita at the first glance. But a second look gives rise to tremendous curiosity. The mirror plays the role of a perfect motif to harbour such inquisitiveness. In the uncanniest manner, the focus of the painting shifts, perhaps even to the viewer!

Las Meninas

  • Rambrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, De Nachtwacht (The Nightwatch)

Rembrandt was undoubtedly the greatest genius of Dutch baroque art. His most celebrated painting, De Nachtwacht was, in fact, not intended to be a night scene at all. The name was a misapprehension based on the dulling of the surface. The painting is known primarily for three aspects: size, complex use of light and shadow, perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static portrait. There are several symbolisms in this work, but we shall not delve deeper into them in this general portrait of baroque art.

Towards the end of this era, paintings became more poetic as artists imbibed an artificial smoothness in their works. Several works of French and Dutch artists like Georges de La Tour and Jean-Antoine Watteau exhibit this characteristic. The Netherlands was an exceptionally wealthy region of Europe. Most artists there could afford to paint according to their whim. The general luxury of that society is reflected in their paintings too. Still life and interiors predominate in the works of the Dutch artists. Gradually, however, this tendency swayed into a genre of feel-good beauty. Baroque art went away with a whimper and Rococo was born: a short-lived dull phase in European art that indulged in pleasant comfortable beauty.

Entry filed under: aesthetics, art, baroque, history, renaissance, sculpture. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

A Prayer Sans Sense Perhaps Even Greed

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt  |  September 27, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    The Renaissance is also well known for the age which brought a lot of orders that partook in seeking knowledge of the Mysteries; Golden Dawn, Free Masons, and the Rosicrucian Order are just a few.

    Of course there are a lot of conspiracies regarding these organizations as well which have cast a lot of doubt and speculation as to their exact origin, but most scholars accept this era as the beginning of their time line.

    Reply: I know about the Freemason movement, but I am ignorant about the other two you mention. This post was simply an outline of a few studies I made in the recent past …. a detailed study is always boring for a blog surfer ….. it should be reserved for the research students! 🙂 Thanks for introducing the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Order to me.


  • 2. Vinod  |  September 27, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Hi..neat post. No matter how many different articles I read about Baroque and Renaissance, the content always seem to fall short and I need more. I have seen these art works you have put up in person. The ones that are my fav are Caravaggio’s still life and light play.

    Caravaggio is from Italy, that is good for scenic details, imagery & scenes but he is good at something Italian artists are normally not, the still life. This comes from the Flanders (North of Belgium).

    Leonardo is good at a particular style of painting called the Sfumato (work of Jaconda) as opposed to the usual Chiaroscuro.

    In all these pictures you could see the picture plane and viewer’s plane seem to ambulate here and there.

    Lorenzo Bernini.. is god. His works in rome esp at villa borghese is nothing but perfection. esp apollo and daphne.. is awesome. He has done different textures on the stone, the place skin part the bark of the tree and the leaves all in stone.. hmmm ..masterpiece!!

    I love being in Europe for this reason.

    Art in europe is vast, check Vermeer or rembrant youll love em man!!

    Reply: I just saw the Apollo and Daphne sculpture. Unbelievable!
    You are right about the Italian artists. They usually did not venture into still life. That is typical to the Flemish region. What has interested me more than the art movements in themselves is the shift from one current to another. I find it really interesting to study the gradual changes over time (and perhaps space) in the world of art. The gradual appearance of newer questions that give rise to these changes.
    For all this interest I have to thank Shy. It is her enthusiasm for art that kept me from drowning in the world of mechanical technologies.


  • 3. Life's Elsewhere  |  September 27, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Great! Will this be a series? Then you would be really doing a favor.

    Reply:A favour, my friend, I cannot do. For I find myself to be as ignorant as the girl next door (she’s downright stupid, believe me!). But I do intend to jot down anything that strikes my interest in the history of art. And I must mention that having a reader who says he’ll wait for such a post is an excellent motivation for striking my interest! 🙂


  • 4. harmonie22  |  September 28, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    What a lovely post, Ritwik. You really went all out for your readers.

    Reply: With readers like yourself, it is worth the effort! 🙂


  • 5. harmonie22  |  September 28, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Just to add, I’ve always loved Rembrandt especially, and Van Gogh. Although I haven’t for a while i used to sketch and paint quite a bit, I adored these two painters especially I’ve even been lucky enough to see some of their work in museums. If you get the chance you should definitely make the effort to see an artist’s work in the flesh, it just changes everything for you and you can really see their genius in their brush strokes not just subject matter.

    Thanks again

    Reply: I had once gone to the Louvre, but I was only 11 years old then. Too young and too immature to understand the nuances of the masterpieces I was looking at. I have not studied Rembrandt at all. But the little that I have seen of Van Gogh’s works, I greatly admire him. I am looking forward to a visit to Europe. Don’t know when that will happen.


  • 6. Janice Thomson  |  September 28, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    I certainly enjoyed the tour with you Ritwik. As a painter myself I enjoy all kinds of artist’s works. Though I do favor the Impressionists I am truly awed by the likes of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Bernini etc. I would love to live in Italy for instance to spend every day studying the sculptures and artwork of the great Masters. I hope you do more posts like this.

    Reply: There are a few European cities I would love to visit. Paris and Prague top my list. I am glad you enjoyed reading this post. I do plan a brief tour through European art. So the impressionists are certainly going appear on the Evergreen Leaves. And so shall the other schools of painting.


  • 7. rukmini banerjee  |  October 1, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    da honestly i didn’t have the time to go through the entire post.but the little i read of it i surely liked it a lot. why don’t you try and find out details about the scientific revolution of aprox same time.a lot of changes in arch,art and music and even wittings took place because of the might find the connection interesting. there is a deep rooted connection between the rise of the new religious thoughts, radical changes in cultural practices and preferences and the economy during this time in Europe( the price revolution) etc.
    if you want i can suggest readings…..

    Reply: Yes, of course these changes go hand in hand. Time cannot flow in one direction and stagnate in another. You give me the references for all these (mail or chat or phone) . . . and remember that I don’t have bapi’s library here with me. So don’t give me a list that can be bought only in College Street.


  • 8. Deepa  |  October 5, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Just when I was thinking that the Chennai metroblog is dwindling down into pettiness (making a blog post out of a comment?!), I came across this and thank heavens for inadvertent clicking on my part. So, yes… wonderful post. I have yet to read everything else that is on here but I thought I could afford to take a moment to say that you’re doing a great job here. And that you now have another loyal reader – Like… I subsribed to, like, your feed and everything!!!!!

    Cheers to you!

    Reply: I am flattered. I really am. I am really glad that I finally found a reader from Chennai(since you came here through the Chennai metroblog, I assume you are from Chennai) . . . do visit, and comment, and criticize, and enjoy! I will be posting stuff from time to time!!


    P.S. If you have a blog, please do provide a link to it. I would like to visit it some time.

  • 9. harmonie22  |  October 9, 2007 at 9:21 am

    I was in Amsterdam about two years ago for a good friend of mine’s wedding (she’s dutch). One memorable lifetime memory was going to the van Gogh museum. I was there for 4-5 hours, enthralled by how seeing his work ‘in the flesh’ gave it a whole new depth for me. My poor sister walked out ofter a couple of hours and waited for me outside…needless to say she did not speak to me for the rest of the day 🙂 You’re lucky to have gone to the Louvre, I hope one day I get that chance too.

  • 10. Dan Sleeth  |  December 14, 2007 at 4:36 am

    I would like to use the image of the creation by Michelangelo for a book cover. Could you tell if you can grant me permission or who I might ask for permission?

    Reply: Usually the copyright expires fifty (or sixty) years after the artist’s death. If there’s no special copyright taken by the museum holding that painting, you should be able to use it without any special permission.


  • 11. hossein aliasgari  |  February 18, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    your site is very good

    Reply: Thank You! 🙂


  • 12. rita  |  April 20, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    your site is youseful for teh topic that i am learning taht is “baroque art”!!!

    good bye

  • 13. U.K. 2 H.K. 2 U.S.  |  April 25, 2008 at 12:53 am

    I was lucky enough to spend hours at the musee Rodin in Paris once. That place is fantastic. Is Rodin baroque?
    If he is, I’m a fan of baroque!

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    New here. Thanks

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  • 16. Georgina  |  October 20, 2013 at 9:35 am

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