An overview of Baroque art
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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, David
This sculpture is completely Baroque. The tension in David as he hurls the stone is absolutely real.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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: art, baroque, caravaggio, chiaroscuro, church, david, de La Tour, de vinci, European Art, giorgione, history, history of art, la joconde, laocoon, michelangelo, mona lisa, parmigianino, rembrandt, renaissance, rococo, sfumato, tintoretto, velazquez, watteau.