The Baroque is a period, roughly 17th century, in Europe in which art and architecture is characterized by drama, dynamism, theatricality, elaborate ornamentation, and grandiose scale. The Catholic Church is the leading patron. In its effort to battle the Protestant Reformation, it initiates a campaign referred to as the Counter Reformation. The Church used art to communicate with the populace and commissioned many works throughout Europe to illustrate biblical scenes played out with great drama.
Italy and Caravaggio
One of the greatest painters of the time is the Italian painter Caravaggio. Caravaggio was an outspoken critic of the classical masters, and deliberately broke from classical conventions. In particular, his figures were posed in theatrical positions, often gesticulating or pointing, caught in a dramatic beam of light. The intense contrast of his murky backgrounds slashed through with a beam of light is often compared to stage lighting and is referred to as teneberism. With the Church as his primary patron, his paintings often depicted religious scenes.
In The Conversion of Saint Pauul, the saint-to-be is shown laying on his back, body in a foreshortened perspective, with arms thrown out towards an intense beam of light entering from the top of the picture. The drama of the moment of his conversion is a sharp contrast to the daily routine of the horse being tended to by an old groom in the background of the painting.
Spain and Velazquez
King Philip IV appointed Velazquez as court painter. Although he studied the works of Caravaggio (as evidenced by a similar handling of light), it can be argued that Velazquez's figures were rendered with more dignity and less drama. As court painter, Velazquez's work focused on royal portraits and historical events. Take for example, the painting, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), 1656.
This painting is set in the artist's studio in the palace of the Alcazar, the official royal residence in Madrid. Our textbook describe it thus:
"The painter represented himself standing before a large canvas. The young Infanta (Princes) Margarita appears in the foreground with her two maids-in-waiting, her favorite dwarfs, and a large dog. In the middle ground are a woman in widow's attire and a male escort. In the background, a chamberlain stands in a brightly lit open doorway. Scholars have been able to identify everyone in the room, including the two meninas and the dwarfs."
-Gardener's Art Through the Ages, Vol. 14, p. 692
The King and Queen's presence are also included in the reflection of a mirror on the far wall of the studio.
Flanders and Reubens
In 1648 the Northern portion of the Netherlands broke from Spain's hold and became the Dutch Republic. In the Dutch Republic, a new class of patrons consisting of wealthy merchants formed. With it came a rise in the subject of still-life, which fell in line with the Protestant ethic of rejecting religious art.
Meanwhile, in the Spanish Netherlands (Southern portion) Peter Paul Reubens was the permanent court painter to the Spanish governor of Flanders. An aristocrat and scholar, Reubens built an an international clientele and established the first truly pan-European painting style rooted in the innovations of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters.
Here you see Elevation of the Cross painted for the church of Saint Walburga in Antwerp. In this work, one can see Reuben's interest in Italian art. We can see Michelangelo's influence in the heavily muscled figures and Caravaggio's influence in the dramatic poses and high contrast of lights and darks.
France and Poussin
With the reign of King Lous XIV, (the "Sun God"), France became Europe's largest and most powerful nation in the 17th century. Louis was a master of political strategy and propaganda. The founding of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648 advanced the classical style as the preferred French manner.
Poussin was from Normandy but he spent many years in Rome where he studied classical works. Et In Arcadia Ego shows the "grand manner" of painting that Poussin championed. It features a landscape and figures that reflect the classical world. Indeed, the figures are modeled after classical statuary- the woman is modeled after the countless draped female statues surviving in Italy from Roman times. The youth with his foot resting on a boulder comes from Greco-Roman statues of Neptune. In addition, we see Raphael's influence in the rational order and stability of the scene, in contrast to the dynamic movement and intense emotions in the artworks of Poussin's Italian contemporaries.
Kleiner, Fred. “The Baroque in Italy and Spain” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp.669-693.
Kleiner, Fred. “The Baroque in Northern Europe” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp.694-725.