Europe 1300 - 1800
A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris about how to recognize Baroque art.
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- where there many differences in materials used in baroque art, in comparison to renaissance art? for example, Carvaggio always uses dark backgrounds. would this have required different materials for paints? would different types of stone be used?(10 votes)
- The short answer is yes. Baroque artists generally had access to more types of pigment and more types of stone in part because the 17th century saw an increase in trade and colonization around the world.(11 votes)
- One aspect of art history that I'm really interested in is how people's worldview or I guess you could say "the spirit of the age" translates to art. There is more going on behind the "pretty" pictures and often there is this reaction against an earlier period when people thought and did things differently. (The same goes for music history, which is my particular field of interest.)
A question I have right now is: do we have sketches or more transitional works available that kind of show us how artists were working out their new ideals, but not quite in the final, refined form of the masterpieces? I doubt they all went from flat, unrealistic etc. to dynamic and "true to nature" over night.(3 votes)
- From the author:There are preliminary sketches that survived for many art works. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a sketch by Michelangelo that he did as he was planning the Libyan Sibyl for his fresco of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It you go to The Met's website you can search for it. It is gorgeous.(5 votes)
- I recently watched the movie The Girl with a Pearl Earring and they mentioned the painting The Women with a Water Pitcher. In the movie she was portrayed as a maid, is this incorrect?(2 votes)
- Her identity is unclear, she's just a random woman, maybe from the middle class. Her headdress (veil?) was very common in Denmark and the Netherlands... to say, I remember seeing it in a painting by Gauguin where among the women he portrayed his wife too.(2 votes)
- what was the political climate of the baroque time(2 votes)
- It's a question that requests a very broad answer... :/ What countries are you referring to in particular?(1 vote)
- Why is northern art so much more plain, and focused toward landscapes?(0 votes)
- The Protestant Reformation in the northern European countries displaced the Roman Catholic Church and its patronage of arts there. The new patronage came from the middle class who were interested in the immediate world around them, i.e., men, women, family and landscapes. The Christianity of these protestants was driven by "sola scriptura", which included a cultural mandate to be "fruitful and multiply" in the immediate world around them.(6 votes)
- Baroque art is a response to the reformation. What did it accomplish? Also, what dates are generally accepted for the dominance of this style?(1 vote)
- It didn't have to "accomplish" anything. It was not a "program" but a style. One might suppose, though, that because so much of Protestant style was unadorned and plain, the Baroque was a response to make things more ornate.(2 votes)
- 1 - Baroque style remind me of hellenistic period which was famous for its energetic and movement forms and emotions, so can we say that baroque artists influenced by the hellenistic period ?
2 - caravaggio`s painting also uses the triangle but its reverse !, although its not stable the painting in energetic but it uses reversed triangle to make comfortable and dramatic scene, is what i am thinking about is true ?(1 vote)
- 1 - I think it's just a coincidence, they were just interested in representing movements and involving the viewer. We could make a lot of connection to other artistic currents, but this one has a story of its own.
2 - As far as I know, more than triangles, he used diagonals... and they could meet and form triangles of course, but that's because of their orientation. (I don't know if you understand what I'm trying to say.) Maybe I'm missing something. Can you name any example?(2 votes)
- The differences between the Protestant and Catholic Baroque artwork was exactly what i came here to learn about. Strong points especially the whole diagonal compositions with he body and just in general the direction most of the objects are going in i think help identify baroque art in general. Awesome video thank you(1 vote)
- How do I get the hyperlink to cite in my essay?(1 vote)
- Cite this page as: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, "How to recognize Baroque art," in Smarthistory, May 10, 2016,(1 vote)
(jazzy piano intro) - [Voiceover] How can you look at a painting or sculpture and know that it was made during the period that we call the Baroque? - [Voiceover] How do you recognize the Baroque style? Let's start by looking at this very important sculpture by Bernini of the Biblical story of David, who defeats the giant Goliath. - [Voiceover] I'm standing in front of this sculpture, and I wanna duck. This man is about to launch a rock. - [Voiceover] He's giving this every ounce of energy he's got. - [Voiceover] Look at his eyebrows, the way they're knit together. Look at the way that he's biting his lips. The artist is observing the human body, understands all of the naturalistic lessons that had been gained during the Renaissance, but is putting them towards an intense emotionalism. - [Voiceover] This is a position of the body that could only be like this for a split-second. - [Voiceover] The body itself has broken with the stability that had been so characteristic of the Renaissance. Bernini's body is wound up, and is about to release its energy. He's like a spring that's taut. And you're right, his body could never hold this position for more than a moment. - [Voiceover] We see a diagonal. - [Voiceover] And it's not just straight diagonals, these are interrelated, arcing diagonals. And so there is this tremendous energy that's not only the result of the representation of his body, but it's the very forms and lines that the artist is creating in stone. - [Voiceover] And that's part of the way that the figure involves us. It moves into our space. With Michelangeolo's David, we maintain a polite distance. Its ideal beauty is there for us to contemplate. But Baroque art does something different. Instead of appealing to our minds, it appeals to our bodies. - [Voiceover] It appeals to our emotions. - [Voiceover] Michelangelo's David looks like a god. - [Voiceover] Well, Michelangelo is largely unwilling to sacrifice the pure, linear qualities of his figure. Notice the way in which the line of his body is almost unobstructed, whereas Bernini is absolutely willing to cross his body with his arms, with all of those diagonals that energize but also move away from that notion of the ideal. There's another important aspect that the complexity of Bernini's composition enables, and that is a greater set of contrasts between light and dark. Michelangelo's David, because he is so planar, the marble is all available to the light, and so you don't get deep shadow. With Bernini, because the form is crossing itself, you get these contrasts between highlights and shadows that further activate the sculpture. - [Voiceover] So how do we see this in painting? - [Voiceover] One of the great examples is to look at the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. - [Voiceover] This is an amazing painting, and incredibly powerful, very much like Bernini's David. We're confronted with something very close to us, which here is Saint Peter, who asked to be crucified upside-down, because he said he wasn't worthy to die the way that Christ died. So, here we see Peter nailed to the cross. The bottom of the cross almost feels like it's so close that we could touch it. So the same way that Bernini's David moved into our space, Caravaggio is using foreshortening. - [Voiceover] But it also creates an incredible sense of instability. Look at the way that that cross is just being raised up, and we're not sure that the massiveness of Peter and of the lumber is too heavy, whether or not he may fall with a giant thud, that everything feels contingent and in motion. - [Voiceover] And here we have the diagonal of the cross, but also another diagonal formed by the back of the figure who's helping to raise the cross, and the figure underneath who's raising it with his back. And so we have criss-crossing diagonals, which is also a very common feature of Baroque art. - [Voiceover] It's interesting to compare this to Bernini's sculpture, because Bernini was working in the round. Here, the artist is creating an illusion of form, of mass, and one of the ways he's able to do that is to create these sharp contrasts between light and shadow, which, just like the Bernini sculpture, is creating a sense of vividness and energy. So we've got this dark background, and these brilliantly highlighted figures, creating this sense of veracity that we could reach out and touch them. - [Voiceover] The whole thing about Renaissance painting was there was an illusion of space, there was architecture, there was landscape behind the figures, but here, Caravaggio uses darkness so that everything is pushed to the foreground. - [Voiceover] So it's emotional, it's intimate, it feels real, it feels immediate. - [Voiceover] And it gets to us in our bodies. Look at how close Peter's feet are, and we can see the nails that have been driven through his feet. We can see the nails in his hand. There's an interest in making us emotionally involved even in the violence, here. - [Voiceover] I'm interested in the way that the center of gravity has been shifted, and is being raised up so that there is this instability. - [Voiceover] A way to drive this point home is just to compare this to a painting by Raphael from the High Renaissance, where we have an emphasis on stability and balance. The figures in this painting by Raphael are in the shape of a pyramid, which is the most stable of forms. There's a clear light on the figures, they're situated within this three-dimensional space. We can move from foreground, to middle-ground, to deep background. - [Voiceover] And Raphael is enjoying the opportunity to give us as much information as he can, not only about the three figures in the foreground, but about the natural world beyond them, whereas Caravaggio is being much more careful about what we're going to focus on. - [Voiceover] Look at that beautiful face of the Madonna. She's not a particular person, she is the divine mother of God. - [Voiceover] But Peter is an actual individual that we're seeing. This is a particular man, at a particular point in his life. - [Voiceover] And there's dirt, and clothes that are disheveled. This is much more the real world than we ever see in the High Renaissance. - [Voiceover] So all of the art that we've looked at has been Italian. Can we see these same characteristics in art that's being produced north of the Alps? - [Voiceover] We can certainly see it in the art of Rubens. if we looked at Rubens' raising of the cross, we would see a diagonal, we would see dramatic contrast of light and dark. - [Voiceover] What if we were looking at artists who lived in a Protestant context? - [Voiceover] A lot of the characteristics we've been describing, these are characteristics that we associate with Catholic Baroque art, that sought to energize believers. In Holland, we're looking at paintings that are very different than the altarpieces from Catholic Europe, and that's because we're in a Protestant country, where artists are no longer commissioned to paint altarpieces for the Church. So let's take something that seems like the opposite of the Baroque art that we've been talking about. Let's take Vermeer's Woman With A Water Pitcher. - [Voiceover] Instead of seeing a Biblical scene, we're seeing a common domestic scene. A wealthy woman in her home, in the North of Europe. - [Voiceover] So what makes this Baroque? - [Voiceover] Everything in this painting is quiet. The light has a subtlety to it. It is very different from the drama and violence of the light that we saw in Caravaggio. Instead, the artist seems to be in love with the very subtle modulation of light, the very subtle gradations of tone. Look especially at the way that the light filters through her headdress. - [Voiceover] Or under her right arm, as she opens that window. - [Voiceover] We see a woman surrounded by rectilinear forms. The rectangle of the window, of the map on the upper right, the rectangle of the table to the lower right. She inhabits that space between. But she's moving and resisting the stability and geometry that is set up by the environment around her. - [Voiceover] She's picking up or putting down the pitcher, opening the window, this caught moment in-between. And even the light has a sense of being in-between, of the light coming in from the outside, of the light in the interior. And that interest in light is key to Baroque art, whether it's Caravaggio's drama or the subtlety of light in Vermeer. - [Voiceover] This is a painting that is about subtle transition, and whether or not it's the subtle transition of the light, or the subtle transition of her attention from the basin and pitcher to the window. - [Voiceover] We are close to her, we feel as though we could reach out and feel that rug that covers the table. So that closeness that we saw in Caravaggio and Bernini is still here. - [Voiceover] Let's move through all of these different types of paintings, how do we recognize the Baroque in 17th century Dutch landscape? - [Voiceover] Here's Ruisdael's beautiful painting of the Bleaching Grounds. But notice it's not an ideal landscape. This is the landscape of Ruisdael's hometown of Haarlem. - [Voiceover] We call this a landscape, but this is really about those clouds. Look at those huge, voluminous forms that are moving across that sky. I can see them forming and unforming before my very eyes. This is still about transition, and look at the way that those clouds cast shadows that create these alternating fields across the land below. - [Voiceover] So, Baroque art is about time, it's about effects of light, whether that's dramatic or more subtle, it's about involving the viewer, of moving into our space, of breaking down the barrier between us and the work of art. It's about the use of the diagonal, of a sense of energy and drama, sometimes subtle drama, but still drama. - [Voiceover] And for me, it's always about a sense of direct relationship with the subject. (jazzy piano outro)