Baroque Painting


Table Summary

Summary of Baroque Painting
Early Baroque
ca. 1600-25
High Baroque
ca. 1625-75
Late Baroque
ca. 1675-1725
ca. 1725-1800
realist Baroque: Caravaggio dynamic Baroque: Rubens
realist Baroque: Rembrandt, Velazquez
classicism: Poussin
successors of High Baroque masters Boucher
Baroque Secular Painting
landscape Ruisdael
genre painting Vermeer
still life Chardin
portraiture Hals

General Features

Baroque art is characterized by dynamism (a sense of motion), which is augmented by extravagant effects (e.g. strong curves, rich decoration, stark lighting; see Western Aesthetics). The full-blown Baroque aesthetic (full Baroque) was embraced in southern Western Europe, while northern Western Europe struck a classical-Baroque compromise (restrained Baroque). The chief exception to this generalization is Flanders, which embraced "full Baroque" (see Diffusion of Baroque).

One would therefore expect Baroque painting to feature dynamic composition (see Visual Composition). This is not always the case, however; sometimes, instead of using a preconceived aesthetic structure (dynamic composition), Baroque painters simply composed scenes as they appear in the real world (or, in the case of imagined scenes, as they would plausibly appear in the real world). This approach can be described as realist Baroque, as opposed to dynamic Baroque.

To reiterate: painting of the Baroque age can be divided into dynamic Baroque painting (which features dynamic composition) and realist Baroque painting (which features realistic composition). The former can be viewed as the descendent of Italian Renaissance painting (which focused on overall composition), the latter as the descendent of Low Countries Renaissance painting (which focused on realistically capturing the immediate physical world).

Idealism vs. Photorealism

The realist Baroque aesthetic goes further than realistic composition: it also features photorealism. (Only in the Baroque era did painting reach a level of physical realism that could be reasonably described as "photorealistic".) The contrasting approach is idealism, which had prevailed in Renaissance painting, and was generally continued by dynamic Baroque painters.

Idealism is a logical consequence of the aesthetic of classicism, which is chiefly preoccupied with overall balance and harmony of composition (rather than finely-rendered detail). While classical painting is quite realistic, individual features and textures are nonetheless often simplified, since these are of secondary importance. Consequently, the elements of a classical composition (e.g. human bodies and faces, landscape features) take on a similar, generic appearance as they are idealized (i.e. as the irregular and inharmonious aspects of the real world are smoothed away).

To reiterate: realist Baroque painting features photorealism (a level of physical realism approaching that of the real world), while dynamic Baroque painting typically features idealism (in which the real world is simplified into idealized, generic features). The former quality descends from painting of the Low Countries, the latter from Italian art.

Sky Ceiling Murals

When a scene is painted with sufficient physical realism (especially depth of perspective), it gives observers the illusion of "looking through" the painted surface at the scene beyond; this is known as illusionistic painting. The most spectacular traditional form of illusionistic painting is the sky ceiling mural, which developed during the Renaissance, then culminated during the Baroque age. In addition to sky, cloud, and sun, these murals are typically filled with soaring figures and rich decorative elements, making them perhaps the most lavish examples of the dynamic Baroque aesthetic.12

Sky Ceiling Mural (Baroque age)
Sky Ceiling Mural (Baroque age)
Sky Ceiling Mural (Baroque age)
Sky Ceiling Mural (Renaissance age)

Main Article

Early Baroque

ca. 1600-25

The founder of the realist Baroque aesthetic was Caravaggio, the most influential painter of the Early Baroque period, and the artist who established tenebrism (the bright illumination of a scene out of darkness) as a common feature of realist Baroque painting. Given its drama-heightening effect, tenebrism is very much a Baroque effect (see Western Aesthetics). The impact of this effect can be seen in The Musicians, one of Caravaggio's most famous non-religious works, and The Calling of Saint Matthew, possibly his masterpiece.

Caravaggio evoked much controversy with his bold embrace of reality. In religious paintings, for instance, he faced widespread opposition to his depictions of biblical figures with realistic bodies and features; this marks a sharp break from Renaissance idealism, in which figures are generally muscular and youthful, and have flawless, generic faces. Moreover, Caravaggio's work often features impoverished people and places; The Calling of Saint Matthew, for instance, is set in a run-down tavern.C87,E47,H837

The Musicians
The Calling of Saint Matthew
Supper at Emmaus

Low Countries Terminology

Historical discussion of the region known as the Low Countries can be confusing, due to ambiguous terminology. This region consists of two main parts: the Netherlands (in the north) and Belgium (in the south). The Netherlands became an independent country ca. 1600, while Belgium achieved independence in the nineteenth century.

The 'Low Countries' Region
The Large Modern Nations of the Low Countries Region

In the later medieval period, the Low Countries was home to a number of small, prosperous states with economies based on trade and manufacturing. Mightiest of these was Flanders, which lay mainly in northern Belgium. When discussing history up to ca. 1600, the entire Low Countries region is often referred to as “Flanders”.

Meanwhile, the term Netherlands literally means “Low Countries”. Up until ca. 1600, “Netherlands” was also used to denote the entire Low Countries region.

Low Countries Terminology
when discussing history…
before ca. 1600 ca. 1600-1800 after ca. 1800
the Low Countries region is known as Low Countries, Netherlands, Flanders Low Countries
the northern half is known as Netherlands
the southern half is known as Flanders Belgium

Ca. 1600, the northern part of the Low Countries became the independent nation of the Netherlands. Thus, after ca. 1600, the term Netherlands is typically limited to this country. The term Flanders, however, is often still applied to the southern Low Countries prior to the nineteenth century, when the nation of Belgium was formed.

Rise of Secular Painting

Along with Italy, the most innovative region of Western painting during the Baroque era was the Netherlands. Indeed, the seventeenth century was the Dutch Golden Age, an extraordinary flourishing (especially for such a small nation) of arts, sciences, and global commercial empire. Economic prosperity gave rise to a large middle class with a healthy appetite for art.E52,G382,H854

Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, Western art was universally dominated by Christian themes (and, to a lesser extent, classical mythology). This dominance would have continued throughout the Baroque age were it not for the Reformation, which converted much of Europe to Protestantism. In Protestant nations, religious and mythological images were strongly discouraged. Moreover, Protestantism (which prescribed a rugged, simple life) was incompatible with the opulence of the dynamic Baroque aesthetic.E46,F326

Thus, in the nations of Protestant Europe (including the Netherlands), artists were unable to make a living from either religious art or dynamic Baroque art. In terms of aesthetic, this led Protestant artists to embrace realist Baroque; in terms of content, secular (non-religious) subjects.

The Dutch Golden Age finally lifted secular painting to a level of equal prominence with religious and mythological painting in Europe. Secular painting can be divided into four main types: landscape, genre painting, still life, and portraiture. The early development of all four types took place during the Renaissance.E46,F319,H854

Renaissance Landscape Painting
Renaissance Genre Painting
Renaissance Still Life
Renaissance Portrait
Renaissance Portrait
Renaissance Portrait
Renaissance Portrait

A landscape can be defined as "a painting in which the environment is the primary subject; figures are absent or secondary". (The seascape and cityscape are often grouped as special types of landscape.) A still life painting depicts a collection of objects (often flowers, fruit, and/or dishes), typically selected for a pleasing mixture of colours and textures. A genre painting is a portrayal of everyday life.

The foremost Baroque landscapist was Jacob van Ruisdael, while the leading Baroque genre painter was Jan Vermeer. Both were Dutch artists, whose careers fell mainly in the High Baroque. While still life painting also blossomed in the Dutch Golden Age, the most renowned Baroque still life artist is likely French artist Jean Chardin, of the Rococo period.

<em>Wheat Fields</em>, Ruisdael (landscape painting)
<em>Jewish Cemetery</em>, Ruisdael (landscape painting)
<em>Woman Holding a Balance</em>, Vermeer (genre painting)
<em>The Milkmaid</em>, Vermeer (genre painting)
<em>The Music Lesson</em>, Vermeer (genre painting)
Still Life by Chardin
Still Life by Chardin

Finally, the Dutch Golden Age gave rise to natural portraiture, which captures a person's spontaneous, natural posture and expression. This approach emerged gradually throughout the Renaissance, as rigid formality (which characterizes the earliest Renaissance portraits) was slowly relaxed. The foremost portrait specialist of the Baroque age was Frans Hals.F327,H854

<em>The Merry Drinker</em>, Hals
<em>The Laughing Cavalier</em>, Hals
<em>Portrait of Jan Six</em>, Rembrandt
<em>Girl with a Pearl Earring</em>, Vermeer

High Baroque

ca. 1625-1675

Rembrandt van Rijn, a realist Baroque artist, is often considered the greatest of all Dutch painters. Rembrandt embraced tenebrism, but in a softer, more atmospheric manner than Caravaggio. His leading works include Nightwatch (his masterpiece) and Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.E54,F335,H857,6

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp
Diego Velazquez, another realist Baroque artist, is widely considered Spain's greatest painter.7 His masterpiece is Las Meninas ("The Maids of Honour"), which features members of the Spanish court.
Las Meninas
Old Woman Frying Eggs
The Triumph of Bacchus

Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest Baroque artist of Flanders, is often considered the foremost painter of the dynamic Baroque aesthetic (though he also worked in realist Baroque).1 His style is often described as painterly, which means that he prioritized free, expressive strokes of colour over sharply-defined forms. (An artist who prefers sharply-defined forms will first draw those forms, then carefully paint within the lines of the drawing; this is linear style painting, the opposite of painterly style.)

Rubens' most famous works may be two altarpieces: Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. His gift for dynamism was also well-suited to hunting scenes.

Raising of the Cross
Descent from the Cross
Hippopotamus Hunt
Night Scene

While Baroque painting did flourish in France, many artists there chose instead to continue the pursuit of classicism. This included the greatest French painter of the Baroque age, Nicolas Poussin, whose masterpiece is The Arcadian Shepherds. Poussin was so influential that, up until the rise of modern art, his style (which is sharply linear) was widely considered the ideal model of French painting.E62,H865-68,4

The Arcadian Shepherds
Holy Family on the Steps
Truth Rescuing Time

In addition to figure paintings, French classicism also embraced landscapes. The resulting images were not realistic, however, but imaginary classical landscapes in which the terrain and its features are arranged in a balanced, harmonious manner. Indeed, equivalent works were produced by dynamic Baroque artists: imaginary dynamic Baroque landscapes, arranged in a dynamic, dissonant manner, often with restless weather and dramatically curved roads and rivers.

Classical Landscape
Classical Landscape
Dynamic Baroque Landscape
Dynamic Baroque Landscape

Late Baroque

ca. 1675-1725

The greatest painters of the Baroque era belong to the High Baroque period. The various styles and subjects of High Baroque painting continued to flourish during the Late Baroque, in the brushes of many less renowned successors.


ca. 1725-1800

The last phase of Baroque was Rococo, in which the curves and dynamism of Baroque were retained, but its weighty drama softened to a light, playful style. Cheerful subjects, light colours, and delicate curves are all typical features of Rococo art. The most iconic Rococo artist is François Boucher, whose work includes paintings, ceramics, and tapestries; his masterpiece is The Birth of Venus.C95,G378,9

Birth of Venus
Saint Peter Trying to Walk on Water
Le Dejeuner
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