Notes on baroque art

  • Post comments:0 Comments
  • Reading time:7 mins read
You are currently viewing Notes on baroque art

I am a fan of baroque art. I should say that up front. But I’m not going to write this blog in the breathless, hyperventilating style of the usual blog about baroque art. I don’t think you need to know anything about art history or religious history to enjoy baroque art, but I do think you have to be ready to care about it. And you have to be prepared not to like everything; some of it is pretty weird.

I’m also not going to pretend that I’m a scholar of baroque art. I don’t know much more than what you can learn by looking at the pictures and reading the captions in a good book on the subject, and maybe a website or two. But what little expertise I might have is mostly in seventeenth-century English painting, which doesn’t really overlap with baroque art much at all, and so my only qualification for writing this blog is enthusiasm.

I’ll start off with some basic questions: What is baroque? When did it start? How does it differ from earlier styles? Since there are lots of different sorts of baroque art, how does one decide whether something is “really” baroque? And what

Art is a form of communication, and has to be judged by the standards of communication.

The conventional art-historical narrative about Baroque art is that it was about excess: about lavishness, about grandeur, about drama, about mystery. That narrative is true in part, and false in part. The Baroque was a reaction against Mannerism, which had been all about subtlety, refinement, and elegance. So yes, the Baroque is big and dramatic and theatrical. But that’s only half of the story.

Baroque art also had a strong element of wit and extravagance. And it was meant to be fun! The king was supposed to have fun; everyone else as well. The Baroque aesthetic was all about delighting the senses. The eye should be delighted by bright colors and intricate detail, the ear by complex rhythms and surprising harmonies.

By this standard, much of what we call Baroque art falls short: Bernini’s statues are often too small to be seen well; there are too many characters on Caravaggio’s canvases for us to keep track of them; the architecture seems cramped compared to Hagia Sophia or St Paul’s Cathedral or Saint Peter’s Basilica;

The term “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for “misshapen pearl”, and arose to describe an artistic movement that developed in Europe around 1600, characterised by an ornate style of decoration.

It was an outgrowth of Mannerism, which rejected the harmonious naturalism of High Renaissance art in favor of artificial effects, often using elongated forms.

Many baroque artists were also involved in architecture, and the movement had a direct impact on interior design as well as painting and sculpture.

Baroque art represented a deliberate contrast to all that had come before it: its grandeur and ostentation appeared to overthrow the harmonious ideals of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli.

Toward the end of the 16th century, Italian architects began to look to Classical antiquity for inspiration instead, developing new designs based on symmetry and mathematical precision. This phase is known as Mannerism.

In other parts of Europe however, such as France, Northern Europe and especially Spain, art continued along a more direct path from that taken by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) and his followers; this is often described as late Gothic or gothic period. The baroque style

Baroque art is not all that hard to understand. The only real difficulty is the name. Baroque is a French word, and in France it has a very precise meaning. In English it’s used pretty much as a synonym for “decorated” or “ornate,” but that’s not how people use it in France.

The Baroque period in French art ran from about 1650 to 1720. During that time the main characteristic of French painting was the trompe-l’oeil still life. It was a picture of something that wasn’t there, and the effort that went into creating the illusion of reality was considered more important than the picture itself.

French painters weren’t alone in doing this kind of thing. They were just better at it than anyone else, so they deserve credit for inventing it; but what they did had been invented independently by Chinese painters centuries earlier (which explains why it’s called “Chinese shadows”).

The idea behind trompe l’oeil is that since reality can’t be improved on, you might as well copy it faithfully. This isn’t always true, but it is often true, and the best artists are those who can tell which times are which. For

When the church commissioned art, it was to make a spiritual statement. But with the rise of secular monarchs, the purpose of art changed: it became a means to impress.

The style that came about was Baroque. It was influenced by art from ancient Rome and Greece but it took a different turn. The classical style had been clean and simple, but baroque artwork was full of drama and movement, as if it were telling a story.

What made baroque so dramatic? The answer is in the name: Baroque is named after an irregular stone in Portuguese called Barroco. It’s all jagged and bumpy, so that there’s more surface area for the light to bounce off of than there would be on a smooth stone.

It’s the same as baroque artwork: there are more contrasts and details in baroque than in classicism, making it seem more dramatic, energetic, and alive.

In the past some art critics have tended to make broad generalizations about eras based on the art that was most visible and most widely copied.

For example, Mannerist art is sometimes called “decadent” while Rococo is considered “exuberant.” But this can lead to confusion.

The art of the Baroque was no less exuberant than Rococo. The difference is that with Baroque, exuberance was a conscious stylistic choice whereas with Rococo it may have been unconscious. With Mannerism it was an option rejected by nearly everyone who had anything to say about it; with Baroque it was one of many options, often chosen deliberately.

Tirole writes that “[b]aroque artists used their new freedoms to masterfully create complex compositions which seemed to abound in exotic imagery, ornamental details and theatrical effects.” Another writer notes that “the Baroque’s high emotional content, its drama, its sensuality and its sheer extravagance appealed strongly to the Catholic Church, which was striving for a similar impact in its religious services.”

Cavalcaselle, Cesare (1888). Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, with an Account of Their Works, Volume 3. London: Macmillan and Co. pp. 1–2.

Cavalcaselle observes that the number of men with talent in [painting] decreased in this century; those who were left were at least as inclined to sculpture, so that there was no lack of sculptors or of sculptural works. And since there were so many sculptors, the painters had to fall into minor roles, from which it resulted that they were given free rein to indulge their caprices and whims, especially since the public was not disposed to be critical of such works because there was no lack of them.

Leave a Reply