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Baroque Art – All For One

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity | Early Christian and Byzantine | Middle Ages | Renaissance | Baroque
Rembrandt Bellona painting

The 16th Century was the time of the Counter-Reformation and the resurgence of the Catholic Church. The Pope had considerable political power, which resulted in the wish to also show this power through arts. While Protestants condemned the use of sacral pictures and even destroyed existing ones1, the Catholic Church actively used the message of pictures to provide moral inspiration. Kings ruled with absolute power, which they displayed in their palaces. The peak of this development was Louis XIV's (1638-1715) Palace of Versailles. France rose to become the most influential country in Europe.

Baroque art has its roots in Rome at around 1600 and spread through Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the last large all-encompassing arts style in Europe, meaning it influenced not only visual art and architecture but also music and literature. Missionaries even exported it to South America and Asia.

During the Baroque age opera was invented (and with it a large variety of stage machinery). The rich celebrated any occasion they could find with incredibly excessive festivities that could last for days. Operas and music were composed specifically for these events and people were dressed up as all kinds of mythological figures. Everyone was part of a large performance. It was the time of the composers Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Friedrich Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Molière wrote his comedy plays for the theatre.

Scientists organised themselves in academies and made great advancements in mechanics. Isaac Newton formulated his famous laws, Blaise Pascal examined pressure and Christiaan Huygens constructed the first pendulum clocks and discovered that light has the characteristics of a wave.

The name Baroque comes from Portuguese 'baruca', which was what jewellers called an imperfect pearl. Baroque art was seen as strange and imperfect by later generations. Artworks during this time were meant to convey emotions to the viewer. They were naturalistic but not uninspired. Baroque artworks like to show figures making dramatic gestures, illuminated by a dramatic lighting. They try to make the invisible visible. An important aspect was also the realistic depiction of clothes, folds of cloth and different materials, which was often practiced to astounding perfection. The emotions boiling up inside people are visualised through the many folds of their clothes. New was the depiction of imperfect people and contemporary clothing as opposed to antique togas, which were favoured during the Renaissance period.

Starting in Florence and Rome in the 16th Century, artists organised themselves in academies, which basically took over the roles of a guild and school, but as well as artists and architects also encompassed interested laymen and critics. In 1648 Louis XIV founded the 'Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture'. This academy was the foundation of arts for the next 250 years. Here, arts were institutionalised, and the government had strong influence in what was taught. The academy took over a leading role in culture all over Europe. New academies were founded in many different countries.

The academy also organised regular exhibitions of the works of its members. Anyone could see them for free, which helped to make arts popular and rose public interest. It also resulted in the development of critical writings about art. At exhibitions artists could also sell their work. Artworks were collected by the rich and shown to their visitors as a proof of good taste and wealth. Often these collections form the foundation of museums we still have today. The arts became a matter of interest and public discussion, something to write about. They also provided new goods that could be bought, sold, or traded.


Gallery of Mirrors in Versailles

The most important artistic concept in the Baroque age was the Gesamtkunstwerk. Different kinds of visual arts and architecture created the decoration for one room or even a whole building, working together to create one total work of art. The Gesamtkunstwerk encompassed for instance paintings, stucco, wall coverings, furniture and floors. This means that many different artists as well as a large number of craftsmen would work on a single project. Different pictures in one room (often on the ceiling) were parted with painted, ornamental frames which often overlapped with the actual pictures. Figures could for instance reach their arm into the frame. Sometimes there was also an interaction between figures in different frames.

A popular idea was the decoration of a suite with a common theme. A suite was a collection of reception rooms of an important person. Visitors followed a pre-defined path through the rooms until they reached the audience room of the owner. This made a suite perfect for the decoration with a narration that continued as the visitor progressed through the rooms. A similar principle was also used for apartments – the private rooms of the rich. Here the decoration of the room was often according to its use.

Continuing the traditions of the Renaissance period, murals visually expanded the room through the use of perspectively correct paintings, but this concept was taken to a new level entirely. Artists tried to convey the illusion of the viewer standing in a different place. Often parts of the murals also seem to reach into the room. The topics of murals were dependent on the client they were made for. Secular buildings were often decorated with themes from Roman mythology as well as allegories. Sacral buildings naturally were rather decorated with scenes from the Bible.

Pietro da Cortona was the most important Italian painter in the 17th Century. He created large and complex ceiling murals with many different figures. His monumental compositions showed many novelties and influenced many later painters2. Through the use of symbols and gestures his paintings managed to demonstrate the importance of his clients and were a new way of propaganda. The narratives of Cortona's paintings often even continued on a path through different rooms.

Cortona also was a master of the technique of di sotto in su - the vertical perspective. This effect expands the physical room visually in its hight. The real architecture may be expanded in the painting, but there always is the depiction of the open sky above the viewer. Figures seem to stand on the ceiling and float above the viewer, which is only possible through the use of extreme contractions of the proportions. The curved Baroque ceilings made this even more difficult to achieve.

Ceiling paintings were also a very suitable thing for churches. Through the depiction of the sky they showed the happenings in the heavens above in lively scenes. The halls of the churches appeared much higher this way. Similar to the concept in profane buildings, different areas of a church were decorated with a common topic. The painting above the hall related to those above the apse and in the dome. The frames of the paintings often were painted or gilded stucco.


While sculptures as such were found in many households, those of a good quality were very expensive and could only be acquired by the church and the nobility. Another use for often very elaborate sculptures in public spaces were for instance fountains, which were meant to show the wealth of the community3.

Sculptures and stucco in a room did not only have the same topic as the murals on the ceilings but were an integral part of the decoration. They did not only appear as parts of an ensemble but also as stand-alone works of art. Sculptures were created in many different materials, often different materials and colours were combined to create the desired impression. The most popular materials for sculptures were marble and bronze, but alabaster and wood were also used. Sometimes they were covered with gold. The surface was treated so elaborately that different materials could be portrayed realistically. The depiction of cloth in stone was probably the highest form of this art. Not only complicated folds but also lace was recreated in detail. Smaller pieces were often made of ivory and even the use of terracotta became popular4.

Sculptors did not only create figures but were hired by the rich to design any objects they would use in their lives. This could be anything from coaches to candle holders.

The most important sculptor of the 17th Century was Gianlorenzo Bernini. He was a sculptor, architect and draftsman who tried to achieve a symbiosis of all visual arts. His groups of sculptures show important moments of stories. The figures seem to be in mid-movement, frozen in time. They are very dynamic and show emotions. Very much contrary to sculptures of the Renaissance age Bernini did not create his sculptures to be viewed from all sides but like a picture they should be seen from a certain side and with a background.

Bernini also influenced the art of creating portraits, which is still widely in use. His portrait busts do not only look like the person they depict but also show their character through the expression on their face. They give the impression that they want to start talking any moment.


Paintings on canvas were popular since the High Renaissance, when they replaced wooden panels. They were easy to transport and therefore very suitable for collectors. On canvas painters could freely show all their creativity without being tied to a certain topic. They also made artists independent from large assignments like murals. The paintings went back to the naturalistic ideals of the Renaissance age.

New genres created during the Baroque age were the still-life, landscape paintings and genre paintings. Before the Baroque age landscapes only appeared as a background for different scenes, but now they became a stand-alone subject. Genre paintings were an idea from Northern Europe and showed the daily life of ordinary people. Through this, distinctive national elements were present in arts. The most valued subject for paintings, however, were historic scenes.

A French invention of the 18th Century were the so-called fête galante, which basically depicted elegantly dressed people in a pretty landscape. Italians on the other hand invented the Capriccio, which were fantasy scenes with ruins. Cityscapes – the so-called Vedute - were often sold to tourists and therefore produced in large quantities5. The traditional paintings of monarchs originated in Spain. They were life-sized and set on a neutral background. Of course this also included the detailed depiction of the monarchs' clothes.

Artistically the most important countries of northern Europe were Flanders and Holland. Flanders in the south belonged to Spain and was therefore a Catholic country, while Holland in the north was Protestant. In both countries the depiction of contemporary life was of great interest for artists. The artists also took a great interest in realism. Flemish painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck travelled to Italy to study the art of the Italian masters.

In Holland the church was not, of course, a client for artists, meaning that all artworks were sold to private buyers. While Dutch painters mostly earned their money with still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings (often landscapes were also combined with the depiction of life in the country), they also produced works for the private use of Catholics who still lived in the country. The most important and only large scale works of arts in Holland were portraits, including group portraits like Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch'.


During the Baroque period copper engravers detected that much money could be made through copying popular paintings in large quantities. Etching on the other hand was rather used for printing original artworks. It was also very popular in Protestant countries and soon adopted new motifs like landscapes. Artists also preferred etching as it was easier to do and allowed a working technique closer to painting. Usually a painted look of the finished piece was desired.

Combinations of engraving and etching were also used. During the 18th Century printing in colour became possible. This could happen in two ways: either one copper plate was painted in different colours or multiple copper plates with one colour each were used for one print. Printing techniques were refined so prints could convincingly reproduce any medium of art, from water colours to coloured crayons.


The Rococo style started at French court around 1720. It was mainly a style of decoration and many small elegant objects were created. People also had a new love for china – used both for decoration and sets of tableware.

In arts the topic of love was very popular. Paintings showed half-naked women, frivolous scenes and little angels. This was seen as fitting for private houses. Strong contrasts and bold colours were given up in favour of pastels.

Vive la Revolution

The study of arts of antiquity was always an integral part of every artistic career during the Baroque age. Since the mid-18th Century however, many came to feel that the antique ideals were not followed closely enough anymore. This led to the rise of Classicism, which brought an end to the playfulness of Rococo just like the French people brought an end to their king.

Main Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery of Mirrors image of courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1This is known as iconoclasm.2One of his works for instance was used as an example for the decoration of Versailles.3One famous example is the Trevi Fountain in Rome.4Originally it was only used to make models of larger works to help with their conception.5They couldn't bring their camera, of course.

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