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Lecture on Baroque Art
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]
What is Baroque art? Formally, Baroque art applies to the era in art history that dominated most of arts of the seventeenth century--the enlightenment -- or, what we call the Age of Newton. The era is differentiated from earlier periods by the currents of individualism and nationalism -- currents which are fundamentally a product of the ideas emerging as a result of the development of printing around 1450.
In general, Baroque artwork is elaborate, energetic, and passionate--whatever that means. The use of curves and detail are characteristic of the movement. Baroque is often associated with dynamic and rich images of textured, flowing robes. The Baroque period is also strongly associated with religious art since much of its impetus was given by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But not all Baroque work is related to religious symbolism. Most of what I will show you here is not religious. The term Baroque by the way can also be used with reference to art of any time or place that shows the sorts of qualities I will talk about here. In the period called Baroque those qualities dominated the art of the era.
Before I do that let's look for a moment at what Baroque art is not. That context might help in seeing some of those qualities that are Baroque.
Leonardo's da Vinci Virgin and Child with St. Anne
This is Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child with St. Anne. It contains all of the elements of Renaissance idealism. There's harmony and technical balance in the construction. Notice for example how the figures are grouped into a cone or pyramid. Da Vinci has pulled out all of his artistic tricks in this work: in the forms, colours, light and shade, proportions, anatomy. All of these he handles with total control. The human figure has reached a peak of idealization anatomically and aesthetically. I really love this work. And I think it is quite possible to enjoy this work whether or not you identify with the religious symbolism. And, the piece certainly has emotional content too. All renaissance art does -- but the emotional content is of a different sort from the Baroque -- on a different plane. I can see and be moved by the clear ties between the mother and child and the warm loving connection evident here, but, these connections do not remind me of the sorts of personal loving mother-child connections we know from our lives -- these are idealized.
Michaelangelo Sistine Chapel Detail
This detail of Michelangelo's familiar Adam from the Sistine chapel (above) conveys a strong message of Renaissance idealism. This moment -- the Creation shows Adam lying on a bare landscape and carries with it the very instant of creation: the whole human story is about to begin.
Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa
I like to call this work proto-baroque. Leonardo's Da Vinci's La Joconde or Mona Lisa is of course Renaissance in every respect -- and the work represents a tour de force for da Vinci. It is perfect. The sfumato technique da Vinci used in this work seemed absolutely miraculous to da Vinci's contemporaries. The painting was built from gossamer thin layers of glazes so light that the entire work seemed to glow from within. Yet, as idealized and perfect as this work was -- it fascinated and fascinates still because in one important respect it is NOT renaissance. The subject here, Mona Lisa herself, is not a divine character. She is no angel. The so-called "enigmatic smile" raises questions about this woman's human psychology. What is she thinking?; what does she know?. It's as if da Vinci in having depleted all of his tricks, teases us with something new. He reveals a new dimension in art -- a dimension that will flourish during the Baroque era.
Giorgione Tempest (1505)
Da Vinci wasn't the first renaissance artist to introduce -- or tease -- with non-renaissance elements. Giorgione's idyllic scene here -- called the Tempest -- is also Renaissance in all respects except that this work is designed to convey a mood. There is an uneasy anticipation conveyed here: the idyllic is about to be overtaken by an ugly storm. The idea of creating mood in art had, until Giorgione, been a trick used by the poet, here a painter is trying to do the same thing.
Appealing to classical Greek inspiration, Renaissance painters in search of new inspiration, attempted to emulate in their paintings some of the tension and dramatic qualities discovered in late classical Greek sculpture, particularly the twisting violent figures of the Laocoon group.
These 2nd century BC works were unearthed early in the 16th century and first identified by the young Michaelangelo and became the powerful source of his later inspitation. The work also provided inspiration for a mode of painting that came to known as Mannerism. Mannerism is still renaissance, but renaissance with flair.
Parmigianino Virgin with the Long Neck (1535)
This is the Mannerist result. Parmigianino's intent is to improve on the ideal through his twisting exaggerations, the elongation of the human form and overstated expressions arranged in irregular configurations.
Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper (1497)
We are all familiar with Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper -- degraded and as badly restored as it now is. It is nonetheless one of da Vinci's greatest achievements. How then could a Renaissance imitator ever improve on this? Well, by allowing other but still permissible classical conventions to enter into the work, Tintoretto did something new. This is his Last Supper -- executed a one hundred years after da Vinci's monumental achievement.
Tintoretto Last Supper (1592).
This was probably the last Renaissance gasp. Something quite new is about to happen to the world of art -- and seems imminent in Tintoretto's work. Christ in this work is at the centre -- but the table is at an angle. The overall effect is artificial, unreal, unearthly -- notice too how the everyday mixes with the supernatural.
The work below, Bernini's David, is truly Baroque.
Contrast Michaelangelo's David with Bernini's. While Tintoretto's work is artificial, Bernini's is natural. Michelangelo's David represents a classical ideal but Bernini's is more recognizable. Bernini's David might might easily have played rugby. He certainly is not to be confused with the gods. This is a regular guy. The work is also more dramatic, more violent, more sensuous that the other.
The baroque was influenced by many developments and people. The counter-reformation was a major impulse in the South; in the North it was a spirit of absolutism -- an influence of Hobbes. In North and South the winds of the new sciences and new rationalism -- currents from Galileo, Harvey, Bacon, Newton and Descartes had enormous impacts on art -- not so much in the production of art with "scientific" subject, but art that reflects the importance behind the new science and rationalisms -- namely the radical break with tradition and authority the new sciences brought. Both camps were fascinated with violence -- spawned by the wars of the times. What is particularly fascinating about this new world is that both camps -- the traditional Catholic and the new enlightened spirit of rationalism responded in spades -- with neither side really a clear winner. Both produced spirited work and both currents continue to influence art right on down to the present day.
But, if there was a precise instant in time where the break with the renaissance occurred, it may have been here in this amazing work by Caravaggio painted just 6 years after Tintoretto's Last Supper.
Caravaggio Supper at Emmaeus (1598)
Caravaggio broke the mold. Never before had the world seen a Christ depicted in this way: a disheveled, haloless, well-fed, beardless man sitting in a completely natural and convincing space amongst men with weather beaten faces, red noses, and torn clothing. Gone completely is the artificiality of the Tintoretto's image. Here the table is set, but the food is familiar; the apples are worm eaten. No idealist painted this image. The leaves are dying. The conversation is animated -- contentious -- the man in the foreground seems set to leap from his chair. And the chair isn't even fully in the picture. It is cut off -- and deliberately so by Caravaggio in a novel attempt to bring the action out of the picture and into our space. There is much that is new. And for viewers accustomed to renaissance convention, this image is disturbing and even subversive.
Caravaggio Death of a Virgin (1606)
If Christ's image shocked, this image electrified. This is Caravaggio's Death of a Virgin. What was Caravaggio up to? Notice the theatrical use of light and shade. Light falls onto the subject from the side -- like a spotlight . Look at the despair in the figures gathered around the body. Most of the image is covered in the gloom of haunting darkness. There is little that is ideal here -- but most radical of all -- the model Caravaggio used to create his image of the dead virgin was in fact, the swollen body of a murdered prostitute just recovered from the Tiber river in Rome. There's no wonder Caravaggio's patrons got twitchy. He knew what he was up to. This is clearly political art. Caravaggio lived hard and died young.
Caravaggio David with Head of Goliath
In fact he was dead at 36. Caravaggio's David with the head of Goliath contains Caravaggio's only self portrait -- the head here is none other than that of the artist!
Artemesia Gentileschi Judith and Maidservant
This is the image that launched a thousand Murder Mystery book covers in the 20th century: Gentileschi's Judith and Maidservant. It is one of a sequence of works painted by Gentileschi on this theme. The head in this image is hidden from view just after the maid stuffs it in the sack. The hushed candlelit atmosphere might seem a bit theatrical to us now, but it was quite effective in its day.
Artemesia Gentileschi Self Portrait
The physical similarity between the Judith in the painting and Gentileschi in her self-portrait is no coincidence. Gentieschi -- as a woman -- was not permitted to use live models as subjects -- so, she used her own body as model in many of her works.
Bernini Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645)
Here is one the Baroque's most powerful religious moments: the Ecstasy of St. Teresa -- this is Bernini's attempt to capture in starkly human terms a mystical experience described by Teresa in her hand as follows: Beside me appeared an angel in bodily form. In his hands I saw a great golden spear and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed with the great love of god. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain. Though the body has some share in it--even a considerable share.
The Baroque in Spain emphasized another side of life. This is Velazquez woman cooking eggs.
Velazquez Woman Cooking Eggs
Velazquez like Gentileschi painted in a Caravaggio style -- brutally naturalistic particularly in his use of light and shade -- chiaroscuro -- but unlike Caravaggio, Velazquez's emphasis is on the more pleasant side of life. I enjoy the quote of Velazquez in your package: "I would rather be the first painter of common things than the second in higher art."
Velazquez Maids of Honour (1619)
This is one of the baroque's most admired group paintings. We have six pairs of eyes. The subject in the painting seems to be Princess Marguarita -- but is it? What is in the mirror? Who are the real subjects? Is the subject art itself? Or is it the artist?
The influence of Caravaggio is seen in this deliberately smooth, poetic and simple work by French artist Georges du Mesnilde la Tour. The work is natural and beautiful but not at all real.
Georges du Mesnil de la Tour New Born
In Catholic Flanders -- what is now the South of Holland -- realism and naturalism are combined.
Ostade Three persons Smoking/Drinking in interior
Also from Flanders -- and one of the most successful and wealthiest painters of the era -- if not all time was Peter Paul Rubens. This is his Garden of Love.
Rubens Garden of Love
Here myth and Reality unite in an almost promiscuous tribute to life's pleasures. This extravagant, sensuous, vibrant work is pure Baroque -- I think in the sense that most people now sense what Baroque art is all about. This painting had a special meaning to Rubens -- who although 60 years, he had just married a 16 year old woman -- Rubens died just two years later.
Rubens Rape of the daughters of Leucippus (1616)
If the Garden of Love is pure Baroque -- this is pure Rubenesque. The treatment of the mythological assault is said to have inspired two centuries of Western art. Rubens was infatuated with classical antiquity -- as well as a leading creator of religious art. His voluptuous treatment of the female form also defined a standard for female beauty that endured for many centuries. A renaissance treatment of such a scene would be far less naturalistic -- far more sculpturesque -- the subjects far more idealized -- than this airy, energetic, clearly violent treatment. The result I think is a deeper connection with the brutality involved -- and a more visceral response to the subject matter. This subject might involve a mythological event -- but it is also the sort of thing that could happen to us on the human plane. It too is a political and social statement.
The Baroque in the North of Holland took a decidedly different turn. This Protestant area was extraordinarily liberal and cosmopolitan and wealthy.
A healthy middle and merchant class thrived there and there developed a strong demand for art -- art created expressly for the home: interiors, still-life, landscapes and portraits -- the artist was also free to do what he or she liked -- paint first -- sell later. So in many respects Dutch art reflects the society from which it emerges.
The rooms are clear, uncluttered. The furniture is carefully chosen; the style is realistic in every detail; the overall impression is almost photographic.
This landscape -- Jewish Cemetery is by the Great Dutch Landscape painter van Ruisdal.
Van Ruisdal Jewish Cemetery (1655)
This imaginary melancholy scene formed the basis of the romantic notion of the sublime -- a hundred years later. The scene conveys the idea that nothing endures: ancient crumbling graves, a medieval ruin -- all crumble in the face of time and the elements.
Here is another dramatic and emotional landscape by Wynant.
Jan Wynant Landscape
Dutch seascapes are thematically similar to Dutch landscapes. This is Storck's Four days Battle.
Abraham Storck Four days Battle
This image depicts a real marine battle. Storck would have been here and was hired to record the events -- as one of the first true war artists.
I will focus lastly an the greatest genius of Dutch Baroque art -- Rembrandt. Rembrandt was strongly influenced by Caravaggio. The artist fought fiercely for personal autonomy and always choose his own subject matter.
Rembrandt Anatomy Lesson
Rembrandt Night Watch (1642)
What I find endearing about Rembrandt was his absolute refusal to cater to populist crutches. Flamboyance sells. But Rembrandt rejects flamboyance. Rembrandt has rejected the cult of beauty. He did only what he wanted to do and ignored both the critics and the winds of popular taste.
Nothing grand lasts forever. The Baroque impulse had run its course -- for the time being at least. As time changes so does art. But the period immediately following the Baroque saw the development of a gratuitous style whose only virtue was being "pretty!" This style, Rococo, was associated with the reign of Louis XV -- the Sun King. This is art that delights, but never excites.
Watteau Homage to Love (1720)
This art was intended to entertain -- and little else. No social, religious, or political messages are found or intended. Nothing this art contained would ever invade delicate sensibilities. It is gratuitous art at its frivolous best -- analagous to elevator music or a Harlequin Romance; today art from this "entertainment only" genre is available at any suburban mall. This is art that works well in hotel or motel rooms -- establishments that began to flourish for the first time in this period.
Nothing good lasts. The Baroque ended with a whimper.
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