The beginning of the XVII century was quite eventful, with Descartes philosophy planting the seed of query in people’s minds, Isaac Newton and Galileo with new scientific discoveries, not to mention the autocratical government flaunting their extravagant riches. The religious scene was tense, as the Protestant Reformation put pressure on the Catholic Church, that responded with a Counter-Reformation. More than ever, the Catholic Church invested in the arts to reproduce Biblical narratives, as to restore the public’s faith.
Sponsored mainly by the Catholic Church, The Baroque was a response to Mannerism, that lasted until the end of the XVI century. The Baroque art used complex composition, with systematic schemes, heavy decorations, and an overflow of light and shadow. The artists were interested in causing a more immediate appeal to the senses, giving more significance to movement and the dramatic feel of the work.
The term attributed to the movement, like many others, was initially derogatory, for it was given by a younger generation of critiques that felt the need to discredit the work of the Baroque artists. This term was used in the sense of grotesque, malformed and ludicrous, because of the fluid form the artists attributed to movement.
With the ongoing renovations sponsored by the Church, Rome continuously summons artists from all around Europe to work and study, mainly about the masters of the Renaissance. This migration results in a rich cultural exchange, and the Baroque movement spreads through all of Europe. Annibale Carracci founded an art academy, along with his brother, Agostino, and his cousin, Lodovico. This academy had students draw from real things, building a commitment to the truth. They would also study the classic artists of the Renaissance. In Annibale’s paintings, there is an attention to movement and color. His work will later influence Guercino, as he creates movement by playing with the figure’s fluttering vesture.
Caravaggio is the most well-known painters of the Italian Baroque, even though very little is known about his life. He desired to honestly and faithfully portray the world and this audacious take on reality made his paintings extremely franc. In his technique, he graciously developed the chiaroscuro, first used by Leonardo Da Vinci, and intensifies the use of light and dark, as seen in Conversion of St. Paul. His work was so influential that there were schools of followers inspired by his work called Caravagesques.
The most famous woman painter of the XVII century, and also the first woman to get into the Florence Academy of Art – the same Michelangelo attended – was Artemisia Gentileschi. Her painting style is similar to Caravaggio and holds a powerful message. Always undermined and often rejected for being a woman in a male-dominated field, Artemisia had many of her paintings attributed to other men, like her father for example. It was only in the 70s that researchers realized she was the first feminist symbol of the art world. Representing strong feminine figures from the Bible as was as Greek mythology, she seemed to be sending a message of empowerment. The artist was forced into marriage after having her reputation tainted for being raped at the age of 18; her artwork seems to be her revenge on this patriarchal and unjust society. Her most famous painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, shows Judith with the help of a female servant, decapitating her abuser.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculptor, and architect, was able to define in his work what the Baroque style was. His luxuriant projects were theatrical, organic and dynamic. The Ecstacy of Saint Teresa is a gripping artwork with an almost erotic feel, that mixes architecture and sculpture. Bernini works with marble, bronze, glass, and fresco to complete this Baroque masterpiece. Another influential artist is Diego Velazquez, who was the Royal family’s official painter. In Las Meninas, Velazquez paints himself in front of a canvas while painting a portrait of the King and Queen, who are in the position of the spectator, in other words, they are not in the painting. Next to him are members of the court and royal family.
During this time, the Dutch were also going through a golden age of painting. Disconnected to the Catholic Church, and managing to become the richest European nation, the Baroque art developed a different thematic in the Netherlands. With an emerging middle class that wanted to consume art, there was no need for a Biblical narrative, opening painting to still-life, portraits, landscapes and domestic scenes. This last theme was beautifully explored by Johannes Vermeer, like in The Milkmaid. Rembrandt Van Rijn is also an important Dutch painter and is best known for his self-portraits.