In this lesson, we will explore Baroque art, architecture and sculpture, and how both the technique and focus of Baroque pieces differed significantly from previous periods.
The Baroque Period
Humans have a natural tendency to classify and categorize things.
Bananas are a fruit, while potatoes are a vegetable; cows are mammals, while snakes are reptiles, and so on. This tendency does not dissipate when we look at our past. It is natural for historians and others to want to categorize each period in human development, whether they’re discussing politics or agriculture. Perhaps nowhere in the study of history is this more the case than in the study of art.
Whether it’s the Renaissance or post-modernism, art historians love to categorize and characterize the art, sculpture, and architecture of human history. In this lesson, we will explore one such period: the Baroque.
The Baroque period was popular in Europe from the late 1500s to the early 1700s, during what historians typically call the early modern period. Throughout this period, kings, like Louis XIV of France, were centralizing power in the monarchy at the expense of the provincial nobility. The process often enriched the crown, and kings and queens commissioned artwork and hired artists, sculptors, and architects to create pieces to glorify the crown and the monarchy.In addition, art, like any cultural medium, is a product of its time. The Catholic Counter Reformation, in reaction to the Protestantism spread throughout Europe by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, had an important impact on Baroque artwork.
Just as 17th-century monarchs sought to commission artwork glorifying the crown, the papacy continued to sanction artwork, which showed the glory of God, and specifically Catholic figures, which Protestantism de-emphasized, such as the Virgin Mary.This secure patronage gave artists more time to develop their craft and explore new concepts. For many Baroque artists, the most important new concept was light and shadow. Baroque artists continued to focus on painting objects as realistically as possible, but just as important as attention to naturalistic details was ensuring that those figures reflected light and shadows appropriately.The Baroque period was when it became popular to paint still-life portraits of fruit configurations and household objects. For example, while this painting of fruit and flowers may seem mundane to you, what’s important to note is the artist’s mastery of placing the source of light to the left of the display and of the artist’s perspective.
Shadows are thrown by the objects back and to the right, and the apples placed in the front left – those closest to the light source – exhibit a glare off their waxy skin. At the same time, the tomato next to the glistening apples, which does not possess a waxy skin, does not give off the same sheen. To those of us who can take lifelike photographs with our phones, this may not seem so impressive, but to the artists and art aficionados of the Baroque period, this development was a revelation.
In addition to the Baroque’s emphasis on light, the Baroque period also saw a significant shift in subject matter. Prior to the Baroque period, painting was often commissioned by the Church, and therefore, the subjects tended to be religious in nature, such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and scenes from the Old Testament. But the shift in artistic patronage coming from more secular sources led to a change in subject among many Baroque painters. Baroque artists often painted portraits of royal families or scenes from court life, in addition to the favorite folk tales of monarchs or scenes from Greek mythology or Greek and Roman history.
Furthermore, the shift to focusing on light also shifted the subjects of the painting themselves, as artists explored representing multiple surfaces and textures and how each reacted to light differently in their paintings. This helped to evoke emotion within the works, as well as explore spatial values. During the Baroque period, not only did the subjects have to be lifelike and realistic, but also the care taken to the painting’s background was now just as important.
Whereas Baroque artwork focused on making sure each part of the painting was as realistic as possible, Baroque architects began employing tricks and optical illusions to make their buildings seem larger and more impressive than they actually were. In addition, Baroque architects were no longer satisfied with creating the same repetitive patterns in their buildings. Instead, Baroque architects embraced irregular designs such as curves and loops, as well as walls that were concave or convex rather than straight.
While irregularity was embraced in individual sections, these imperfections still bowed to an overall symmetry, which governed the construction of each building. Though Baroque architecture can be found across Europe, the two principal centers of Baroque architecture were Rome and Paris.Perhaps the best example of Baroque architecture is the magnificent Basilica of St. Peter at Vatican City.
The Basilica stands at one end of St. Peter’s Square, which is flanked by two rows of columns that create a large circle beginning at the square and ending at the Basilica. These two semi-circles of columns are topped with various saints and church figures, providing individual points of interest and difference along the columns, which lead to the main attraction – the enormous Basilica.
Unlike art and architecture, sculpture during the Baroque period varied drastically from country to country across Europe.
Baroque sculpture in Italy, for example, often included the intricate and irregular symmetrical designs that we saw in St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, while in France sculptures were often completed in order to glorify the king and crown. One thing that can be said about all Baroque sculpture is that they exhibited sophisticated technique, and many were able to achieve a realism and attention to detail which rivaled that of Greek and Roman sculptors. Additionally, Baroque sculptors and architects placed the same importance on light and material as Baroque painters, and their pieces were often crafted with recognition of how light would affect the appearance of their pieces.
The Baroque period of art, architecture, and sculpture saw a significant shift in both subject and technique. Baroque art, for instance, saw many Baroque artists begin focusing on light and shadows and how light affects different surfaces and textures.
Baroque architects began embracing more detail and irregularities in their intricate designs, just as long as they continued to bow to an overall symmetry, as we saw in the design of St. Peter’s Square. While Baroque sculpture was far more varied from country to country, it exhibited the same mastery of technique, which set it apart from previous generations of artists.
As soon as this lesson concludes, set out to complete these objectives:
- Identify the main patrons of the arts during the Baroque period
- Understand the way in which steady patronage encouraged artisitc development during the Baroque period
- Discuss the artistic style of Baroque period painters
- Recall how Baroque architects made their buildings appear larger than they were
- List the characteristics of Baroque sculpture