Baroque remains one of the most popular and recognizable styles of all time. The art movement emerged in the 1600s after the Renaissance style and Mannerism fell out of fashion. The antiquity-inspired art of the Renaissance relied on balance, harmony, and strict symmetrical composition, while Baroque represented chaos and swift movement. In their baroque paintings artists experimented with unusual angles and complex compositions, aiming to capture the audience’s attention.
1. The Height of Baroque Painting: The Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s dark and emotional work provoked a heated and intense debate at the time of its creation. A lawyer Laerzio Cherubini commissioned the work for a Carmelite church in Rome, but he had a last-minute change of heart. Although the painting is now seen as an indisputable treasure, the commissioner refused to pay for it, finding the depiction of the Virgin Mary scandalous and obscene. Many believed that Caravaggio paid a sex worker to sit for the painting, while others complained about the Virgin’s ankles looking like those of a drowned corpse.
The rejection of Caravaggio’s naturalism had its theological reasoning, too. The Catholic church believes that the Assumption of the Virgin Mary happened without her dying which means that she ascended to Heaven alive. Caravaggio went against this belief, painting Mary dead, surrounded by the grieving apostles. Moreover, Caravaggio deliberately stripped the scene of all markers of sacredness. The only element indicating Mary’s status was a thin halo around her head. Naturalism, grief, and sorrow worked in accordance with the Baroque idea of evoking compassion and emotional response from the viewer. However, the church officials considered it excessive.
2. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
One of the principal masterpieces of the Dutch Baroque, Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring was ignored for almost two centuries. It was nearly destroyed because of the poor storage conditions. Vermeer died in poverty in 1675 and was rediscovered by art collectors and connoisseurs only in the 1880s. Although fascinating and mesmerizing, The Girl with a Pearl Earring raised a lot of suspicion since it was so compositionally different from the rest of Vermeer’s oeuvre. Several art forgers produced fake Vermeers based on this image, which were soon identified by art experts. One of the most famous examples was the painting The Smiling Girl, painted by a friend of the legendary art forger Han van Meegeren.
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Usually, Vermeer painted domestic scenes, while The Girl with a Pearl Earring is a cropped close-up portrait in half-profile, with the model glancing directly at the viewer. Some Vermeer experts believe the model was Vermeer’s daughter, Maria, while others go even further, suggesting she was the one behind the canvas. Although the evidence about Vermeer’s family is limited, we know for sure that he taught Maria to paint. One version suggests that the most experimental paintings of Johannes Vermeer were actually painted by his daughter.
3. Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez
The Spanish Baroque artist Diego Velazquez became the leading painter of the Spanish Royal Court. His world-famous painting Las Meninas was commissioned by the royal family and quickly became famous throughout Europe for its complex and intricate composition.
The Spanish branch of the Habsburg family was so damaged by centuries of inbreeding, that raising a healthy child who was able to live long enough to inherit their parents’ wealth and power seemed almost impossible.
The blond girl painted by Velazquez was the Infanta Margaret Theresa, the fifth and only surviving child of the Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria and her uncle, King Philip IV. Despite sharing the deformed Habsburg facial features, Margaret Theresa was of rather good health and represented all hopes and dreams of her family.
The Infanta’s parents are also present in the painting, yet they are not immediately visible. The King and Queen standing side by side are reflected in the mirror in the background. Thus, the viewers find themselves standing in the place of royalty, which was part of the Habsburgs’ attempt to democratize their image. Velazquez also portrayed himself painting their portrait.
4. Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was a rare example of an established woman artist of her time. While wealthy and privileged women played an important role in commissioning artworks since the Renaissance, very few had the opportunity to paint. Gentileschi’s oeuvre is centered around women and their experiences, often dealing with aspects of violence, rage, and vengeance. Gentileschi was a survivor of rape who had to go through a long and dehumanizing trial and even torture to convict her aggressor. The rapist, also an artist named Agostino Tassi, was found guilty, but soon released from custody without any explanations.
Judith was a popular patriotic heroine at the time of Gentileschi, representing heroism and willingness to sacrifice oneself for the safety of others. According to the Old Testament story, she was a Jewish widow who seduced an Assyrian general Holofernes, and murdered him to save Jerusalem from invasion. However, as the years went by, the representation of the character changed. In the late nineteenth century, the image of Judith featured an unexpected twist: instead of a symbol of feminine patriotism, she became another femme fatale, an emblem of cunning female nature and bloodthirst. Such a dramatic switch possibly had its roots in the superficial likeness of Judith and Salome, another Old Testament character who ordered the decapitating of John the Baptist.
5. The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de La Tour
The French Baroque master Georges de La Tour was a follower of Carravagio’s, employing his signature contrast of light and shadow. Unlike Caravaggio, he preferred simple forms, and often repeated the same subject several times, until his work achieved the perfect, almost minimalist state.
Mary Magdalene was the disciple of Christ who renounced her sinful lifestyle and devoted her life to faith. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never described her as a prostitute. This interpretation appeared only in the sixth century, most likely as a result of a mistake made by Pope Gregory I. In her penitence, La Tour’s Magdalene does not demonstrate any excessive and overdramatic emotions. Her penitence is a personal, inner act of someone deeply regretting their actions. In her faith, she does not need to loudly condemn her past sins. Objects surrounding her may be interpreted as references to vanitas paintings which were popular at the time. The skull on Mary’s lap represents mortality while the mirror reflecting candlelight reminds us about the earthly vanity she is leaving behind.
6. The Dead Christ Mourned by Annibale Carracci
Baroque art was not a sudden and revolutionary artistic invention, but a tool of propaganda, approved and designed by the Catholic church. While the Protestant Reformation movement ruthlessly fought against religious art, Catholic officials decided to get closer to their followers. The art had to be relatable and eye-catching, provoking an emotional response. According to the Catholic teachings of the time, true faith had nothing to do with reason and logic and relied solely on emotion and feeling. Baroque art provided this emotional fuel.
Annibale Carracci was one of the pioneers of Italian Baroque who explored the emotional range of it to the fullest extent. His painting The Dead Christ Mourned is not a stoic and quiet Pieta, but a loud, painful, and heart-wrenching scene of loss and grief. The Virgin Mary collapsed unconscious while holding her son’s body in her arms, while Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, and Mary Salome wail and cry around them. According to the gospels, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome were the women disciples of Jesus present at his crucifixion. They later discovered his empty tomb.
7. The Secular Baroque Painting: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson
While the Italian and Spanish Baroque artists focused on religious and mythological scenes, German and Dutch art focused on secular art, portraiture, and scenes from daily life. The reason for that lay mostly in Protestantism which was a dominant religion in these areas. Since the Church prohibited venerating painted images, the artists had to search for new topics, new iconography, and new patrons.
Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the most celebrated artists of the Dutch Baroque, recognized for his unique treatment of light and shadow. His commissioners often represented guilds or organizations with multiple members, who asked to be depicted in a group painting. Rembrandt’s remarkable sense of composition allowed him to arrange multiple figures without compromising someone’s visibility. The gruesome painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The archives preserved the names of every person in the painting, even that of a dead man being dissected by Doctor Tulp. The man named Aris Kindt was a criminal sentenced to death for an armed robbery. The practice of handing the bodies of deceased criminals to medical students was popular and it mostly took place in fall and winter to avoid rapid decay.