In the seventeenth century the centre of artistic gravity in Europe began to shift away from Italy, leaving the Northern tradition to dominate the art of this period, but not before one of the greatest names in art could leave his mark on the art of Italy for generations to come.
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio’s (1573-1610) work is so lush and luscious that it can be easy to overlook the serious, sometimes sinister, undertones. In ‘Bacchus’ (1590), for example, the young wine-god extends a tempting cup of pleasure, but there is little joy in his remote expression, and the fruit in the bowl is rotting. Seventeenth century Italy was deeply engaged in a counter-Reformation movement, and artists were expected to produce works which would bolster the (Catholic) faith of the Italian people and thus uphold the interests of the powerful Church hierarchy. The result was art which brought Catholic virtue and biblical episodes to life in ever-more-vivid detail.
One of the most famous – and controversial – among these is another Caravaggio, ‘The Death of the Virgin’. Originally commissioned by Carmelite priests, the completed painting was promptly rejected. Although the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven was only formally defined as infallible dogma in 1950 it had been widely taught and believed in the Catholic church since as early as the fourth century. Caravaggio’s image flies in the face of this belief, showing a worn, aged Mary, her feet still dirty, lying crumpled in death and surrounded by grieving disciples (Mary Magdalene, in the foreground, appears to have succumbed to her grief in the very act of washing the body – note the basin at her feet). To make matters worse, it was rumoured, though not proven, that Caravaggio had used a real corpse as a model: a drowned prostitute retrieved from the Tiber.
While not all Italian Baroque art is so dark, Caravaggio’s touch can easily be discerned in the work of the decades that follow.
In Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition was busy rooting out heretics and inflicting due punishment, religion likewise dominated the artistic scene, but one of the most enduring Spanish Baroque paintings, by the acknowledged master of Spanish Baroque art, is not a religious work: ‘Las Meninas’ (1656), by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), shows the young princess, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, surrounded by her attendants. Maids, tutors, page, dwarves, even her dog – nothing is missed out. Even the king and queen are present, reflected in a mirror in the background, and it seems the artist couldn’t resist painting himself into the scene, although the red cross on his chest, symbolising his knighthood, was added later, after he received that particular honour.
Still life, such as Francisco Zurbaran’s (1598-1664) ‘Still Life with Oranges’ (1633) also began to emerge during the Baroque, and it was another Spainard, Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-82) who produced one of my personal favourite paintings, the cheeky, enticing ‘Two Women at a Window’ (c1670). The younger woman – just a girl, really – looks so fresh and innocent in her amusement, while her duenna has a more knowing air which seems to only enhance her amusement. We can never know what they’re laughing at, but my guess is boys.
Still life, religious art and portraiture were popular in the North as well, but mixed in with these were landscapes and scenes from Classical mythology. Today, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is best remembered for the soft, curvaceous female nudes that populate his paintings on both religious and classical themes. The Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-16690), a generation younger, is famous for two pictures in particular: the group portrait ‘The Night Watch’ (1642) and the religious work ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ (c1661-69).
Rounding out the most famous trio of the Northern Baroque tradition is another Dutchman, the portraitist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), who seems to have particularly enjoyed painting women, these ones fully clothed and often going about their daily lives. His most famous portrait is probably ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, but the two works below provide an excellent study in Vermeer’s ability to use different colours to capture different effects of light and mood: the maid, with her jug of life-giving milk, is a picture of robust good health, while the young mother-to-be looks pallid and weak by comparison as she measures her wealth in cold, hard coin.
All these big names are identified with the Baroque, and it is difficult to think off-hand of any such enduring figures who are identified with the even-more-elaborate Rococo school which evolved from it. Watteau (1684-1721), Boucher (1703-1770), Fragonard (1732-1806), Chardin (1699-1779) and Tiepolo (1696-1770) are now largely forgotten, while the Englishman William Hogarth (1697-1764) is remembered more for providing a satirical artistic comment on contemporary British society than for belonging to a particular school. Art, it seemed, had gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, and by the mid 1700s it was only a matter of time before a new movement arose to take it in a different direction.