The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Visual Arts

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Renaissance Legacy

Technical Brilliance

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, painters and sculptors working in Italy and the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland) had perfected a number of techniques that allowed them to render nature and the human form more successfully than ever before. Chief among these developments had been the early fifteenth-century discovery of techniques of linear perspective. In the years following 1400 in Florence, the painter Masaccio and the sculptors Ghiberti and Brunelleschi had perfected a set of geometric rules for rendering three-dimensional space on a two-dimension picture plane. Somewhat later, the humanist and artist Leon Battista Alberti set these rules down in a treatise entitled On the Art of Painting. As this work circulated, artists came to master these techniques, and painting and sculpture throughout Italy took on a sense of depth and solidity as a result. While experimentation in perspective dominated the works of Italian artists, Flemish painters were developing new techniques in oil painting that allowed them to paint human beings and matter in a strikingly realistic way, using rich palettes of vibrant hues. By 1500, this school of Flemish realism had perfected their observations of the natural world to such a high point that even today these works continue to present observers with images that seem to reach an almost photographic standard for their faithfulness to detail. As Flemish masters developed their realistic techniques, art in Italy entered a new phase of development at the end of the fifteenth century with the rise of the High Renaissance style. This brief, but brilliant period was to witness the achievements of three great masters: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), and Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520). These High Renaissance masters were to forge a style notable for its naturalism, its faithfulness to classical design standards, and its harmonious and idealized sense of proportion and beauty. While this great era of artistic achievement flourished, though, Italy’s political situations grew ever more chaotic and troubled, and the High Renaissance vision of order and harmony came to be short-lived. By 1520, both Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael had died, and Michelangelo had begun to experiment with an altogether more tempestuous and turbulent style. By the time of the Sack of Rome in 1527, the artistic vision of the High Renaissance, with its emphasis on order, harmony, and balance, had begun to fade in favor of a new Mannerism. This new movement was notable from the first for its vivid palette, for its elongated and sinuous lines, as well as for its intellectualism, elegance, and purposeful violation of the rules of High Renaissance classicism.

Mannerist Complexity

Not every center of Italian art proved susceptible to this Mannerist vision. In Venice and much of northern Italy, artists and patrons were largely resistant to the new design trends. Here the serene vision of High Renaissance classicism continued to shape visual expression throughout much of the sixteenth century. In Parma, the short-lived painter Antonio Correggio (1494-1534) produced a series of creations that made use of the High Renaissance sense of monumentality, although he endowed his works with a greater dramatic energy and sense of movement than was typical of the early years of the sixteenth century. His art, largely ignored throughout most of the sixteenth century, was to inspire the masters of the early Baroque, particularly Annibale Carracci. In Florence and Rome, though, it was the new Mannerist vision that predominated, and here a number of artists produced works that willfully played with and extended artistic possibilities by violating Renaissance standards of classicism. Instead of harmonious and staid symmetry typical of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Mannerist artists dispersed the figures in their paintings to the four corners of their pictures and created intricate, interwoven groups of human forms. They elongated the body, presenting it in lithe and elegant poses. Mannerist painters favored a heavily muscled, contorted vision of the human body under a new dramatic pressure that suggested energy. In other works, these artists presented the human figure—noblemen and aristocratic ladies, wealthy merchants, or the Virgin and the Christian saints—with a serene detachment. Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (begun in 1534) was typical of a strain of extreme elegance widespread among the Mannerist artists of the day. The venerable subject of the Virgin and Christ child had never been treated in medieval and Renaissance paintings in quite the way that Parmigianino imagined it. He stretched the Virgin’s body and neck, perching the small, but extremely beautiful head of Mary atop an enormously lengthened form. Mary appears more like an aristocratic woman than as a traditional devotional figure; her hair is elegantly coifed and dressed with pearls. Similarly, the Christ child was shown, not as if he was an infant, but as if he had the body of a stripling, that is, a child eight or ten years old. Around this central composition, Parmigianino inserted a number of other characters whose precise relationship to the religious theme of the painting is not easily discernible. These figures were not positioned in the middle of the composition, as they might have been in a work of the High Renaissance. Rather, in the left foreground of the painting, Parmigianino placed a group of beautiful, angelic admirers. One of these figures presents an amphora, a large vase-like vessel, to the Virgin. To the right, the picture plane recedes into a deep space, where a prophet is shown unrolling a scroll. Merely decorative elements (a classical column that does not support a portico and a pulled back drapery) suggest that this is not a natural scene, but a posed and highly elegant reinterpretation of a traditional religious theme. The tendencies that the artist displays here, to distort and elongate the human body and to present traditional religious themes laden with a set of complex and not easily comprehensible symbols, were typically Mannerist elements.

Influence of Michelangelo

For inspiration, many Mannerist artists also turned to the works of Michelangelo. The origins of the term Mannerism derived from the Italian words a la maniera (meaning “in the manner of”), used in the sixteenth century to refer to artists that imitated the great Michelangelo, who was recognized even at the time as the great Olympian genius of the day. Many agreed that his works had surpassed the examples of classical Antiquity, and consequently, his creations were widely studied and imitated. In the later frescoes that he undertook in the Sistine Chapel at Rome around 1511 and 1512, the artist began to experiment with new compositional techniques. He presented the human body heavily muscled and placed under a dramatic tension that suggested heroic vigor and movement. In the years that followed Michelangelo left Rome and returned to Florence, where he continued to experiment and perfect this style. He also completed several architectural projects in Florence that were to have a widespread impact on buildings in the later sixteenth century. As Michelangelo matured, his artistic vision also became highly personal, even idiosyncratic, and his treatment of the human body reflected these changes. His forms grew more dramatic and elegantly elongated. The imitation of his style among Mannerist artists working in Rome and Central Italy became a recognizable feature of the artistic culture of the age.

Fashion for Difficult Themes

Another recognizable trend of the period was its fondness for difficult themes and complex iconographies. In the cultivated courtly circles that increasingly dominated the sixteenth-century Italian scene, a taste for allegory and literary references was reflected in patrons’ choices of themes. Of the many abstruse and difficult-to-understand works that were painted at the time, perhaps none has ever surpassed Angelo Bronzino’s Exposure of Luxury, a work that was once called Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. Painted around 1545 for the Medici duke in Florence, the image brilliantly captures the Mannerist movement’s taste for exotic and puzzling subjects. At the top of the picture Father Time pulls back a curtain to reveal Cupid fondling Venus. The lovers are pelted with flowers by a putto, or cherub. In the background of the painting these subjects’ alter egos, Envy and Fraud, appear. Envy tears her hair, while the beautiful figure of Fraud presents a honeycomb with her left hand. If we follow the lines of her body, however, we see that her form culminates in a griffin’s tail. Discarded masks litter one side of the panel, while a dove, the symbol of Venus, trills and coos in the foreground. The allegorical meanings of this work have long been debated, even as they likely were by those who admired the painting in the cultivated circles that surrounded the Medici dukes. Mannerist paintings like Bronzino’s were, in fact, similar to other widely practiced games and pastimes of the Italian courts. A fashion for emblems was one of the hallmarks of this kind of highly sophisticated society. Emblems were complex amalgamations of symbols that conveyed an allegorical meaning and they were printed in books, used on architectural decorations, and even painted onto dinner-ware. They were the crossword puzzles of the age, since the symbols they presented were intended to stymie and perplex intellectuals, forcing them to comb through their memories to unlock the symbolic meanings that were hidden in these pictures. So, too, works like Bronzino’s Exposure of Luxury were entertainment for an increasingly refined and educated circle of cultivated elites.

Shifts in the Later Sixteenth Century

By the later sixteenth century tastes began to shift away from the elaborate, sometimes contrived iconography and extreme refinement typical of the late phases of Mannerist art. While many Mannerist innovations continued to inform the world of the early Baroque period, the religious proscriptions of the Counter Reformation demanded a public art that was clear, forceful, and readily intelligible to viewers. Exotic iconographical confections like Bronzino’s Exposure of Luxury continued to be commissioned for private consumption during the late sixteenth century, but the Mannerist propensity for veiled references and difficult themes was increasingly judged inappropriate for the arena of the church. The developing religious sensibilities of the Catholic Reformation sought out an art that was capable of inspiring the faithful to repentance and Christian perfection and at the same time able to defend the Catholic faith against Protestant criticisms. The first evidence of this renewal, however, arose in the architecture of the period. During the final decades of the sixteenth century, Michelangelo’s great High Renaissance dome was to be completed at St. Peter’s, and the Jesuit Order was to astound Rome with its monumental church, Il Gesù, providing the foundation upon which the early Baroque style in architecture was to develop. In the many churches that were to be built or remodeled as the Catholic renewal gathered steam in Rome, broad expanses were being prepared for the display of religious paintings and sculpture. Around 1600, an extraordinary group of painters came to flourish in Rome who developed a new visual language that was uniquely suited to the emerging demands of the Catholic Reformation.

The Counter Reformation’s Impact on Art

Reaction to Mannerism

The stylistic changes evident in the visual arts at the beginning of the Baroque period can in part be traced to historical developments that occurred in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the church council that was to define the character of Roman Catholicism and its teachings until modern times. The Council’s purpose was to debate and to answer the attacks Protestants had made against the church and to reform abuses in church practices and administration. During the final days of the session, the church’s fathers met to discuss issues surrounding the invocation of relics and the use of statues and images in religious worship. Because the deliberations were hampered by time considerations, many questions were left unresolved at Trent, although the Council’s decrees insisted on the value of religious art, a position that rejected the criticisms levied by some radical Protestant factions of the day that paintings and statues violated Old Testament prohibitions against “graven images.” By contrast, the fathers at Trent reiterated the Catholic Church’s long-standing support for religious art. Its purposes, they intoned, should be didactic, that is, it should serve to educate the unlettered masses in the truths of the church. While the Council insisted that bishops had a duty to eliminate works whose message was unclear or indistinct, their decrees provided few guidelines for establishing acceptable religious art. In the years that followed, the subject of religious art came to be debated vigorously throughout Italy, largely through the efforts of two Italian bishops: Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) of Milan and Gabrielle Paleotti (1522-1597) of Bologna. Both figures were widely influential in establishing guidelines for the creation of religious art, even as they came to vigorously oppose many designs and themes favored by Mannerist artists and their patrons. Borromeo, a major figure in many aspects of Catholic reform, published his treatise Instructions for Builders and Decorators of Churches, in 1577, and its 33 chapters considered such subjects as the proper church layout, design, and furnishings necessary for Christian worship. In one chapter, he discussed the ways in which artists should treat sacred themes. Borromeo argued that religious art should present its themes in a clear, readily intelligible way so that art might instruct viewers in Catholic teaching and encourage the faithful to repent. This work also prescribed a system of fines for painters and sculptors who violated these guidelines.

Borromeo’s Influence on Religious Art

While Borromeo aimed to censor religious art by outlawing the Mannerist tendency to veil meanings, the bishop was at the same time an enthusiastic promoter of religious images. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola had very much shaped his own piety. In that work, the founder of the Jesuit Order had recommended that the faithful place before their mind’s eye images of the Passion and the feats of the saints so that they might flee sin. Among the contemporary artists Borromeo admired were Jacopo Bassano, Antonio Campi, and the great Venetian Titian, and his private collection of images included several works by these masters. In public commissions for the Cathedral of Milan, Borromeo favored works by Antonio and Giulio Campi, brothers who were members of a prominent family of artists from nearby Cremona. Their works exemplified Borromeo’s principles by being readily intelligible and treating their subjects in clear and forceful ways. The messages of their works were set off with artistic features that enhanced their emotional appeal. As the sixteenth century drew to a close, other artists came to study Borromeo’s writings as well, and in this way, the circle of artistic innovators who were capable of expressing the new principles of Catholic reform broadened.

Gabrielle Paleotti

Another force in the reform of religious art at the end of the sixteenth century was Cardinal Gabrielle Paleotti (1522-1597). Born in Bologna, Paleotti received a doctorate in canon law by the time he was 23, and eventually made his way to Rome, where he rose to become the judge of the Sacra Rota, a key court of appeals within the Vatican government. He was raised to the rank of a cardinal in 1565 and a year later was made bishop of Bologna. While much of his career was spent furthering the cause of church reform, he became fascinated with the subject of religious art in particular. Toward the end of the 1570s, he dedicated himself to writing a massive theological treatise on the correct uses of painting and sculpture within Catholicism. A friend of Borromeo, he took as his departure point the Milanese bishop’s earlier work on church building and decoration, but he intended his Discourses to be a far more thorough examination of all the issues surrounding religious art. Like Borromeo, he insisted that religious art’s messages must be clear and forcefully conveyed, but at the same time he recommended a return to the naturalism of the Renaissance and the fostering of a spirit of historical realism in painting. Paleotti was never able to complete his theological work on painting and sculpture, but even in its incomplete form his treatise was to have a major impact in defining the religious art of the later sixteenth century. At Bologna, his work encouraged a number of artists to abandon Mannerist conventions and to develop a clearer and more forceful presentational style in their religious works. Among the most prominent artists to study Paleotti’s recommendations and to adopt them in their work were Annibale, Lodovico, and Agostino Carracci, key figures in expressing many of the design tenets that subsequently flourished during the early Baroque. Yet during the 1580s and 1590s, Paleotti’s generally humane and moderate proposals for artistic reform went unheeded in the larger Italian artistic world. By the 1590s, the cardinal had returned to Rome to take up administrative duties within the church. Surveying the artistic scene in the church’s capital, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the direction contemporary religious art was taking. During these years, he proposed that the church establish an office to censor religious images, an office that would be similar to the Index of Prohibited Books, an institution that, since 1559, had been charged with supervising and censoring book publication in Catholic countries. The plan was not adopted, and Paleotti died several years later. In the years immediately following his death, though, some of Paleotti’s prescriptions for a historically accurate and naturalistic art came to fruition in the works of artists at Rome. At the same time, a new fashion for propagandistic works became evident, as leaders of the Catholic Reformation came to commission works that celebrated the triumph of the church in a grand and monumental fashion.

The Roman Jubilee of 1600

Something of the sense of triumphal resurgence that was developing at Rome can be gleaned from the preparations that occurred in Rome to mark the Jubilee year 1600. Jubilee years had long been celebrated in the church’s history to mark the passage of every quarter century, but during the sixteenth century, the rise of Protestantism had discouraged such events. To mark a departure from the recent dismal past, Pope Clement VIII planned to make the Jubilee Year 1600 into a major occasion that might promote the renewal that was underway in the church. During the Jubilee more than three million pilgrims visited the city to admire the many monuments that Clement and his immediate successors had built in preceding years. Among these were the Dome of St. Peter’s, the Jesuit’s Church of Il Gesù, major renovations to the Church of St. John Lateran, as well as a number of public monuments and squares. As the expectation for this event grew, many of Rome’s religious institutions and church officials came to commission a number of religious works from painters and sculptors. The works of the greatest of these artists came to express a new dramatic tension, a sense of movement, and realism that responded to the Catholic Reformation’s demands for a clear and forceful art that might stir the hearts of the faithful. In this way Rome was to shape the development of the early Baroque style in the visual arts in a way that was similar to the role that it was acquiring as Europe’s major center of architectural design.

Elements of the Baroque Style

Interrelated Trends

During the final quarter of the sixteenth century, the first gleanings of the paths that the seventeenth-century Baroque style was to take became evident in Bologna, the episcopal city administered by the Catholic reformer Gabrielle Paleotti. The leaders of this Bolognese school, Lodovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci, came to fashion a new kind of art that was in many ways opposed to the intellectual formalism and sophistication of the Mannerists. Their new style responded to the Catholic Reformation’s demands for religious works that were clear and readily intelligible and which spoke to the hearts of the faithful. By virtue of the many students that the Carracci taught in Bologna, this new style emerged as a recognizable school of painting by the end of the century. Still great variety persisted on the Italian artistic scene, as many Mannerist masters continued to find a receptive audience willing to support them with commissions. With the arrival of Annibale Carracci in Rome in the late 1590s, though, Italy’s foremost artistic center was presented with an artist who self-consciously aimed to revive many High Renaissance design principles. His works advocated a return to the naturalism and to the sense of order and harmonious balance that had marked the early sixteenth-century works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio. At the same time, a new dramatic sense of movement and even an ecstatic religious piety played a role in his work. Its appeal to the emotions, in other words, was far more profound than the intellectualism of the High Renaissance style. The efforts of Annibale Carracci and his Bolognese students who followed him to Rome were particularly important in establishing one feature of the visual arts in the Baroque: its attempt to harness emotions by impressing viewers with a sense of drama and a climactic whole that was greater than its parts. The Bolognese vision was only one part of the complex stylistic changes that were underway in Rome at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. In these years the formidable talent Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was carving out a different path in the Baroque’s development. Caravaggio’s works were notable for their realism. In contrast to the careful preliminary studies and drawings that Annibale Carracci and the Bolognese school made before painting, Caravaggio worked directly from life models, using this technique to capture the immediacy of the moments he narrated in his works. He clothed his models in contemporary costumes and relied on dramatic lighting to bathe his figures in contrasts of light and dark. As the examples of Caravaggio, the Carracci, and other Bolognese painters came to be appreciated on the Roman artistic scene, others came to experiment with the techniques these figures had demonstrated. Some known as “Caravaggisti” followed the path of Caravaggio’s gritty realism, while others came to reflect the more classically inspired Bolognese values. Still others aimed to fuse both kinds of artistic visions. In general, though, none of the trends that are evident in the early Baroque in Rome—a return to High Renaissance classicism, the appearance of a sense of dynamic movement in paintings and sculptures, and the taste for portraying subjects in a way that was intensely realistic—was mutually exclusive. We frequently see artists in the first generations of the Baroque experimenting with all three of these elements to produce new kinds of artistic expression that spoke to the religious, social, and intellectual demands of their times.

The Carracci

The city of Bologna was the northernmost outpost of the Papal States in Italy, the lands that the pope controlled as his own territory in the peninsula. During the 1580s, the brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci and their cousin Lodovico Carracci had established a successful studio in Bologna that experimented with ways to revive High Renaissance classicism. They soon acquired a number of students, and their efforts, along with those of a number of other Bolognese artists, came to shift artistic commissions in Central Italy away from the then-dominant Mannerist movement. Of the three, it was Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619) who had the most pretensions of being a scholar, although Annibale was to carve out a niche as the most successful painter. Lodovico was the eldest of the three, and except for a brief visit to Rome and some travels in his youth, he spent almost all his career in provincial Bologna. While Lodovico tried to return to the High Renaissance classicism and naturalism, some Mannerist influences survived in his work. He was particularly drawn to the color of Venetian painting, and like all three Carracci, he greatly admired the works of Correggio (1489-1534), a painter from Parma, whose monumental ceiling frescoes in that city’s cathedral were to inspire several generations of Baroque painters. Influential on the local scene in Bologna, Lodovico Carracci came to leave an even greater imprint on the art of the age through his influence on his younger cousins as well as several of his students, the most important of these being Guido Reni, a prolific seventeenth-century master. Lodovico’s early experiments in reviving a more naturalistic and classical style of depiction were soon superseded by his cousins Annibale and Agostino, although Lodovico helped set the mold for the Carracci’s later success, in his efforts to join the Florentine tradition of draftsmanship (disegno) with Venetian and northern Italian coloristic techniques (colore). For much of the sixteenth century, artists and theorists had debated which of these two traditions was superior. Venetian and northern Italian artists, for instance, had long been recognized for the sophistication of their colors and their attempts to suggest mass and depth through the building up of rich layers of oils on canvases and panels. By contrast, the Florentine tradition of drawing a picture from studies and according to a rationally conceived program was seen as a very different tradition. The Carracci’s famous studio at Bologna attempted to forge a union between these two distinctive traditions.

Annibale Carracci and the Palazzo Farnese Ceiling

The greatest of these three masters was Annibale (1560-1609), who may have studied painting early on with his cousin Lodovico, but who was also influenced by the currents of Mannerism in Bologna during his youth. Even in his youthful works Annibale displayed an imaginative fusion between the many different painterly styles current in Central and Northern Italy. Like Lodovico, he was fascinated by the Florentine tradition of draftsman-like design, but equally captivated by the rich coloristic techniques of Venetian art. His works early on displayed a more thorough naturalism than that present in the artificial and highly elegant world of Mannerism, and he acquired many admirers, including Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, at the time a high-ranking member of the church’s government. In 1595, Annibale came to Rome at Odoardo’s insistence. Odoardo commissioned Annibale to paint a large gallery in the cardinal’s palace. The work was one of the first defining masterpieces of the Baroque, and a composition that was widely admired soon after its completion in 1600. Carracci’s creation was at the time seen to be of equal importance to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or the papal apartment frescoes that Raphael had executed at roughly the same time. Over the centuries such extravagant assessments of the Farnese Gallery have faded, yet it is nevertheless a brilliant achievement. The subject of the eleven major frescoes that Carracci painted in the hall was the loves of the pagan gods. Although the theme appears pre-Christian on its surface, the work actually manages to praise Christian virtues through the use of a number of hidden symbols and deeper meanings. Its use of an intellectually conceived program was to be a typical feature of Baroque ceilings, as was its use of many veiled and hidden meanings. At the same time, the work is accessible through its triumphant imagery, monumental scale, and impressive sense of dynamic movement. Stylistically, the ceiling made use of idealized human forms that were similar in feeling to those of the great Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. To organize the design, Annibale Carracci divided the hall’s barrel or rounded vault into a number of different images, each of which he framed with illusionistic devices so that they appeared to be set in individual frames. Between many of these, he placed classical nudes, again painted to appear as if they were sculptures and seeming to serve the role of caryatids, ancient statues that supported the porticos of temples. In its total effect the entire ceiling takes on the impression of being like the artistic gallery of a cultivated collector, filled as it is with images that suggest a collection of ancient art and sculptures. Throughout the work, Carracci also managed to wed the venerable traditions of draftsmanship to a Northern Italian sense of color. As a result of his example, he breathed new life into the fresco form, creating a style of composition that was to be widely imitated over the next two centuries in any number of monumental ceiling cycles executed by artists, both in Italy and abroad.

Other Bolognese Painters in Rome

During the early years of the seventeenth century, a number of other painters from the Carracci studio made their way from Bologna to Rome, including Guido Reni (1575-1642), Domenichino (1581-1641), and Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino (1591-1666). Reni and Domenichino had trained in the studios of Agostino and Lodovico Carracci, while Guercino arrived there as a young painter and came to be influenced by their example. While the influence of the Carracci’s style is evident in all their works, each of these figures developed a slightly different direction in their art. In 1601, Guido Reni was called to Rome by the papacy, and although he remained active there over the next decade and a half, he divided his time between the church’s capital and Bologna. Often in disagreement with his papal patron, he was threatened for a time with arrest for his disrespect for papal authority. At home in Bologna, he developed a large and successful studio that executed many religious paintings in the new style for churches in Central and Northern Italy. About 250 of his works survive today, suggesting the fertility of his artistic imagination and the diligence with which he developed his studio. Reni painted a number of images of the Virgin Mary that were widely copied. Commercially, he was the most successful of the many painters who flourished in Italy at the time, and he was widely admired for his ability to present the religious sentiment of ecstasy in a way that appeared almost breathless. Personally, he was deeply religious, like many of the artists of the Bolognese school, but at the same time he avoided praise and seems to have suffered from a conflicted sexual nature. It was his tendency to present religious sentiments in his work in ways that suggested the ethereal, which caused nineteenth-century art historians to discount his work as overly sentimental. His paintings have more recently been reassessed, and his impact on the artistic culture of the time has come to be better understood. By contrast, Domenichino’s work was more thoroughly classical in spirit and organization. The artist produced a number of works on mythological and ancient themes, notable for the use of heroic figures set in landscapes that appear classical in origin. Domenichino’s portrayal of the human emotions was more turbulent and less idealized than Reni’s, a fact for which many artistic academicians criticized him in the later seventeenth century. Even during his life he had to defend himself against the charge that his works were derivative, since he frequently assembled many of his figures and landscapes from his knowledge of previous works of art. The long-lived figure of Guercino (a nickname that means “squinty-eyed”) was also successful on the scene in Rome, where he caused a sensation with his creation of a ceiling fresco treating the myth of Aurora in a garden outbuilding at the Villa Ludovisi. Through his mastery of illusionistic techniques, he carried the lines of the room’s structural architecture upward onto the ceiling and filled the vault with a narrow channel marked out by these false illusionary structures. Through this space Aurora’s chariot careens with putti(small angelic figures), doves, and clouds being separated and dispersed in its wake. His style here, as it was elsewhere, was highly refined and given to luxurious display. Somewhat later, Guercino retired to his native Cento near Bologna, where he continued to preside over a successful studio. During the early 1530s, Queen Marie de’ Medici of France considered hiring him for a time as her court painter but was unable to do so when she was forced into exile because of disputes with her son King Louis XIII. Although he traveled to complete commissions, Guercino continued to live in Cento until his death in 1666 at the age of seventy-five.

The Importance of the Bolognese School

The rise of a distinctive school of painting at Bologna came to have profound effects on the art of seventeenth-century Italy. The distinctive mix of naturalism, classical styling, and coloristic techniques that these Bolognese painters crafted was to begin to leave its mark on the city of Rome’s artistic scene around 1600. The rise of other competing visions of the Baroque did not dampen the enthusiasm for the Bolognese masters, although they came to be favored in some courts and cities while disregarded elsewhere. In the figure of Caravaggio (1573-1610), a second, even more dramatic vision of the new style developed. This altogether more turbulent and dynamic art came to appear on the Roman scene about the same time as Annibale Carracci was painting his famous frescoes in the Gallery of the Farnese Palace in Rome. Like the Carracci, Caravaggio’s work was to attract many disciples, who saw in his strikingly realistic paintings, with their strong contrasts of light and shade, a suitable vehicle for conveying the religious themes of the age. These followers of Caravaggio were to become known as the “Caravaggeschi,” a distinctive school of followers who imitated the lead of their inspiration, just as the Bolognese painters came to closely model their compositions on those of Lodovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci. This division of the painterly world in seventeenth-century Italy into rival camps is one of the distinctive features of the age. At the same time, it is possible to see that artists working in Rome came to derive inspiration from both schools of painting.

Realism and Emotional Expressivity


Michelangelo Merisi (1573-1610), who became known as “Caravaggio” after his family’s native town, was a truly revolutionary painter. During the seventeenth century his influence spread throughout Italy and eventually Europe. Despite his short life, a school of painters in Italy known alternately as the “Caravaggeschi” or “Caravaggisti” carried on his legacy of dramatic realism. Elsewhere in Europe, many artists came to be affected by his art, including the great Rembrandt and Rubens. The young Michelangelo’s father was an official in the household of one of the Sforza, the ducal family that controlled Milan and surrounding Lombardy. In Caravaggio’s youth the family seems to have moved back and forth frequently between their small, native village and the great city of Milan. When he was in his early twenties, he sold his share in the family’s inheritance and left Lombardy, probably arriving in Rome around 1592. Early sources suggest that Caravaggio was a renegade and that he was involved in frequent brawls and quarrels. Even later, when his star had risen in Rome, he was often frequently caught up in court cases and a participant in brawls and eventually fled the city after killing a man in an argument. In temperament, the surviving sources paint a picture of a melancholic and incendiary spirit, prone to quick flashes of temper, but also to deep fits of depression. Upon his arrival in Rome, he was forced to take whatever positions he could find. He worked, for instance, in the household of a church official, churning out stock devotional images for use in his household. Then, he came to paint heads for a painter’s studio, mastering the techniques of portraying the face so well that he was able to produce several works in a day. In these jobs, he was paid by the piece, although other painters soon recognized his skills and he rose to become a painter of half-length portraits in the then-reigning Mannerist style. After being kicked by a horse, he was forced to seek hospitalization in the ward of Santa Maria della Consolazione, and during the months of his convalescence, he produced a number of pictures for this institution. With his health restored, Caravaggio played a more independent role in the artistic life in Rome. For a time he lived in the household of Monsignor Fantigno Petrignani, a church official, and in this period his art began to take on a greater self-assurance. Next he seems to have been patronized by the Cavaliere D’Arpino, one of the reigning Mannerist painters in Rome. Around 1595, he painted a large number of pictures that show the influence of Northern Italian examples on his art. Among the most famous of these are the Fortune Teller, The Cardsharps, and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. These canvases reveal a fascination with the properties of light, a feature that Caravaggio developed into a hallmark of his style. Their delicate and lyrical style, though, reveals little of the intense realism that Caravaggio was to develop as he matured over the next few years.

Increasing Stylistic Assurance

Caravaggio’s increasing technical mastery and individualistic style came, in large part, as a result of his association with the Cardinal del Monte. By the mid-1590s, Caravaggio’s art was attracting increasing attention in the Roman artistic scene, and the cardinal asked the artist to become a member of his household. At the time, del Monte was the Tuscan ambassador to the papal court, and he lived in one of the Medici family’s palaces in Rome. Refined as a connoisseur of art and skilled as a musician, scientist and mathematician, del Monte’s household was one of the most sophisticated in Rome at the time. The young Caravaggio was paid to paint pictures, and during his years there, he seems to have produced at least ten works for the cardinal. It was under the cardinal’s influence, too, that the artist received the commission to execute a series of paintings for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The theme was the Life of St. Matthew, and Caravaggio painted three canvases for the chapel, the greatest of which was his Calling of St. Matthew. This subject had long been treated using the passage in Matthew 9 as a guide: “And as Jesus passed forth … he saw a man named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, ‘Follow me.’ And he arose and followed him.” In his rendering of this story, Caravaggio endowed the deceptively simple lines of the narrative with an understanding of the social dynamic in which Matthew’s life-changing decision occurred. The gritty realism with which he immortalized the scene had never yet been seen in the world of Italian painting. Most previous treatments had sanitized the story, making it appear heroic through idealization. Caravaggio instead embraced the real meaning of the account, and in so doing he endowed Matthew’s life-changing miracle with a sense of religious immediacy and drama that painters had not achieved to this point. Matthew, in fact, had been a Jewish publican (a collector of Roman tolls and taxes), an occupation that was detested in ancient Judea. In Caravaggio’s rendition, he is shown sitting at a table in the tavern receiving payment from his minions. The boys and men that surround him are drawn with the typical local faces that Caravaggio had observed while a minor portraitist in Rome. The clothing and setting are typically Roman as well. In the background a window’s panes are covered with the grimy oilcloth used in common people’s homes and public houses. Light does not flow into the room from this source, however, but from above Christ’s head. It cascades across the canvas to illuminate the faces of Matthew and his circle, throwing them into a harsh light that sets off patches of illumination against dramatic darkness. To the right, the head of Christ is barely visible behind the form of St. Peter, the savior’s first disciple. With his outstretched arm, Christ motions to Matthew, just after he has spoken the words, “Follow me.” Matthew turns his index finger toward his breast, as if to ask, “Me?” In this way Caravaggio was able to capture the pivotal moment of Matthew’s life-changing conversion, the leap of faith that marked his transformation from a lover of worldly wealth to a follower of Christ. The realism that his image suggested achieved the kind of pious demands that figures like St. Charles Borromeo and Gabrielle Paleotti had argued in previous decades should invigorate the religious art of the Catholic Reformation.

Later Achievements

In the decade that followed the completion of the Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio painted a number of works notable for their dramatic intensity as well as for their sometimes coarse, even seamy presentation of religious themes. His success at the Contarelli Chapel was soon surpassed by the Conversion of St. Paul. As in the Calling of Matthew, the artist concentrated on the critical moment of conversion. Saul’s transformation from a persecutor of Christians to the apostle Paul had often been treated in Renaissance art, and it remained a popular theme for painters in the Counter Reformation as well. In many previous treatments of the theme, Christ had been shown descending from the heavens surrounded by clouds and cherubs to speak the famous words, “Saul, Saul, Why persecutest thou me?” By contrast, Caravaggio dispensed with these saccharine trappings, and instead captured the instant at which Saul was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. He lies prostrate on the ground before us, his body dramatically foreshortened and appearing to project out from the picture plane into the viewer’s space. In the background his horse has not even put down his front leg after rearing under the shock of the blinding light that has fallen from heaven. Saul throws out his arms toward the source of that light in the sky, while in the background his aged servant merely looks on, puzzled by his master’s reactions. Engulfed in the darkness, the servant, in other words, has no clue to the great miracle that is occurring at this moment within Saul’s soul. In this way Caravaggio depicted the event as a fully internal event, but one that occurred within the setting and trappings of everyday life. Beyond the ethereal light that streams into the canvas from the upper right to bathe Saul, no suggestion of the divine presence is made. Similar innovation marked several of Caravaggio’s later paintings treating the life of the Virgin Mary. As the Mother of God, painters and their patrons had long taken great care to present Mary in ways that might spark reverence and admiration. Such a trend for idealized images of the Virgin continued in the seventeenth century and inspired the many ethereal presentations of artists like Guido Reni and his imitators. During 1604, Caravaggio painted an image of the Madonna of Loreto for the Church of San Agostino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The previous winter, he had spent time in northern Italy, not far from the shrine of the Holy House of Loreto, a place believed to house the actual childhood home of the boy Jesus. Returning to Rome, Caravaggio painted an image of the Virgin standing in her doorway like an Italian housewife, being admired by two pilgrims. Instead of idealizing Mary, Caravaggio painted his model faithfully, complete with dirt under her nails. Again, as in the Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio intended such homely portrayals to call attention to the way in which God worked through humble agents and to heighten his viewers’ piety with the realization that those involved in the sacred dramas of scriptures had been ordinary men and women. Yet some felt at the time that his tendency to make the sacred profane was troubling, and the Madonna of Loreto immediately caused a controversy because of its homely portrayal of Mary. Similar criticisms were made, too, of the artist’s Death of the Virgin, a painting that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Typically, most artists had treated Mary’s triumphant Assumption into Heaven, rather than focusing on the final hours of her life and death. Caravaggio, by contrast, showed the Virgin sick and bloated, just after the final throes of her suffering and with her bare legs outstretched as if in rigor mortis. When the painting was presented to the Roman monks who had commissioned it, they rejected it. Such a reaction to Caravaggio’s work had become increasingly common at the time. But even as churchmen came to reject his works for public display, others clamored to purchase them for their private collections. In the case of the Death of the Virgin, many criticized the painting specifically for showing the Virgin’s legs undraped, as well as for the artist’s choice of a notorious local prostitute to serve as the model. Others attacked it for being too realistic, since there was no hint of Mary’s triumphant journey to heaven. Instead the apostles and women who attended the woman seem struck by a grief so profound that there is no hope for release. Such works caused Caravaggio’s art to be reviled, even as it was widely imitated by many later figures.

Increasing Troubles

Even during the high-tide of his success, Caravaggio’s personal troubles were multiplying. Between 1600 and 1606, the artist had been accused of assault on an almost annual basis. In these years, he and his associate Orazio Gentileschi were also accused of libel, and a notorious case brought by the highly successful artist Giovanni Baglione granted the artist a dubious celebrity. In 1606, Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl that occurred after a tennis match, and he was forced to flee Rome for southern Italy. He traveled to Naples, then to Malta, and in these final years he continued to receive commissions. Wounded again in a fight, he spent several months convalescing at Naples before deciding to sail to Rome in 1610 after several intercessions gave him the impression that he might be pardoned if he returned there. As his boat was about to set sail, he was mistaken for another criminal, caught, and arrested. Although released a few days later, he developed pneumonia and died soon afterward.


Despite his short and stormy life, Caravaggio’s output of paintings was enormous and his works were avidly traded in by artistic connoisseurs even in the early seventeenth century. The artist’s travels in his later years from Rome to Naples to Malta left examples of his art in southern Italy, at that time a province of Habsburg Spain. From this vantage point they came to be studied by Italian and Spanish masters, and their highly dramatic imagery was widely imitated. Many Northern European artists who traveled in Italy were very much influenced by Caravaggio’s example. Those who imitated Caravaggio’s way of painting, in particular, adapted his use of chiaroscuro (the painting of light against dark spaces) to suggest drama. They also longed to perfect his strikingly realistic style. In his technique, Caravaggio was an innovator, and throughout his later life he tried vigorously to guard the secrets of his working methods. Renaissance painters had usually made detailed studies for their compositions before beginning to work on their canvases and panels. Caravaggio, by contrast, painted without preparatory studies using live models. To achieve his effects ofchiaroscuro he placed his models in a darkened room lit only with strong lighting placed high above their heads. His patron, the Cardinal del Monte, was very much interested in the science of optics, and reports survive that suggest that Caravaggio may have used lenses to project the outlines of his models and their setting onto his canvases. The attempt to capture nature faithfully was to be one of the preoccupations of the seventeenth century, and Caravaggio’s example of a rough and dramatic realism was to inspire many who followed him.

The Caravaggisti

Caravaggio’s Followers in Rome

During the final years of his life and for about two decades following his death, Caravaggio’s example was avidly imitated by a number of painters at Rome. This trend developed in the years immediately following 1600, as the successes of the artist’s works in the Cerasi and Contarelli chapels were recognized. The dark and brooding elements of his style soon appeared in a number of works by other artists, including those of Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643), Orazio Gentileschi (1576-1639), Tomasso Salini (1575-1625), and Bartolommeo Manfredi (1582-1622). While he lived, Caravaggio detested this trend, and he tried to protect the secrets of his working methods. Two of the earliest imitators, Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) and Tomasso Salini (1575-1625), became his sworn enemies. In 1603, Baglione sued Caravaggio and his friend Orazio Gentileschi, charging them with libel. He believed that the two were responsible for writing verses that accused him of being a plagiarist. Baglione’s techniques were very different from those of Caravaggio and remained true to the Central Italian tradition of making major preparatory studies before beginning to paint. At the same time, his works did copy Caravaggio’s dramatic chiaroscuro and he did try to cultivate the great master’s sense of realism. While he later developed a style notably independent from Caravaggio, his works around the time of the famous libel case were, in fact, highly derived from Caravaggio’s style. Baglione’s close friend, Tomasso Salini, was also affected by the popularity of Caravaggism evident in Rome in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, although Salini’s art continued to make use of many Mannerist design principles. While he derived inspiration from Caravaggio, Salini also became the artist’s sworn enemy, in part because of the role that he came to play as a witness for Baglione in the 1603 legal case.

Manfredi and Gentileschi

Perhaps the two greatest Caravaggisti active in Rome at this time were Bartolommeo Manfredi and Orazio Gentileschi. Both managed to run successful studios and both were given a number of commissions, although their works followed two different paths. Manfredi treated many of the same themes in his paintings that Caravaggio had immortalized in his early career, including tavern scenes, concerts, and other genre paintings of daily life. At the same time, Manfredi was a successful painter of religious themes, although he rarely accepted public commissions. He was, in other words, primarily a painter patronized by wealthy Romans and churchmen, who bought his works to display in their private collections. His style was notable for its coarse realism, and his critics attacked it as vulgar. By contrast, Orazio Gentileschi’s paintings derived a similar inspiration from Caravaggio, although this artist generally sanitized his works of the earthy, often lower class dimensions evident in the great master’s immortal creations. During the artist’s long years in Rome, he painted a number of religious and secular themes illuminated with the dramatic light typical of the earlier master. He usually arranged the figures in his compositions close to the foreground and cast a white light from the right across them. While he attempted to capture Caravaggio’s realism, his works sometimes showed a naiveté concerning anatomy. In contrast to the homely quality of Manfredi, Gentileschi’s works abounded in rich brocades, tapestries, and other elegant trappings of aristocratic life. The artist managed to have a successful career in Rome, not only as a painter, but also as a decorator. He was responsible, in fact, for many of the decorative mosaic designs that adorn the interior of St. Peter’s dome at the Vatican. Later in life, he left the city, and after travels to Genoa and Paris, he ended up as a painter in the court of Charles I in England.

Decline of Caravaggism at Rome

While the movement reigned at Rome during the 1610s and early 1620s, its influence lessened after 1623. In that year, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII, and he was to reign until 1644. During his relatively long pontificate, he and his family were to commission a number of monuments and artistic works in Rome notable for their grand, triumphal style, rather than for their gritty realism. It was during the Barberini pontificate, for instance, that much of the interior decoration of the new St. Peter’s Basilica was completed. The artist who spoke most vigorously to these new demands was Gianlorenzo Bernini, and his own design principles, revealed in the sculptures and architecture that he crafted for his Roman patrons, were to take a very different course from the brooding spirit of Caravaggio and his followers.

Caravaggism in Naples

It was in Italy’s largest city, Naples, that Caravaggism exerted its greatest influence over artistic culture in the seventeenth century. Caravaggio had fled to Naples in 1607 after having killed a man in a brawl, and in southern Italy he had executed a number of commissions, often for some of the most influential families in the region. In Naples, he continued to experiment with new design techniques. In some of his paintings, he softened the intense realism typical of his most famous Roman pictures, although he continued to concentrate his attentions on a small number of figures placed in the extreme foreground of his pictures. The works that he produced soon acquired many admirers among the artists in Naples, and three Caravaggisti—Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (c. 1570-1637), Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), and Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652)—continued his experiments in realism there after his death in 1610. The style of Caravaggesque painting they helped to create in the city flourished in Naples far longer than in the rest of Italy. All three artists demonstrated a taste for violent themes that were often gruesomely portrayed and which relied on elements of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. The eldest of these figures, Caracciolo began to make his mark on the Neapolitan artistic scene around age thirty. During the early 1600s, his works show a steadily increasing sophistication of technique, enlivened toward 1610 by the experience of having seen Caravaggio’s Neapolitan works. After a visit to Rome in 1614, his works acquired a greater finesse and certainty of technique, and during subsequent visits to Genoa, Rome, and Florence, he also came into contact with the idealized works of the Carracci school. In the years that followed he tried to forge a new style that united the insights that he had culled from this very different tradition to his longer standing Caravaggism. At the same time, Caracciolo was an avid painter of frescoes, a medium that few of the Caravaggisti practiced, and he left behind a legacy of numerous ceiling frescoes in Naples notable for their grand and heroic style. While many of the Caravaggisti were attacked even in the seventeenth century for their highly derivative and imitative style, Caracciolo managed to transform the great master’s realism and lighting effects into a vehicle for presenting his own subtle psychological insights. The second member of the Neapolitan Caravaggisti, Jusepe de Ribera, was not an Italian, but a Spaniard. Born the son of a cobbler, he trained in Spain as a painter before moving to Rome around 1613. There he received a few commissions, and he forged a close relationship with the Utrecht Caravaggisti, a group of painters from the Dutch city of Utrecht that were active on the Roman scene at the time. These included Hendrick ter Brugghen, Dirck van Baburen, and Gerrit van Honthorst. In contrast to the life-painting the Roman Caravaggisti practiced at this time, precise draftsmanship and brush-work characterized the works of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, something that can be seen in the works of Ribera at this time, too. By 1616, Ribera had moved on to Naples, which was controlled then by the kingdom of Spain. Here he was to achieve great success as both a painter and engraver, completing many commissions for the Spanish officials and nobles that were flocking to southern Italy at the time. He continued to execute many works using the contrasting darks and lights of Caravaggism, but during the 1620s and 1630s he developed a second style, notable for greater lightness as well as swift and expressive brush strokes. By 1630, his reputation as a painter of the first rank had been established, and in that year Diego Velázquez visited him in Naples, and came to find inspiration in elements of Ribera’s style. Thus the Caravaggism that was so widespread in Naples was to leave its mark on the greatest painter of seventeenth-century Spain.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Perhaps the most fascinating of all the followers of Caravaggio to emerge in seventeenth-century Italy was Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter of the Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi. Trained by her father, she came to be the first female painter in European history to be celebrated throughout the Continent for the depth of her artistic insight. Unlike other female professional painters of the time she did not confine her work merely to still lifes and small devotional pictures, but instead took on large historical themes, which she came to endow with considerable depth of feeling. A precocious talent, she was painting in her father’s studio by the time she was a teenager. Around this time Agostino Tassi, one of her painting teachers, raped her, and her father soon sued. As a result of the publicity the trial generated, Artemisia was quickly married off to a Florentine, and the couple moved immediately to Florence. It was in the period directly after her marriage that she painted one of her undeniable masterpieces, Judith Beheading Holofernes, a subject that Caravaggio had also treated. In this story from the Apocrypha, Judith triumphs over the Assyrian conqueror Holofernes and saves Judea by getting the general drunk in his tent. She then proceeds to behead him. Gentileschi’s portrayal of the account is gruesomely realistic, so realistic that many people still find the picture difficult to view. Generations of connoisseurs, too, have seen in her account a psychological depth and rage arising from her unfortunate mishandling at the hands of men. Artemisia remained in Florence for a number of years and was admitted into the city’s prestigious Academy of Design, the association of prominent painters in the city. She apparently developed a successful career in the city as a portraitist, although few examples of her works in this genre have survived over the centuries. By 1630, she had likely separated from her husband and had taken up residence in Naples. Her early works had often flouted convention by treating subjects that required her to paint female nudes. In Naples, though, her art took a more conservative turn, with the artist often painting religious subjects for Spanish patrons who lived and worked in the city. A trip to England to visit her ailing father in 1638 came to last three years, during which Artemisia finished some of the projects on which he had been at work during the final years of his life. She then returned to Naples, where she continued to support herself as a painter in the Caravaggistic tradition until her death in 1652. Widely admired and yet controversial in her time, she was one of the artists chiefly responsible for carrying Caravaggio’s realism as well as his insights concerning light and shading to Florence and Northern Europe.

Impact of Caravaggism

The impact of Caravaggio’s artistic vision came to spread, not only throughout Italy, but everywhere in Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century. Groups of Dutch artists, like the Utrecht Caravaggisti, were to bring with them the insights that they had obtained while observers on the Roman scene. At home, their dark and brooding musings on grim situations were admired for a time, before new movements arose to supplant their popularity. Still, the techniques that these Italian travelers had acquired while in Rome and other centers were not lost, but continued to affect painters like Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt in the years to come. In France and Spain, many artists came to be influenced by the fashion for Caravaggism as well. While the popularity of the movement persisted in few centers past 1650, Caravaggesque naturalism dramatically enriched the vocabulary of techniques available to artists in the later seventeenth century.

Sculpture in Italy

Gianlorenzo Bernini

The figure of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) came to dominate the Baroque style in mid-seventeenth-century Italy. Although he is recognized today primarily as a sculptor, Bernini was a multitalented genius the likes of which had not been seen in Italy since the days of the High Renaissance. Trained as a sculptor in his father’s Roman studio, he completed his first sculptures by the time he was eleven years old. At this early age, he produced a small sculpture noticeable for its naturalness and delicacy for the Cardinal Scipione Borghese. While he continued to practice the art of sculpture his entire life, he also acquired great skills as a playwright, painter, draftsman, and composer. By the time he was twenty he had acquired a second prominent patron in the figure of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who eventually rose to become Pope Urban VIII (r. 1622-1644). Both Cardinal Borghese and Barberini managed to keep the young sculptor employed with a number of commissions. Even in this early period of his youth, Bernini produced a number of masterpieces that were hailed as unprecedented since the time of Michelangelo. Two of these early works, the David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1624), continued to shape the training of sculptors well into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In contrast to Michelangelo’s self-contained and assured David, Bernini’s sculpture treating the same subject immortalized dramatic tension and movement. As in Caravaggio’s painting, Bernini strives here to capture the moment: the exact instant when the young David is just about to propel the stone from his slingshot. The pose that Bernini captured in this marble was derived from one of the ancient figures contained in Annibale Carracci’s ceiling at the Palazzo Farnese, but the expression on the David’s face was the artist’s own. Oft-repeated anecdotes from the time told that Bernini spent a great deal of time looking at his own reflection in a mirror to capture the details of this strained expression, and that the future pope, Maffeo Barberini, even held the mirror for the artist several times while he was at work. A more fanciful creation can be seen in the young artist’s Apollo and Daphne, completed one year after the David. Again, Bernini chose a climactic moment in the ancient myth: the point at which Daphne calls upon her own father for help and is turned into a laurel tree. As Bernini captures the legend, Daphne’s hands and legs have already begun to be transformed into the tree, while behind the beautiful figure of Apollo rushes futilely to try to catch his love. These two sculptures helped proclaim the young artist’s genius, and in the years to come he was to receive a cavalcade of commissions from his early patron Barberini, now Pope Urban VIII.

Work at St. Peter’s

Even more than the work of the architect Carlo Maderno, Bernini’s accomplishments in the interior and exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica were to shape the experience of millions of visitors to the mammoth church for centuries to come. His first massive achievement there was the construction of the baldachino, a canopy almost ten stories above the high altar. Built between 1624 and 1633, the structure actually required the labor of a number of artists, although Bernini proved to be the guiding spirit behind its creation. The most distinctive features of the baldachino are the four huge twisted spirals that serve to support the massive horizontal upper story and crown-like top above. Bernini adapted this design from descriptions of columns that had been in the original Constantinian basilica that had stood at the site until the early sixteenth century. These columns, in turn, were connected to the ancient Hebrew temple erected in Jerusalem during Solomonic times. Although the work is enormous, Bernini’s baldachino proves to be one of the only structures within St. Peter’s that is capable of suggesting the church’s enormous scale. From the rear of the church the canopy appears small, yet as one approaches it and can grasp its massive proportions set against the even larger dome above, the true size of St. Peter’s becomes evident. Throughout the interior of the building, too, Bernini oversaw a massive sculptural program that decorated the church’s walls, holy water stoups, and massive piers and columns with statuary. Most of these statues are about one and a half times life size, but their scale is dwarfed within the confines of Christianity’s largest church. As Bernini’s labors progressed at the basilica, he also planned to build two massive bell towers on the other side of St. Peter’s façade, though these structures eventually proved to be structurally unsound and had to be torn down. As a result his reputation as an artist, architect, and designer suffered for a brief time under the pontificate of Urban VIII’s successor, Innocent X (r. 1644-1655). The artist’s imprint on the church’s exterior is most notable today through his design of the enormous square that lies outside the church’s nave, as well as the statues he designed for this square’s massive, encompassing colonnade (a forest of columns that is roofed over to provide protection from the elements). Three hundred simple Doric columns populate this curving colonnade, while on either side of the enclosed space Bernini placed two handsome bronze fountains. Atop the colonnade the statues Bernini designed portray the major saints of the church. In the center of the square he placed an ancient Egyptian obelisk, a monument that signified the church’s conversion of the heathen peoples and its subsuming of their cultures into Christianity. He imagined the entire structure, with its enfolding arms, as signifying Mother Church’s embrace of the faithful, and despite its colossal size the square does manage to grant a sense of integrity and welcome to the massive structure that stands in its background. Generally, Bernini’s decorative program at St. Peter’s managed to endow the severe monumentality of the church with a sense of movement and dramatic climax, key features of the artistic sensibilities of both the visual arts and architecture in the Baroque. (See Architecture: The Rise of the Baroque in Italy)

Bernini’s Decorative Programs Elsewhere in Rome

Although Bernini fell out of papal favor early in the pontificate of Innocent X, he soon came to be reinstated as the dominant artist of seventeenth-century Rome. For most of the century, he was the man that popes called upon to execute their ambitious plans. Scarcely a corner of the city escaped his touch. Since the Renaissance, Italian artists and architects had frequently envisioned handsome squares, broad avenues, and other urban monuments that might serve as focal points for urban life. Few of these grand plans had been executed, but in the seventeenth century Rome’s popes redoubled efforts to endow their city with these grand monuments. As a result, Rome emerged as the model for the early-modern capital, and its handsome public spaces were to be imitated throughout the Continent. Bernini proved in every way to be equal to the challenge of creating noble public spaces. Throughout the city, he designed sculptures and fountains, and he placed ancient monuments within new frames that set off their noble features. The little obelisk that he placed in the square near the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was typical of one direction in which Bernini’s decorative and humorous art flowed. He set the ancient monument atop the back of a fancifully sculpted elephant, suggesting the mode of transport that the artifact had likely taken on its way to Rome. Elsewhere his designs for urban squares were more dignified. Perhaps his most definitive achievement on the urban scene was the construction of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. This long and narrow rectangular square had been the site of a Roman stadium, a staging point for chariot races in the ancient city. The monument was Bernini’s first major commission undertaken for Pope Innocent X, after the setback that he had suffered as a result of St. Peter’s ill-fated bell towers. Innocent stipulated that the square be decorated with a fountain as well as an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome centuries before. Since the late sixteenth century, the increase of the city’s water supply had been an essential component of papal policy; ancient aqueducts had been repaired and new water sources developed. As these achievements occurred, successive popes came to celebrate Rome’s new, secure sources of fresh water by commissioning fountains like Bernini’s Four Rivers. The Roman fountain was above all a utilitarian object, for without running water in houses, this was how people received their water. Bernini’s structure, though, came to outshine the many handsome, but largely utilitarian structures that had been built in the city to this point. Relying on his enormous ingenuity, Bernini built the obelisk into his fountain design, placing it atop a mountain of fake rock that appeared to be a natural pile of stone, but which in reality was carefully cut to refract light dramatically off its surfaces. At each of the four corners under the obelisk he designed a massive sculpture that personified the qualities of four of the world’s most important rivers, including the Danube, Ganges, Nile, and the South American Plate. He encircled the sculptures with carved flora and fauna suggestive of the river’s region and he relied on playful jets to dispense the fountain’s water in dramatic spurts, dribbles, and jets of water. In this way Bernini’s fountain transformed an object that might have been a merely useful object on the Roman scene into a widely revered and playful monument.

The Cornaro Chapel

Of Bernini’s many Roman creations, the one that the artist himself most admired was his design for the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a work he executed between 1645 and 1652. The chapel’s subject, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa immortalizes a famous incident in the life of this Spanish Counter-Reformation saint. In his plans for the chapel, Bernini designed a complete stage-like setting that reproduced the saint’s miraculous visitation by an angelic messenger. During this incident, known alternately as her “Ecstasy” or “Transverberation,” the angel pricked her with a burning arrow that left her alive with the love of God. Although the event had been painful, St. Teresa described it as so fulfilling and sweet that she never wanted it to end. To suggest this mixture of mingled pain and joy, Bernini relied on his already well-established language of flowing lines and polished drapery. The folds of St. Teresa’s habit fall into elegant shapes that suggest movement and the inner turmoil and sweetness of her experience. The artist placed this sculpture, too, within an architectural frame that projects outward toward the viewer’s space. Above, the pediment that crowns this group is broken and again moves outward toward the viewer. At either side he placed what appear to be theatrical boxes into which he put sculptures of members of the Cornaro family. Thus the patrons appear as witnesses to St. Teresa’s great drama, and although sculpted in stone, they have before them a perpetual image of the great Spanish saint’s mysterious visitation. Since the onset of the Catholic Reformation in the sixteenth century, reformers like St. Ignatius of Loyola had recommended that the faithful practice daily meditations in which they kept before their eyes images of Christ’s Passion as well as key events in the life of the Virgin and the saints. Bernini himself practiced similar pious regimens based, not upon St. Ignatius Loyola, but upon the devotions contained in Thomas à Kempis’ late-medieval devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ. In his Ecstasy of St. Teresa, he showed the Cornaro family also taking part in this kind of visual meditation: they sit in a theatrical setting, as if pondering the miracle of Teresa’s Transverberation, consuming it as one might a play. In this way Bernini’s chapel made use of the widespread tendency to elevate images into a method for avoiding sin. To endow his entire creation with greater force, Bernini surrounded his entire chapel with richly colored marbles and touches of gilt, while in the space above he had painted a fresco that suggested the heavens. In its rich use of color, its dramatic sculptural imagery, and theatricality, Bernini’s Ecstasy has long served as an emblematic image of the Catholic Reformation. It achieved, in other words, that dramatic mix of intense emotionalism and clear religious content that Catholic reformers had long recommended as the highest aims of religious art. While highly successful and often imitated, Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel has more recently been invoked as the first of many complete artistic environments, a setting in which sculpture, painting, architecture, and the decorative arts all merge to provide a complete sensory experience to those who visit it.

The Baroque Matures in Italy

Pietro da Cortona

Bernini, the great commanding figure of the seventeenth-century Baroque in Rome, was accomplished in almost all of the media available to a professional in his time. During his long life he came to dominate the development of public architecture and sculpture in the city, and although he may have painted as many as 150 paintings for his private pleasure, his influence was most definitive in the fountains, sculptures, and architectural commissions he undertook for the papacy. His great authority in artistic matters in the mid- and late seventeenth century, though, did not extend to the world of painting. Here the guiding figure that was to transform the experimentations of the Carracci and Caravaggio into a distinctively mature High Baroque style was Pietro Berrettini da Cortona (1599-1669). Born the son of a stonemason in the Tuscan town of Cortona, he was originally trained in his father’s shop as a sculptor and stonecutter, a traditional avenue that often led into the practice of architecture. In painting, he was trained by a provincial artist in Cortona who had close ties to Florentine masters then active in Rome. When his teacher migrated to Rome in 1612, Cortona soon followed. Although he received many commissions during the years that followed, these demonstrate little of the finesse that appeared in his work after 1630. At that time, his art emerged as a mature synthesis fashioned out of the insights of the Bolognese painters of the previous generation, including the Carracci, Guido Reni, and Domenichino. At the same time, Cortona longed to unite the traditional concerns of Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Florentine High Renaissance masters with disegno or draftsmanship, with the rich coloristic tradition of Titian and the Venetians. His works around this period took on a greater finesse and surety of execution and were notable for their classical design, rich palette, and dramatic sense of movement and urgency. As a result of his rising status among the artists working in Rome at mid-century, he was given a number of important commissions, particularly from members of the Barberini family, whose son Maffeo then ruled as Pope Urban VIII.

Palazzo Barberini

In 1633 Francesco Barberini commissioned Cortona to paint the ceiling of the Grand Salon of his palace in Rome, a massive project that became the artist’s definitive masterpiece. The poet Francesco Bracciolini defined the iconography for this work, which was an allegorical treatment of Divine Providence. When completed six years later, the work astounded the Roman artistic world, and it set standards that later artists strove to attain during the remainder of the century. As an achievement it was not to be surpassed until the great frescoes that Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) created in the eighteenth century. Until Cortona’s time, a ceiling as vast as that in the Barberini Palace had usually been covered in smaller frescoes framed with illusionary architecture or frames to appear as if they were individual wall paintings transposed onto the ceiling. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, completed between 1508 and 1512, consists of a series of narrative scenes that relate the biblical history from the Creation of Man to the Flood. Annibale Carracci’s great achievement in the Palazzo Farnese, a cornerstone of the early Baroque style, had similarly been divided up into a series of individual works, unified by seeming to be a great artistic collection of antiquities and discrete works of art. It had, in other words, been unified as if it was a connoisseur’s cabinet of pictures and sculptures housed in the Farnese’s barrel vault. One of the reasons for working in this manner, known at the time as quadri riportati or “framed pictures,” lay in the technical problems of the fresco medium. To undertake a commission of this monumental nature, artists were forced to divide up a fresco into many different sections, each corresponding to a day’s work. In true fresco, for instance, plaster is applied to the wall and a section painted while the surface is still damp. In this way the pigments are fused into the surface and become a permanent part of the wall. It is consequently difficult, when working on a large surface such as the Palazzo Barberini’s Grand Salon, to treat the entire area as a single composition, unless one has executed a brilliant series of plans. Of course, artists before Cortona had experimented with ways to unify a large ceiling painting as a single work of fresco. During the 1590s, the brothers Cherubino and Alessandro Alberti had painted a single fresco on the ceiling of the Salon of Clement in the Vatican Palace. And in his single ceiling fresco of Aurora, completed around 1615, the great artist Guercino had created a single fresco, but he had framed his work with illusionary paintings of architecture that projected upwards the lines of the room below. In this way the actual space the figural painting of Aurora took up on Guercino’s ceiling was quite small. In the Grand Salon of the Barberini Palace, Cortona took a new, unprecedented tactic. He originally planned to create his work in a way similar to the Palazzo Farnese frescoes of Annibale Carracci, yet as his designs progressed he abandoned such a scheme. The final work appears at first glance as if it is a single gigantic fresco, but it is actually five scenes forged into a single compositional unity through a series of complex devices. The result is a breathtaking tour de force that manages to captivate viewers by its density. Out of this swirling mass of figures, an amazing comprehensive design is readily intelligible; at the same time, this unity invites viewers to decode the ceiling’s many symbolic and allegorical messages. Like many grand Baroque projects, Cortona began with a literary program, one that was devised from the works of the poet Francesco Bracciolini. The shape of the ceiling is a coved, rather than barrel vault, meaning that it slants upwards on all four sides of the rectangular room. In these coves, Cortona painted mythological scenes that serve as allegories glorifying the great achievements of Pope Urban VIII, the most distinguished member of the Barberini clan at the time. Above, in the central space of the ceiling, the virtuous attributes of the Barberini family are immortalized, and the reign of the family’s son as pope is celebrated as a sign of the gifts of God’s providence. While its allegory sometimes appears contrived and overly difficult to understand, the entire composition holds an amazing degree of sensual force. On stepping into the room, in other words, it appears as if the very heavens have been opened up onto the space, and the rich colors of the ceiling present a kaleidoscopic effect that invites an observer merely to bask in the work as a purely ethereal confection.

Cortona’s other Works

Success at the Barberini Palace established Cortona as an artist of the highest rank in Rome, and he received a number of commissions as a result. Among the most important projects that he completed in the final years of his life was a series of decorations for the Grand Duke’s apartment in the Pitti Palace in Florence. This particular commission was fraught with problems and setbacks, and although the artist began working there in 1642, he was still returning periodically to Florence to paint in the 1660s, and some rooms remained unfinished at his death. The press of his success at Rome insured that he, like Bernini, was always kept busy there with many projects, and his artistic example helped to establish the grand manner, drama, and dense compositional techniques that many Baroque artists came to favor in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Other Artists in Rome

At the same time, Cortona was only one of a large number of successful artists at Rome. Other figures who flourished during his lifetime included Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661), who also completed decorative frescoes in the Barberini Palace; Battista Gaulli who was known as Baciccio (1639-1709), and who decorated the huge barrel vault of the Jesuit’s Church of Il Gesù; and Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), who painted a number of public religious pictures and ceilings in churches throughout the city. Maratta and Gaulli were a generation younger than Cortona and Scacchi, and they carried the High Baroque style into the early eighteenth century. During the later seventeenth century the fashion for Baroque ceiling frescoes increased everywhere throughout Rome, and many of the city’s palaces and churches were decorated by the city’s extraordinarily fertile group of artists. Two of the greatest practitioners in the medium on the Roman scene were Andrea Pozzo and Luca Giordano. Pozzo’s fresco, The Entrance of St. Ignatius into Paradise, completed in 1694 in the nave of the Church of St. Ignatius, was very much influenced by the early example of Guercino’s Aurora. While hardly great art, his work is the most impressive example of the attempt to create an illusionary architectural framework for a ceiling fresco. The complete artifice of classical architecture that appears to surge upward from St. Ignatius’s walls amazes and astounds viewers. Populated with a dense agglomeration of figures, however, Pozzo’s fresco fails to sustain the visual interest of those of Guercino or Cortona. The art of Luca Giordano (1634-1705), a Neapolitan painter who studied with the great master Ribera in Naples, was quite different. The Caravaggism, not only of Ribera, but also of the accomplished Neapolitan painter Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), influenced Giordano. He traveled to Rome where he acquired an understanding of the compositional techniques of Cortona as well. Then he embarked on a life of constant travel, spending time in Florence and a number of Italian centers before settling in Spain for a decade. He left behind him a trail of accomplished works that helped create a fashion for the grand manner of the Roman Baroque throughout the Italian and the Iberian peninsulas. An enormously prolific artist, he was discounted in the decades after his death as facile and lacking in depth. More recently, his art has been extensively re-evaluated, and in his light forms, gorgeous, brilliant coloration, and suggestions of swift movement, art historians have come to see echoes of the Rococo movement that was to flourish in the early eighteenth century.

Baroque Classicism in France

The Reception of the Italian Style

The later sixteenth century had been a time of great turmoil in France. Between 1562 and 1598, a series of religious wars had erupted, leaving the country’s political institutions, economy, and society badly battered. In the years after 1600, however, a tenuous stability returned to the country under King Henri IV (r. 1594-1610). Although Henri was eventually assassinated, civil war did not return to France, and during the long reign of Henri’s son, Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643), a steady recovery in the country’s fortunes continued. In the early years of his reign, Louis’ mother, Marie de’ Medici, served as regent. A connoisseur of the arts, she came to invite the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to court, and she supported a number of native artists as well. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, too, many of the artists who were to contribute to the country’s great flowering of the arts in the second half of the seventeenth century migrated southward to Italy, particularly to Rome. There they learned of the new styles of Caravaggio and the Carracci. Among these figures, Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), Nicholas Poussin (1593 or 1594-1665), and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) were to build upon Italian examples, Northern European traditions, and their own native styles to fashion a resurgence of the arts in France. Each of these figures was shaped most definitively by their experience of the Roman Baroque. Georges de la Tour spent time there as a young man, while Poussin and Lorrain eventually emigrated to the city and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Georges de la Tour

La Tour’s career presents us with one case of the vagaries of reputation across the ages. He was an artist of considerable renown in his own times, but he soon fell out of favor after his death, and his place in seventeenth-century painting has only recently been restored. After a provincial upbringing in the province of Lorraine in the east of France, he traveled extensively in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland) as well as in Italy. He arrived in Rome as the ferment of Caravaggio’s new realism was erupting on the artistic scene. While affected by these currents, particularly in his use of chiaroscuro, La Tour was a strikingly original artist. As other Catholic artists of the time, he often painted religious subjects as if they occurred in his own time and place. Today, one of his most famous paintings is the Newborn (c. 1630), a canvas that shows his tendency to convey religious subjects realistically. The picture shows a mother inspecting her child by the light of a candle held by a midwife. Although the reverential feeling of the work suggests that it is a picture of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, no religious symbol, halo, or any other sign supports this assumption. Rather than the light emanating from the infant Jesus as in much traditional imagery, La Tour makes the illumination reflect across the picture surface to form patches of light and dark. Instead of the miraculous otherworldly light with which Caravaggio often cast on religious subjects like the Conversion of St. Paul, La Tour makes this light come from the natural source of a candle. Although we can surmise that the intensely reverential spirit of the work means that the subject is the Birth of Christ, La Tour seems to make here a statement about the wonder that accompanies all human birth. Most of the forty other images that can be attributed to the artist are, like this painting, executed on a small scale, a fact that suggests that La Tour carved out a niche for himself in the French provinces as a painter who worked for private patrons, rather than religious institutions. Of these works most treat religious subjects or are genre pieces, i.e., they treat subjects in everyday life. It is not always easy to tell into which category one of La Tour’s paintings falls, since he almost never included haloes or other recognizable religious symbols when he treated the saints or some other religious subject. He avoided placing the figures in his compositions in unnatural or stylized poses, as the Mannerist artists before him had done, and at the same time he did not display the dynamic sense of movement typical of Rubens and other Baroque painters of the time. He seems to have painted from life models, and he captured their natural poses in full-or half-length views. In most of his compositions, a quiet and still observation of human nature and human forms dominates, rather than the turbulent psychological realism of Caravaggio and the Caravaggeschi. His art does not recall the intensely sweeping motion of works like those from the hands of Cortona and his disciples. While he derived certain influences from all these great artists, La Tour’s work is highly original and suggests the great variety that existed in seventeenth-century European painting.


Perhaps the two greatest painters to appear in seventeenth-century France were Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), both of whom eventually settled in Rome. Like La Tour, both were also provincials; Poussin was from Normandy, while Lorrain was from the eastern French province of the same name. Poussin became perhaps the greatest painter of classical themes in the Western tradition. Unlike the heavily muscled classical images produced by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century or the swift-moving dynamism of Annibale Carracci, Poussin’s works exude a quiet intellectualism. He did not labor to reproduce decisive moments from the scenes he painted as Caravaggio had done, but instead tried to retell ancient myths and legends faithfully, creating images that suggested their entire sweep and texture. While he also painted many religious scenes, he is best known for works on antique themes. An important artistic theorist as well, Poussin developed his own theory of aesthetics. He insisted that an artist must first have a clear understanding of the theme or story that he wanted to communicate before planning his composition. At the same time, an artist must execute his work so that it appears unlabored and natural. As his career progressed, the artist refined his aesthetics, and he tried to paint according to the system of modes once used in Greek music, perceiving in these abstract systems of tone an underlying sense of beauty that might communicate his ideas clearly to his audience. In his Rape of the Sabines, painted just after 1635, he relied on the Phrygian mode’s organizing principles to create a work notable for its abstract principles of organization, in which the eye is carried around the canvas in a wheel-like rotation. Similarly, in his great masterpiece from around the same time, The Dance to the Music of Time, he explicitly relies on music to give life to the subject. Here the eternal cyclical rotation of the powers of poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure are conceptualized in terms of being a great dance operating throughout history. In this, one of the greatest of his many pictures, the typical features of Poussin’s design are clear, particularly his emphasis on creating an art notable for its balance of color, lighting, and forms. Unlike the dramatic and highly dynamic art popular in Rome at the time, Poussin’s vision was altogether quieter and more cerebral. That he flourished in the same city remains a testimony to Baroque Rome’s great and tolerant community of connoisseurs.

Claude Lorrain

If Poussin was a great painter of historical themes, Claude Lorrain became the greatest French landscape artist of the seventeenth century. Poussin set his works in settings notable for their classical architecture, but his artistic vision always fell upon the human figure, and his choice of scale was determined to set off their forms and accentuate their actions. By contrast, Claude Lorrain included human forms in his many canvases, but almost always to establish the grandeur of the landscapes that he painted around them. These grand views of countryside and cityscapes were not forbidding or uninhabitable, but they were certainly immense in the prospects they offered to their viewers. These views are always idealized; they present, in other words, nature more inviting and beautiful than it is in actuality. In his Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, completed around 1648, Lorrain retells the ancient biblical story in a countryside that resembles the area around Rome and the river that runs through the center of the image looks very much like the Tiber. Along the left of the painting an idealized classical portico and several other buildings allow the viewer to interpret the mammoth recession of space that occurs in the background, as does a large tree to the right. In the narrow but deep cavern of space that Lorrain carves out of this picture plane, the river rolls to the horizon as if it were the Mediterranean Sea, and once at its destination it disappears into the gorgeous yellowish glow of a late afternoon sun. The image points to a central underlying feature of Lorrain’s art: its use of light as a way to grant unity and compositional integrity to his landscapes. Lorrain was not, to be sure, the inventor of the landscape form. It had begun to emerge in Venetian painting during the early sixteenth century. But his works opened up the genre’s possibilities and the beauty with which he painted these scenes meant that he acquired many patrons. The Roman aristocracy came to commission many works from him in the more than forty years that he lived in their city. Unlike most artists, his mature style did not alter over time and he remained committed to the genre of ideal landscape into his old age.

The Age of Louis XIV

The arts in France came to be dramatically affected by the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715). Louis came to power as a young boy, and in his youth his mother, Anne of Austria, served as regent. Anne was a great connoisseur of the arts, and in 1648 supported the foundation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. During the 1660s Louis assumed the reins of government and a series of regulations attempted to regularize the teaching practices of this institution. Like most of the academies founded under Louis XIV, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was concerned with establishing canons of classicism in the visual arts. Louis XIV was not a great connoisseur of art as his mother and her chief minister Cardinal Mazarin had been. Yet like many educated French men and women of the period he idealized the classical art of the Italian Renaissance, seeing in the art of Michelangelo and Raphael a high standard of excellence that students needed to study. The program of the Royal Academy was designed around instruction in the art of ancient Rome and Greece as well as these masters of the Renaissance. History painting, too, played a special role in the institution’s goals, since no master was allowed to gain entrance into the Academy without having proved himself in this genre. To further these goals, Louis founded the French Academy in Rome, a place to which young painters and sculptors could travel in order to attain firsthand exposure to the great art of the ancient city. A state grant supported this institution, which was required to stage annual exhibitions of all its students. To create a market for the French Academy’s instruction, moreover, the king granted the institution a monopoly over the teaching of life drawing. Thus if a student wanted to master the techniques of drawing with life models, he was forced to enroll in the Academy in Paris. To grant the institution greater cachet, Louis also insisted that he would award no commissions to any artist who was not a member. The king’s state interventions in the art world were unprecedented in seventeenth-century Europe, and were not immediately imitated elsewhere. By the eighteenth century, however, a series of foundations of national academies elsewhere in Europe came to be closely modeled on the French example, and in this way, the European state acquired an important role in the training and support of artists. During Louis’s time, however, royal support of the arts was evidenced primarily in a flurry of building. In architecture, the reign of the Sun King was a period of undeniable greatness that began with the completion of the East Façade of the Louvre in Paris. A number of designers, including François Mansart, Louis Le Vau, Claude Perrault, and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, developed a style notable for its Baroque monumentality and rigorous classicism. Louis XIV’s age also became synonymous with the building of Versailles, an enormous project that displayed the king’s grandiose ambitions. At Versailles the king favored Charles Le Brun (1609-1690), the most important member of the Royal Academy at the time. Le Brun’s decoration of the Hall of Mirrors, the King’s Bedroom, and other public spaces in the palace provided a suitably grand backdrop for the Sun King’s pretensions. Somewhat later, Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743) rose to prominence as the king’s favorite, and Rigaud excelled primarily as a portraitist. He created the contours of a severe and grand royal portraiture that persisted throughout most of the eighteenth century. In sculpture, the dominant artist of the time was Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720), who created a number of busts and equestrian treatments for Versailles. Louis XIV’s taste frequently ran toward the decorative, and during his reign the support that he gave to French industries was decisive in their development. Most prominent among Louis’ actions in this regard was his acquisition of the Gobelins factory in Paris in 1661. He placed the factory under the direction of his minister Colbert, who further entrusted many of the details of its development to Charles Le Brun. Louis recruited a number of foreign craftsmen to come and teach the workers at the Gobelins the techniques of their trade. The Gobelins thus became a workshop for the creation of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and furniture for all the royal households. It also played a key role in founding a number of decorative arts and complex trades in the country that had not previously been known to French masters. Gobelin-produced goods were not sold to the general public, but instead were produced directly for the consumption of the king and court. While this scheme flourished under Le Brun’s direction, it fell into decline after the death of Colbert. The institution has survived, however, primarily as a tapestry factory until modern times. While commercially the scheme might be considered a failure, it played a tremendous role in extending knowledge of techniques in the decorative arts in and around the city of Paris.

Painting in the Low Countries

The Medieval and Renaissance Inheritance

The Low Countries consisted of the area that today comprises modern Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a sophisticated culture of artistic consumption emerged in this area, particularly in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking province that was at this time the dominant commercial center of the southern Netherlands. The development of Flemish painting had gone hand in hand with the meteoric rise of the Duchy of Burgundy to prominence in the region, as well as with the rapid urbanization of the area. As a commercial region, the inhabitants of the Low Countries had been open to influences from throughout Europe, but cultural contacts were always closest with France and the commercial centers in Italy, the Flemish cities’ most important trading partners. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Netherlands fell under the control of the Habsburgs, and as a result of the far-reaching marital policies of the dynasty, the region soon came within the orbit of Habsburg Spain. This relationship was always an uneasy one. By 1600, the inhabitants of the Low Countries were waging a brutal war of independence against Spain, the consequences of which were the eventual liberation of the northern Dutch counties from Habsburg control. The southern portion of the Netherlands, of which Flanders was the largest and wealthiest province, was to remain under Spanish domination. As war spread throughout the region, the wars became far more than a movement for political independence, acquiring the character of a widespread religious conflict. In the north, the severely puritanical doctrines of Calvinism dominated in the cities of the county of Holland, while Spanish control in the south buttressed Catholicism and persecuted the many Protestants and Jews who had once flourished in the area’s cities. With the recognition of Dutch independence in the early seventeenth century, the culture of the northern and southern Netherlands began to diverge rather quickly and definitively. Although both regions still shared many common features of language and customs, the southern Netherlands (what is now Belgium) became a fervently Catholic bastion in which education and the arts were avidly supported by the Spanish nobility and its courts. In the north, in what is now modern Holland, a different course prevailed. It was now a predominantly Calvinist country, though minorities of Catholics, Jews, and many other religions came to be tolerated there in the course of the seventeenth century. In particular, numerous Jewish, Anabaptist, and Calvinist émigrés streamed there from Antwerp and other southern Netherlandish towns. As a result of the unprecedented climate of religious toleration that prevailed there, Holland witnessed incredible population growth and rising wealth. Further south, the ancient cities of Bruges and Ghent languished. Once-dynamic Antwerp, too, entered upon a long period of decline when its harbor was closed in 1648 as a consequence of the Peace of Westphalia. These divergences in religion, culture, and economic life came to affect the still vigorous market for painting that thrived in both regions throughout the seventeenth century.

Flemish Painting

The southern Netherlands, which has by long-standing, but incorrect practice been identified as “Flanders,” had a long and distinguished tradition of achievements in the visual arts. During the fifteenth century, a string of masters beginning with Jan Van Eyck and Lucas van der Weyden had developed a tradition of Flemish realism that rivaled the great experiments in naturalism that were underway in Italy at the same time. Flemish innovations in oil painting were avidly studied and copied elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Venice and northern Italy, where the new techniques were quickly taken up in the course of the sixteenth century. An avid market for altarpieces, private devotional images, and portraits persisted in the region at the dawn of the Baroque era, and the craftsman-like tradition of painting born in the later Middle Ages flourished. Around 1600, though, the figure of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) burst upon this scene. A figure as important in Northern Europe as Michelangelo had been in Italy during the sixteenth century, his artistic vision was to transform painting in the Low Countries and throughout northern Europe. Enormously prolific and fueled with a visionary’s genius, his influence spread far beyond Antwerp, the city in which he spent most of his productive life. His art gave expression to certain key Baroque visual values, including the swift and dynamic sense of movement as well as the dramatic monumentality that many of the artists of the time longed to perfect. Rubens also built upon the values of the High Renaissance, merging insights from the art of its masters with his northern European love of realistic portrayal and landscape. Employing his understanding of the Italian masters as well as his own native traditions, Rubens provided an example emulated by Flemish and Dutch painters in the great century of artistic achievement that his career initiated.

Rubens’ Life and Early Work

Peter Paul Rubens was born, not in Flanders, but in Germany, where his Protestant family had taken refuge during the Wars of Religion in their native country. At age eleven he came to Antwerp, where he converted to Catholicism and entered Latin school to gain a thorough grounding in the Classics. Destined for a career as a diplomat, he was sent to serve as a page in the court of a nearby countess. At this time he also began to draw, and instead of pursuing his career as a diplomat—a profession he returned to later in life—he entered the painters’ guild at Antwerp. Through his connections in Antwerp he won an appointment as a court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua. Although given a number of tasks in the ducal household, he was left largely free for a number of years to tour Italy. On these journeys he sharpened his understanding of the art of the High Renaissance, something he had known only via engravings to this point. By 1602, he had made his way to Rome, where he received a series of three commissions from the Church of Santa Croce. At this time his art was very much influenced by the grand style of the Venetians, with its emphasis on gorgeous color and monumental scale. In Rome, however, he garnered a firsthand knowledge of many of the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, before being sent on a diplomatic mission to Spain the following year. When he returned to Italy, he worked for a time in Genoa, before returning to Rome. During this second trip, he studied more closely the works of Annibale Carracci, an important influence in his work that led him to develop a grand and swift sense of movement in his later works. In 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp where he received a number of requests for paintings from the city’s linen merchants and guild officers. He undertook many of these commissions for public settings. His famous Descent from the Cross (1612-1614) was completed for the city’s Cathedral, and still hangs there today. This flurry of image commissioning was a move that at the time bore political and religious significance. In previous generations, Antwerp had been a religiously mixed city in which Catholics, Calvinists, and Anabaptists had all vied for advantage. During 1566, an outbreak of violent iconoclasm had resulted in the destruction of a good deal of religious art. Ten years later, mutineering Spanish soldiers had sacked the city, and in 1585 Spanish forces laid siege to the town, and it fell to Philip II. Soon after, Dutch forces had blockaded the Scheldt, Antwerp’s link to the sea. In the aftermath of this long period of disorder, the town’s population fell dramatically, decreasing from a high of around 100,000 in the mid-sixteenth century to around 40,000 in 1590. As a result of Antwerp’s increasing instability, its Calvinists, Anabaptists, and a large number of its merchants migrated northward into Holland, or to Germany and France. Peter Paul Rubens’ family had, in fact, been among these refugees. By 1610, however, Antwerp’s Catholic future seemed assured, and those Catholic merchants and patricians who remained in the city now came to celebrate the triumph of their faith with a number of works of religious art intended to rehabilitate and refurbish churches that had fallen into dis-repair in the previous two generations. Both Calvinists and Anabaptists opposed the use of religious images in churches as a violation of the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of “graven images.” To demonstrate Catholicism’s greater receptivity and tolerance of religious art a flurry of new works were to be placed in the city’s churches. Through his knowledge of the most recent innovations in Italian art, Rubens soon became the painter favored at Antwerp to give expression to the sense of Catholic resurgence.

Rubens’ High Baroque Style

Rubens himself had been a member of an old and distinguished Antwerp family, and by virtue of his education and his travels in Italy, he soon emerged as the dominant artist on the local scene. In part, the early years back in his native Antwerp were filled with problems of readjusting to life in the conservative Catholic climate of his home city. The developing spirit of the Catholic Reformation called for the messages of religious art to be simple and forcefully portrayed. In Antwerp, however, patrons and religious institutions sometimes used these demands to cajole Rubens to return to the traditional, and to his mind, outmoded conventions of late-medieval art. They demanded, in other words, symbols and iconography that were clearly intelligible to the masses, so that meanings of his works were not misconstrued. In Italy, though, Rubens had been captivated by the art of Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and the Caravaggisti. Both Caravaggio and his followers had longed to present religious themes within settings that appeared like those of everyday life, while the heroic and idealized art of Carracci favored heavily muscled images of the human form, often naked or partially nude. During the 1610s, Rubens experimented with bringing these elements together in a way that might not offend local sensibilities, although the heroic dimensions he derived from Carracci and other Roman painters of the time were to gradually dominate his art. At the same time he strove to capture the drama inherent in Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, that is, the contrast of light and dark passages on the canvas. During these years the artist also took on many diplomatic missions for the provinces of the southern Low Countries, and in this capacity he moved freely in aristocratic circles. Always a man of learning and refinement, Rubens was forced to develop an almost industrial-like production system to complete the many commissions he received. His patrons insisted that his works be large, since many were intended for display in cathedral churches, monasteries, and other institutional settings. At the same time, the fashion for the age tended in all things toward the monumental. To cover these enormous panels and canvases, Rubens relied on an army of assistants who painted in the designs that he had sketched first. In many instances, he only returned to these works for the finishing brush strokes. Such a technique might seem merely facile today, yet as a method it worked brilliantly under the great artist’s direction. Rubens was, in fact, a polymath, a master of many different arts and branches of knowledge. Visitors to his studio noted that someone might be reading a Latin history to the artist from one corner, while elsewhere he conducted a conversation with an intellectual in another. Before him he might be working on a canvas, while at the same time dictating a letter to his secretary. This enormously fertile mind and sense of energy shines through in almost all of his works.

Spirit of His Work

Although Rubens’ early development and training had been in the tradition of Flemish realism that had flourished in the region since the fifteenth century, the spirit of his work is anything but Flemish in inspiration. It was his fortune to be able to forge together the currents of Italian art that had flourished in the peninsula’s various centers over the previous generations. At the same time, he took these to a new level of synthesis and monumentality that spoke to the emerging tastes of Baroque patrons and rulers in Northern Europe. One of his most important commissions was for a series of paintings to decorate Queen Marie de’ Medici’s Luxembourg Palace in Paris. There were in all 21 of these massive canvases completed between 1621 and 1625 for the queen, who had served as regent for her son Louis XIII since 1610. In point of fact, Marie de’ Medici’s life had been marked by numerous failures punctuated with occasional political successes. Rubens perceived this enormous project, though, in ways that made use of his enormous classical learning. Throughout Marie is shown being protected by the Olympian gods. Of these works, one of the most polished is his Henri IV Receiving the Portrait of Maria de’ Medici, a canvas almost 10′ by 13′ in dimension. Below, the figure of Henri IV is shown at the right inspecting an image of his future bride, Marie de’ Medici, presented to him by two angelic messengers. Behind the king, the goddess Minerva advises the aging king to accept Marie as his second wife, while above, Jupiter and Juno look down on the scene with the promise to bless the union. A gorgeously painted peacock, the goddess Juno’s iconographic attribute, is set off against a tumultuous cloud-filled sky, while below, a limitless landscape stretches off to the horizon. Other gems abounded in Rubens’ pictorial cycle, and the relationship that he developed with the queen as a result was long-standing. She desired to commission him to paint a second series that was to glorify, not her own life, but that of her deceased husband. But when problems over the payment of Rubens’ fee for the first 21 canvases arose, he refused. When her son assumed the throne and relations between mother and son soured, Marie de’ Medici was forced into exile. She sought out Rubens and lived with him for a time, a testimony to the close bond that had been forged by their professional association.

Van Dyck

Peter Paul Rubens taught many students and had a number of apprentices in his Antwerp studio during his relatively long life. Many of these figures came to produce any number of craftsman-like works following his death, which kept alive, if albeit in a less vivid way, the great artist’s vision for a time. Of all the figures who came in contact with the master, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was the only member of Rubens’ workshop to achieve universal acclaim and a broad European reputation. He did so despite his relatively short life. Like Rubens, Van Dyck moved in the cultivated and urbane circle of humanistically educated intellectuals that flourished in Antwerp in the early seventeenth century. He was very much affected by the Stoicism of the great philosopher of his time, Justus Lipsius, while many of his paintings, like those of Rubens, displayed a remarkable Catholic piety. Yet unlike his teacher, Van Dyck’s talents shone most brilliantly when he was at work on small devotional pieces and portraits, rather than great public altarpieces and historical themes, although in this last genre he did make many significant contributions. Rubens had painted portraits only reluctantly, although toward the end of his career he came to undertake far more of these commissions. For most of his life, he had preferred the grand manner necessary to complete the enormous commissions his aristocratic and royal patrons stipulated. By contrast, Van Dyck reveled in portraiture and in his journeys through his native land, England, and Italy, he received numerous commissions for them. The differences in temperament between the student and his master are most evident when their portraits are compared. Rubens surrounded his subjects with the trappings of aristocratic grandeur and he came to endow their expressions and demeanor with attributes that suggested their intellect and dignity. Van Dyck, by contrast, preferred to present his subjects in landscapes or other more informal settings and he endowed them with aristocratic ease and self-assurance. An air of refinement, even delicacy permeates his most successful works. One of the most famous of these, Charles I at the Hunt, was painted around 1635, just after the artist had returned to London for what was to turn out to be a four-year residence shortly before the end of his life. The king stands atop a small hill, his arm extended with a walking stick planted on the ground as if to stake his claim to the hunting ground that stretches around him. Behind him a page tends to his horse while a tree shades the entire scene. Charles is shown without any of the typical attributes of royalty and his flowing locks and rakishly cocked hat suggest his reputation as the “Cavalier King,” while at the same time pointing to his own well-recognized tendency toward indulgence and effeminacy. It is a curious pose for a royal who claimed, as Charles did, to rule by divine right. It portrays the Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura or “graceful ease” that Baldassare Castiglione and writers of English conduct books had come to recommend as valuable attributes for those wishing to be successful at court. When compared to the dignified and imposing images of Louis XIV that were soon to express the French king’s pretensions for absolute rule, Van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt is a peculiar expression of royal power. Yet the artist’s visual language was widely admired by the Italian and English aristocrats he painted, and he repeated the formula many times during his short career.

The Decline of Flemish Painting

Following the death of Rubens in 1640 and Van Dyck one year later, the leading Flemish artist was Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Both Rubens and Van Dyck had been recognized for their great achievements during their lifetime, both having been knighted in several of the courts in which they worked. By contrast, Jordaens only came to receive court commissions from small states in northern Europe after the deaths of Van Dyck and Rubens, and his art was completely ignored in France, England, Spain, and Italy. He came to carve out a niche for himself in a far less refined circle than that in which Van Dyck had moved. While he achieved great moments of compositional clarity and excitement in his art during the years immediately following Rubens’ death, his works tended to fall into formulaic compositional strategies in his old age. He converted to Calvinism in 1656, and after this date was granted some commissions from territorial princes in Germany and from the house of Orange. The parochialism of his career, though, was symptomatic of the changes that were underway in Flanders, as that region was becoming steadily impoverished as a result of the great shifts that had occurred in trade, politics, and religious life throughout the Low Countries. Jordaens was not the last of a distinguished tradition of Flemish painters; the region’s cities continued to produce a number of venerable artists throughout the later seventeenth century. Yet, like Jordaens, none of these figures was to attract the European-wide reputation, nor to display the same high level of imaginative genius of Rubens and Van Dyck.

Painting in the Northern Netherlands

To the north, in the provinces that had successfully waged war against Spanish rule, a great age of cultural and financial success was just beginning to unfold. Although war with Spain had broken out again in 1621, the threat from the Habsburgs steadily receded. By the time that the United Provinces’ independence was formally recognized in 1648, Amsterdam and the other large cities of Holland, the largest of the country’s seven provinces, had long enjoyed their independence and were by then Europe’s premier trading centers. Here banking, shipping, industrial production, and new types of financial services, like insurance and stock trading, were beginning to shape an undeniably modern economy. The relative tolerance of these towns meant that Anabaptists, Jews, Greek Orthodox, and a host of other religious groups streamed to the region. Art came to play a very different role in this new economy, since Calvinism prohibited religious art in churches. As a result, the great Dutch masters came to concentrate on landscape painting, portraits, and other genres that were of a mostly secular nature. Commissions from aristocrats and wealthy merchants were important to the many figures that painted in the Netherlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet at the same time, an unprecedented phenomenon is evident in seventeenth-century Holland: the emergence of a public marketplace in art. To sustain themselves financially, Dutch artists came to sell their works to dealers who catered to these towns’ many rich and middling ranks of merchants. Towns regulated these markets, but the evidence suggests that art came to enter into the commercial life of Holland and the other Dutch provinces in some very interesting ways. It was now a commodity with a value, and collecting and selling the works of a major master was one way that many increased their income. Art objects, too, were used to insure loans and to pay off obligations. A certain risk was present in this new market, as many who dabbled in it were to discover. The vagaries of taste and over-supply sometimes drove down the price of major works. Rembrandt, the greatest master Holland produced in the seventeenth century, was a prolific painter, but at the same time an avid collector and dealer in others’ works. His expenditures in this regard led to bankruptcy, when he was unable to recoup his investments. Concern for the quality of great masterpieces came to breed some of the first legal cases concerning artistic forgery, as the high esteem in which certain artists were held became a bankable commodity. All this meant that the arts acquired a greater prestige in this newly urbanized society, and consequently, many more artists were trained and took up the profession than previously. The Netherlands at this time produced a host of small masters, many completely unknown today, others of high quality and reputation. Artists, too, came to specialize, with some producing images only of boats and harbor scenes, while others treated garden landscapes, drinking scenes, battles, and so forth. Paradoxically, as more and more artists competed against each other, the prices they could command for their works fell. By the mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam and other major Dutch cities faced an oversupply of paintings that drove the prices of art downward.


Rembrandt van Rhijn was born to a miller at Leiden, and was one of the younger of ten children. Although he came from a relatively humble set of circumstances, he attended Latin school in Leiden before entering its university at the age of fourteen. There he acquired the ambition to become a painter, and soon became the pupil of a local master, before setting off to Amsterdam to study for six months in 1624. The precise development of his art in these early years is difficult to gauge, although by 1625, he was back in Leiden, where his works soon began to be purchased by art dealers. It is notable that unlike Rubens and many of the great northern European masters of the time, Rembrandt never spent any time in Italy as a student or in later years. He was a genius produced exclusively on the local Dutch scene, and what knowledge he had of the art of the Renaissance and of Baroque Italy largely came to him through engraved copies. Even at an early date in his career, the distinctive features of his style were evident. He understood the distinctive coloristic possibilities of oil paints and he applied them in thick, built up passages known as impasto. At many points he was to experiment with the new techniques that other artists of the time were developing. At times, for instance, his works made use of Caravaggesque chiaroscuro to create drama and suggest turbulence. Yet in this and other regards, Rembrandt displayed a singular artistic vision that he developed through these techniques into his own inimitable visual language. The working techniques that Rembrandt developed in these early years were also notable, and show the increasing penetration of capitalist values into the Dutch art market. Rembrandt, for instance, forged an alliance with the artist Jan Lievens. Together, they hired life models, posed them, and painted their own individual visions of the same subject, thus cutting in half their expenses in producing a painting. Rembrandt turned his back on his early success in Leiden in 1631 and moved to nearby Amsterdam, the city that was quickly acquiring an identity as Holland’s metropolis. He came to work for an art dealer, who found commissions for him as a portrait painter, and he soon married. In a few years he had developed a busy studio that served the thriving art market. His dealer, Hendrick van Uylenberg, catered to a large and diverse clientele, and he offered these consumers something in every conceivable price range. To satisfy this demand, Rembrandt developed a large studio, where painters copied his own and other Italian works popular at the time or in which they produced small scale works, or tronies. A tronie was a particularly popular Dutch genre in which a portrait was undertaken of a sitter in an historical or mythological role. Rembrandt himself reserved his own attentions in the 1630s primarily for commissioned portraits, although he did paint a number of biblical scenes as well as traditional Catholic religious art commissioned by churches and religious institutions abroad. During this period he had little time to indulge his love of engraving, although later he was to realize the commercial possibilities inherent in this medium, since a single etching might be sold through dealers to hundreds of customers.

The Night Watch

By 1642, Rembrandt’s success was assured on the Amsterdam scene. In that year he devoted almost all his energies to finishing the great military portrait that has since become known as the Night Watch. The name is actually a misnomer. In the decades after it was painted, a heavy layer of varnish was applied to the painting. When restorers removed this layer in 1975, they found that it had been painted to appear as if the scene was occurring in complete daylight. Political power in Dutch cities was frequently exercised in corporate bodies, and as a result the phenomenon of “group portraits” quickly developed in the seventeenth century to immortalize those councils, committees, and institutions that guided civic life. The Night Watch is one such portrait. It treats the civic militia that was charged with the defense of Amsterdam. Unlike most previous treatments of a group, Rembrandt’s highly imaginative portrait set a new standard for such works. In the central foreground of the painting, Rembrandt depicted the figure of Captain Cocq, while around him he placed an amazingly active hubbub of drummers, standard bearers, and militia members. Thus in the confusion that inherently attends all military endeavors, Rembrandt found a narrative purpose for the group portrait. Although legends have insisted through the centuries that Rembrandt’s picture was not well received, it was, in fact, an immediate success. In the rising sophistication of Amsterdam as an artistic center, few seemed to have cared that the artist’s swift-moving composition seemed to obscure the faces of some of those in the company. They admired instead the ingenuity with which Rembrandt had solved the problem of developing a seemingly natural setting in which to capture the militia.

Later Setbacks

Rembrandt’s enormous successes at Amsterdam were soon to be followed by a series of setbacks during the final two decades of his life. Financially secure, the artist had begun to sink ever more of his wealth into the purchase of art and antiquities. These purchases cemented the artist’s claim to gentlemanly status, something that he seems to have long desired. Although he used many of his acquisitions to help formulate his own artistic creations, he came at the same time to speculate widely in the art market, and to increasingly disastrous effect. In 1656, he declared bankruptcy, and his collection was largely liquidated to pay debts. This crisis came at a time when values on the art market in Amsterdam were suffering and many pieces in his vast collection were sold for a fraction of their worth. His house was soon sold off as well, and the artist and his children moved to a much more modest residence. In the years that followed, the artist was able to continue to paint under an unusual legal arrangement. His son and common-law wife formed a partnership while Rembrandt himself became their employee. This protected Rembrandt’s creations from being seized to pay off his debts. A large number of commissions undertaken at this time point to his continuing popularity in Amsterdam, and his fortunes rose once again. Another tactic that helped in the family’s recovery of their fortunes was Rembrandt’s decision to return to the medium of engraving. In these later years, despite the continuing press of commitments and financial and legal problems, Rembrandt also continued to paint his self-portrait, as he had done throughout his career. At his death he had completed almost seventy of these, as well as hundreds of drawings of himself, and many etchings. These provide a record of his maturation as an artist, even as they afford almost endless psychological insights into the master. In his religious and historical composition, too, a profound spiritual piety also came to manifest itself ever more vividly in his works in later life.

Other Masters

The brilliant period of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century produced what today appears as almost an endless cavalcade of landscapes, genre paintings, and portraits. In contrast to the monumental nature of many of Rembrandt’s and Ruben’s creations, much of the scale of Dutch painting was modest, geared to fit into relatively small Dutch townhouses. To treat all the distinguished Dutch artists who appeared at this time falls beyond the scope of the present volume. Among the most notable, though, are Jan Steen (1625/26-1679), Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665), Frans Hals (c. 1585-1666), and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). Steen was particularly noted for his depictions of Dutch domestic life, showing crowded interiors filled with rollicking families. Amidst this hubbub, Steen included moralistic details that were intended to remind the viewers of his paintings of the transitory nature of human life. His fruit lies rotting on the table, a reminder of the consequences that comes from the overindulgence that his subjects are often engaged in. In Dutch, his art was to inspire the phrase “A Jan Steen household” to suggest domestic disorder. By contrast, Pieter Saenredam completed a number of realistic views of Dutch churches and civic halls. His works were incredibly carefully produced and although his output was rather small, his depictions show a striking attention to highly intellectual compositional techniques. Specializing in portraiture, Frans Hals was almost the equal of the great Rembrandt. Although his art does not contain the same depth of interior insight as the great master, his works range over the full scale of human emotions, from the genial, to the pensive, to the demonic. Perhaps the greatest of these “little masters” was Jan Vermeer, a painter who in his own time had little reputation for greatness, but who today points to the undeniable grandeur of Dutch seventeenth-century painting. Like Jan Van Eyck and earlier Flemish painters of the fifteenth century, Vermeer had the ability to endow everyday human actions with quiet nobility. His experiments in light and realism appear startling today for their almost photographic clarity, yet at the same time they seem to convey a mystical intensity about the precious character of human life. To achieve his subtle optical effects, Vermeer most likely relied on a camera obscura, through which he peered in order to render the world more effectively. His output was small, perhaps no more than 60 paintings in all during his lifetime. Of these, only 35 survive today. Extensive research conducted on these works has shown that Vermeer frequently reworked and repainted his compositions, thus explaining his relatively small output. In contrast to many of the most prolific artists of the period, Vermeer probably produced only two to three works a year, in contrast to many of the “little masters” who painted hundreds, even thousands of works in their lifetimes. Yet what survives from Vermeer’s hand points to the incredible sophistication of his artistic techniques as well as the variety of painterly visions that came to exist fruitfully side-by-side in the seventeenth-century Low Countries.

Spanish Painting in the Seventeenth Century

A Century of Achievement

For most of the sixteenth century Spain was the dominant power in Europe, and its colonial empire insured that in the seventeenth the country retained an enormous importance on the European scene. At the same time Spain’s wealth always rested on uncertain grounds. Despite huge influxes of capital from the New World colonies, Philip II (r. 1555-1598) was forced to declare bankruptcy twice during the second half of the sixteenth century, when the costs of his involvements in international wars perilously drained the state’s treasury. Although engaged in costly wars in the Netherlands and faced with economic problems that were to increase over time, the first half of the seventeenth century was a period of cultural brilliance throughout Spain. The years after 1600 witnessed an enormous flowering of Spanish theater, literature, and the visual arts. While all forms of the visual arts—painting, sculpture, and engraving—flourished at the time, it was in painting that the Spanish made their most definitive contributions to European art. Here Spanish painters were at first indebted to the examples of Italy. Throughout the sixteenth century, the country’s colonial and commercial outposts in the peninsula had kept Spanish painters abreast of the latest trends in painting. During the later sixteenth century the example of Venetian art, particularly of Titian, had captivated artists like Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628). Philip II had been an admirer of the great Venetian artist, and had had his portrait painted by him, and by the early seventeenth century Spain’s royal collections contained a number of Venetian masterpieces. Most Spanish artists like Ribalta, though, had not come to learn of Venetian art by traveling to Venice or through studying the royal collections. They learned of these works through the many copies of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto’s works that circulated in the country. The great painter El Greco (c. 1541-1614), a Greek who had trained in Venice, also exposed Spanish painters to the Venetian tradition. In 1577, the artist settled permanently in Toledo and produced a number of deeply religious works that inspired later Spanish artists. During the late sixteenth century Italian Mannerism had also played a role in shaping the art of Spain, but in the early seventeenth century it was primarily the example of Caravaggio that most influenced the rising generation of native artists who were to define tastes in the country for most of the rest of the seventeenth century. Three figures—Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)—were to found a highly original Spanish school of painting, notable at first for its indebtedness to Caravaggian models, but increasingly independent from this Italian tutelage over time. Although Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was initially trained in the studio of the Spanish painter Francisco Ribalta, he soon made his way to Italy and never returned to Spain. In Rome he soon was affected by the popularity of Caravaggism, before moving on to Naples, a Spanish outpost. He spent most of his life working there, exploring the possibilities that lay within Caravaggio’s and the Caravaggisti’s techniques of realism, psychological immediacy, and chiaroscuro. Although his example was to shape the early art of Diego Velázquez, he was like Poussin and Lorrain as one of the émigré artists whose contributions belong more appropriately to the history of Italian, rather than Spanish, art. By contrast, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) trained exclusively in Spain, and developed successful careers there painting for the royal court, religious institutions, and the country’s nobility.

Francisco de Zurbarán

Born in a provincial, mountainous region in southern Spain, Zurbarán came to settle in Seville at the age of fifteen, where he apprenticed himself to a local master. At the time, Diego Velázquez and a number of other artists who were to develop successful careers were also students in the city, and Zurbarán likely made their acquaintances at this time. He also seems to have become familiar with techniques for creating polychromed sculpture, an art form very much in fashion in Seville at the time. These works, carved from wood or stone, were painted with bright colors, and in Zurbarán’s later paintings the treatment of many of his figures appears to be drawn from the genre of Spanish polychromed statues. With his apprenticeship completed, he returned to his native region, settling in Lierena, marrying, and setting up a studio in that town. About a decade later, he received a number of commissions from monasteries in Seville, and in 1629 the town council asked him to settle there. He did, and from this point his commissions in the city steadily rose. The impact of Caravaggio on his style is evident from the first paintings that can be attributed to him. Like Velázquez, he had likely studied copies of the master’s work while a student in Seville. Yet he went beyond this example to create highly spiritual and meditative paintings. Like other seventeenth-century masters working in Catholic societies, Zurbarán satisfied an almost insatiable appetite for devotional images, an appetite that had been bred by the Catholic Reformation and devotional classics like St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. He was also prized as a painter of still-lifes and portraits. The images he created for Seville’s monasteries, as well as the commissions he undertook in the 1630s for the royal court at Madrid, show a developing artistic sophistication. In the earliest works, for instance, rather naive treatments of the human form occur, while over time the artist acquired a surer skill in organizing his compositions. The intense piety of his works can best be seen in his paintings of the saints in meditation, works that he frequently provided to his monastic and aristocratic patrons. Although his career flourished throughout the 1630s, the years after 1640 were troubled ones for the Spanish economy. To support his studio in Seville, the artist sold paintings to monasteries in the Americas. This traffic was particularly great in the years between 1648 and 1650, when the recession was worsened in Seville by an outbreak of plague. During these years Zurbarán’s studio made large shipments to Mexico and the Andes where these works established a native Catholic Baroque style in Spain’s colonies. During the 1650s Spain’s economic fortunes rebounded somewhat, and by 1658 the artist had left Seville to work in the Spanish capital, Madrid. There he made contact with his old friend, Diego Velázquez, who may have helped him to compete successfully for commissions. In these later years of his life he seems primarily to have concentrated on producing devotional images for family and monastic chapels.

Diego Velázquez

The undeniable giant of seventeenth-century Spanish painting, and one of the greatest European painters, was Diego Velázquez. Raised in Seville, he also trained there as an artist. Precocious at a young age, he entered into service at the royal court in 1523, becoming the principal painter to Philip IV (r. 1621-1665). He was to remain a member of the royal household until his death and was to be responsible for painting an astonishing number of portraits, notable for their great compositional originality and for their quick and expressive brushwork. Although he initially worked for members of the Spanish nobility in Madrid, the conditions of his court appointment soon made such private commissions impossible to execute. Velázquez was always very concerned with social rank and prestige, and tried throughout his life to establish that his family was of noble origins. Working solely at the command and whims of the king bolstered these claims in seventeenth-century Spain, where private commissions undertaken for solely monetary purposes were perceived to be crassly commercial. Velázquez soon put aside all thoughts of enrichment from his art and conformed to the necessity of producing works for the king’s pleasure. Besides his training in Seville, his painting came to be affected by the visit of Peter Paul Rubens to Madrid in 1628, who came there on one of his diplomatic journeys undertaken for the provinces of the southern Low Countries. In addition, Velázquez acquired new influences in his art from two trips he took to Italy, the first from 1629-1631 and the second from 1649-1651. On the first of these journeys, he traveled initially to Parma, Florence, and Venice, before heading on to Rome. He was particularly impressed with the art of the Venetians, having found already in the colorism and swift brushwork of Rubens a reason for admiring this tradition. At the same time, his Italian journeys brought him into contact with the Baroque style that was developing in Rome, even as he ended his journey in Naples, where the experiments of the Caravaggisti were to leave their impression on his later work. With these experiences in mind, he returned to Spain, and during the 1630s he was to integrate the many influences that he had come in contact with over the years. Although he continued to paint a large number of portraits for the royal family, he also undertook more historical and mythological themes at this time. Among these images, the Surrender of Breda is today one of the most famous. The painting memorializes a recent victory in Spain’s ongoing wars against the Dutch. Velázquez had never traveled in northern Europe, and thus had no idea what the area around the Breda battlefield had looked like. To complete his vision of the concluding surrender ceremony, he relied on engravings and written accounts of the event. Yet despite his relative ignorance, the picture manages to rise to the level of realism that one might expect in journalism, rather than painting. Throughout the canvas the artist relies on a rapid, yet sure brushwork. At the right side of the painting, he shows the Spanish army standing elegant and self-assured, while to the left, the battle-worn and defeated Dutch forces appear considerably less confident. In the center, the commander of the Spanish forces leans downward to grasp and comfort his Dutch opponent, a gesture that suggests nobility of spirit, a quality with which Velázquez endowed the entire composition.

The Maids of Honor

Of the many masterpieces the artist painted for the Spanish court, his mature Las Meninas, or the Maids of Honor, ranks as one of the most accomplished works of all time. The painting is, in fact, not an image of the court’s ladies-in-waiting, but a portrait of the royal family. During the nineteenth century it acquired its present title, and at this time artists interpreted the puzzling picture much as if it had been a candid snapshot of the court captured within Velázquez’s studio. The painting shows the young princess Margarita Maria surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, while in the background to the left, the artist inserts himself at his easel painting a huge canvas. A mirror in the back of the room reflects back the image of the Spanish king and queen, showing that in reality, the portrait that Velázquez is engaged in painting is not of the young Spanish princess, but is, in fact, one of the king and queen themselves. The royal couple thus takes on a quixotic presence in the canvas, since they are at one and the same time viewing the actions in the room that Velázquez is painting and also serving as the artist’s models. The precise meaning that the artist intended to portray through this brilliant compositional strategy has long been debated. Most likely, he was making a claim for the high intellectual nobility of the painter’s art, and at the same time he was likely musing about the pervasive nature of royal power within the milieu in which he worked. Generations of connoisseurs and art historians have tried to unlock all the meanings that repose in the amazing canvas, but the work still continues to provide an almost inexhaustible number of interpretations. It has often been pronounced the “greatest painting of all time” by virtue of its nearly perfect compositional makeup, its mixture of light, color, and texture, as well as its numerous intellectual insights. Such assessments are always a matter of taste, but Las Meninas certainly does point to the high degree of finesse with which Velázquez had mastered his art. His successes were well recognized at the time, and in 1658 King Philip IV finally rewarded him with the knighthood that he had so long desired. Thus in the final years of his life, the artist took on a number of important ceremonial functions within the Spanish Habsburg’s court, including the staging of the betrothal ceremonies between the Princess Maria Theresa and the young King Louis XIV of France. Velázquez’s lifelong craving for the stamp of aristocratic approval is a potent reminder of the social confines in which seventeenth-century artists lived and worked.

The Rococo

Changing Tastes

During the first decades of the eighteenth century, a new decorative style emerged in the visual arts in France, and soon spread to many other parts of Europe. Characterized by a lighter spirit, swirling lines, and a propensity for everyday themes of enjoyment, this style was to become known as the Rococo or Rocaille. The word derived from a plasterer’s term to describe this craft’s technique of imitating the forms of rocks and boulders. Since the late Renaissance, plasterers had been employed throughout Europe creating fanciful grottoes in the gardens of the nobility. Around 1700, though, the techniques that the craft used to build up plaster came to be used in the interiors of royal residences and Parisian townhouses, and walls that were heavily encrusted with plaster designs suddenly became all the rage in France. Theserocaille techniques later lent their name to the entire period of the early eighteenth century; like Baroque, the Rococo, or in French Rocaille, period became synonymous with heavily encrusted, even decadent decoration in the minds of the Neoclassical artists and authors of the later eighteenth century. In truth, the art of the early eighteenth century remained as varied as at any other time in European history, yet a shift in taste is undeniable in France during the last decades of the seventeenth century and in the early years of the eighteenth. The Baroque art favored throughout much of Louis XIV’s reign displayed a haughty grandeur, evident in its monumental scale, mythological and historical themes, as well as its formal lines. As the century of the Sun King drew to a close, a new fondness for more informal paintings and sculptures flourished. While Versailles and other royal residences indulged the new tastes, it was in the homes of Paris’s wealthy elites that this fondness for a sensual art that depicted the joys of everyday life developed most strongly. Although the new lighter art had begun to flourish in the final years of the reign of Louis XIV, its popularity increased dramatically in the years immediately following his death. The new king, Louis XV, was only five years old when he assumed the throne, and during the regency of his uncle, Philippe II, the duke of Orléans, the style made great inroads in Paris. The rise of the Rococo coincided with changes in French society, as quiet intimate gatherings became the norm, rather than the imposing formal receptions of the Baroque era. In Parisian architecture of the time, a new fashion developed for smaller, human-scaled rooms, in which families entertained small circles of friends. It was in these intimate salons that many of the gatherings of Enlightenment intellectuals and their disciples took place. In these rooms, richly decorative paintings treating the joys and entertainments of everyday living became common decorations, as French aristocratic society indulged a penchant for amusement and pleasure.


The painter most notable for developing a distinctively Rococo style in painting was Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who despite his short life shaped tastes in eighteenth-century France. He was born at Valenciennes, a town on the French-Flemish border, but otherwise not many details about his early life are known. Around 1702, he came to Paris, and he began to move in a group of Flemish artists that painted in the capital at the time. He seems to have studied the art of Rubens and the Venetian masters, and the tradition of the Low Countries artists of the seventeenth century was particularly important in his development, too. During the late seventeenth century a taste for decoration in the Chinese style had begun to spread throughout Europe, and in this regard France was no exception. One of Watteau’s early endeavors in Paris was to create chinoiseries, decorative designs that suggested Chinese themes. After 1704, the artist became associated with Claude Gillot, an engraver, illustrator, and painter who created elegant images of groups of satyrs and comedians. Gillot’s work appears to have been important in shaping Watteau’s own art during the 1710s, as the artist first produced a number of images of commedia dell’arte players, and then proceeded to develop a new style of fête galantes. The subject of these works was the fashionable pastimes of Paris’ wealthy and aristocratic society, and in the years between 1714 and 1717 the artist painted a number of fête galantes. In some of these he posed his own fellow artists as if they were members of aristocratic society, while in others he painted aristocrats donning the clothing of peasants or of commedia dell’arte characters, two entertainments that were often practiced by aristocrats of the day in the countryside around Paris. Over the centuries, many have judged Watteau’s work to be merely “pretty,” yet a closer examination shows that he included subtle details intended to suggest deeper meanings. His landscapes are highly idealized, more beautiful than nature in reality is, but the statues that surround his characters or the musical instruments that his actors play convey a highly restrained language of emotion. The origins of this kind of art lay in the Dutch and Flemish genre paintings of the seventeenth century, although in Watteau’s hands he elevated the genre of everyday entertainment and amusement into a cultivated, highly elegant art form.

Boucher and Fragonard

It was François Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) who were to carry forward this elegant and refined style into the mid- and later eighteenth century. Boucher played a role as a designer, draftsman, and painter, and by virtue of his relatively long life, he came to leave a definite imprint on all the arts in eighteenth-century France. His art treated pastoral themes, but from the new dimension of sensuality that the Rococo enjoyed so limitlessly. His pictures were filled with images of the ancient gods, shepherds, lovers, and other rustics and they often suggested a frank and open sexuality. Their ready intelligibility and free decorative quality made Boucher’s art a commodity that was readily adaptable to everything from porcelain to toile du jouy, a kind of cloth popular at the time that featured images of rural scenes. Boucher was an excellent draftsman; he was alleged to have made more than 10,000 drawings in his life. His style was light and free, and he was the first who tried to bring this draftsman’s spirit into the art of painting. Although he was prolific throughout his life, Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot came to criticize his art in the second half of the century for its overt prettiness as well as the artist’s propensity to show bare bottoms. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, by contrast, was an amazingly adaptable artist whose career long outlasted the popularity of Rococo decoration and design. Today, Fragonard is remembered best for images like The Swing, a picture showing an elegantly dressed aristocratic woman in free flight above two admirers. The artist’s output was far more varied than this piece of Rococo elegance suggests. After an early career as a painter of historical themes, the genre advocated as the epitome of artistic expression by the Royal Academy in Paris, he came to paint genre scenes like The Swing. Later he concentrated increasingly on landscapes, especially after he won the French Prix de Rome, the Royal Academy’s prize that underwrote a period of study in the ancient city. Like Boucher, Fragonard’s reputation has long labored under the critique that he was merely a pretty artist. More recently, his work has come to be reassessed, and the depth of the artist’s compositional and drafting skills have been more fully realized. As the founder of a family of artists who designed for the French decorative arts industry, Fragonard’s influence was to last long after his death.

The Decorative Arts in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Growth of Industry

In the eighteenth century the decorative arts—here understood as the production of upholstered furniture, cabinetmaking, and such household items as porcelains—experienced profound transformations. At the time, rising standards of living as well as declining costs of production brought more consumer goods to a broader spectrum of the population than at any time previously in human history. While this rise in consumption was to continue unabated in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West, many of the design techniques and production methods that developed in the eighteenth-century world have continued to be followed in these industries until modern times. The modern assembly line has added a new dimension to the venerable techniques that cabinetmakers, porcelain manufacturers, and upholsterers pioneered during the course of the eighteenth century. Yet successful eighteenth-century producers might still recognize many of the processes that were pioneered and adopted in these industries in their own time. The rise in consumer goods was to affect tastes and habits in new and unexpected ways, insuring that the European gentry and middle classes were now able to emulate some of the refinement of aristocratic society. At the same time, the standards of consumption unleashed then have also continued to plague the West through the environmental damage that arises from a consumer society. However the rise of new consumer goods is assessed—as a positive element that brought with it rising standards of living, or as a negative phenomenon that bred a “keeping up with the Joneses mentality” and thus poisoned air and water—the ingenuity with which eighteenth-century decorative artists solved problems of production still ranks as a major development of the era. Consumer goods, often decorated with pictures and motifs from the hands of esteemed artists, brought elements of good design within the reach of broad strata of Europe’s population.


In the later Renaissance, a fashion had developed in courts and wealthy urban society for maiolica dinnerware, a ceramic or earthenware product that was decorated with intricate patterns and then glazed with tin before being fired. Perfected in Italy, the process had soon been copied in many places in Europe. In the great houses of Europe, nobles had sometimes commissioned noted painters to design the patterns that decorated these dinner services, but as the new products became available at the end of the sixteenth century in many European cities, they were increasingly stamped with stock patterns hastily applied by workers in factories. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, Portuguese and then Dutch traders began to import Chinese porcelains into Europe. These wares were widely prized for their workmanship, and they were at first incredibly expensive because of their greater strength and durability than simple earthenware. They were soon copied in factories in the Netherlands, most notably at Delft, where the typical blue and white “Delftware” that imitated Chinese designs soon became a commercial success. Its popularity increased dramatically at mid-century because the outbreak of civil war in China temporarily cut off the flow of porcelains to Europe. At the same time, the dominant economic theory that reigned in much of Europe in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was mercantilism. Mercantilist theory taught that for a country to prosper it had to limit imports and foster its own native industries in order to be self-sufficient. In this way, a country’s own reserves of gold and silver were preserved. By 1700, most European kings and princes worried that the dependence on foreign imports of items like Chinese porcelains, silks, and other decorative items might bankrupt their states, and a flurry of schemes appeared throughout the continent that were designed to increase native production of these materials. Louis XIV’s purchase of the Gobelins manufactory in Paris was only the most visible of these attempts. Through the efforts of his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the king purchased this key industry, which had long woven tapestries and other fabrics for French aristocrats and wealthy city dwellers. Acquired in 1662, the factory flourished for the next two decades, becoming a center for the development of the decorative arts in and around Paris. Its output was not limited to tapestries, but under Louis’ chief painter, Charles Le Brun, it educated many French craftsmen in decorative techniques used in furniture production, upholstery, cabinetmaking, and stonecutting. By the end of the century, the scheme had foundered, and the Gobelins confined its aims only to the production of tapestries. It nevertheless had by this date played a key role in advancing the skills of many French craftsmen, who continued to ply the trades they had learned in the eighteenth century. Around 1700, Europeans were still importing lavish amounts of Chinese porcelains and other goods from Asia, all of which fed a taste for oriental decoration. But in the years that followed, new forms of porcelain manufacturing were to be developed in Europe that competed more effectively against imports from East Asia. Kings and princes founded most of the new schemes, while a few were privately financed.


It was in the Saxon town of Meissen, not far from Dresden, that many of the technical problems that had hindered the development of a native porcelain industry in Europe were to be solved. Between 1700 and about 1750, the Saxon princes supported the development of this industry with great enthusiasm, carefully guarding the advances they made in the craft as state secrets. Around 1700, the Saxon court employed two notable alchemists, specialists in chemical compounds who frequently worked in the mining industry, to assist their efforts. Because of their knowledge of smelting and refining techniques, these specialists conducted a number of experiments concerning the vitrification of different mixtures of clay. By 1710, they had perfected a process for creating “hard-paste” porcelain. In this process, the specific mixture of clay resists melting to a very high temperature, and as a result, the materials with which the work is glazed are fused and become one with the fired clay itself. By 1710, the new Meissen factory was producing porcelain that was the equal, and in some cases even superior to the East Asian variety. At first, the decorators at Meissen imitated designs that were available on silver and gold plate, but by 1720 a new designer at the factory was imitating Chinese designs, as well as developing the characteristic European flower patterns that have since figured on much porcelain. At Meissen, designs adapted from the works of such artists as Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and native German artists became common, too. Much of the porcelain produced at the Saxon factory was not intended for public consumption, but was intended for display in the household of the Saxon Duke Friedrich-Augustus. His collection was so extensive that in 1717 he acquired a palace in the city of Dresden just to display his porcelains. Significant innovation and experimentation followed; Meissen figurines were being produced by the 1730s, and by the end of that decade the characteristic pattern known as “Blue Onion” had been produced. Over the coming years, it would compete successfully against Chinese wares and inspire numerous European imitators.

Knowledge Spreads

Duke Friedrich-Augustus had tried to keep his discovery of “hard-paste” porcelain secret, but knowledge of the innovations that developed in his factory quickly spread to many other European centers. Soon one of his scientists established his own manufactory near Venice with Italian backers. Other factories soon followed in the region, but by 1750 the secrets mastered at Meissen had given rise to porcelain manufactories in Paris, Hamburg, Naples, Vienna, and Munich. By 1775, the famous “Royal Copenhagen” factory, too, carried the techniques of “hard-paste” porcelain into Scandinavia. Many of these early industries were state supported, and some, like Nymphenburg, were not commercially successful, although they produced a high quality product that tended to affect design techniques elsewhere. Similarly, the Sèvres factory near Versailles was a royal workshop created when Louis XV purchased a previously private factory in the region. Between 1756 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the industry produced a number of stunning pieces, notable for their decorative Rococo qualities. The wares of the Sèvres factory relied on a “soft-paste” clay formula, in which the glazed objects were fired at lower temperatures than those executed using Meissen’s techniques. As a result, “soft-paste” products were more porous than “hard-paste” varieties, but they were ivory colored, and presented more muted colors when decorated. Thus they came to be as prized as the wares produced at Meissen. Like Nymphenburg, the experiments undertaken at the royal factory at Sèvres were artistically and technically successful. Yet most of the wares produced there found their way into the royal collections or onto the tables of wealthy aristocrats. The factory, in other words, was not a commercial, but rather an artistic success.

Further Production Enhancements

Most of the porcelains produced in continental European factories in the first half of the eighteenth century were high quality, hand-produced products, requiring a painstaking attention to detail on the part of decorators. In England, new techniques of creating “bone china” had been discovered by 1750. In this method, the burned ash of animal bones was added to the clay. The resulting porcelain was harder than “soft-paste” porcelain, but not as hard as Meissen or other “hard-paste” varieties. By contrast, the great advantage of this new “bone china” was that it was more translucent and delicate than many of the porcelains then in production. The English porcelain industry by and large prospered without royal support. During the 1750s, Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Whieldon conducted a series of experiments that greatly reduced the costs of producing porcelain, while preserving a high quality product. At this early stage in the company’s development, the porcelain was created, fired, and then sent out to be stamped with a design. Soon, Wedgwood and Whieldon perfected a new brilliant green glaze, the likes of which had not been seen before, and which could serve its own decorative purposes. In the years that followed, Wedgwood separated from Whieldon, and developed a new kind of earthenware product that could be used for ornamental items as well as for dinnerware. It had a creamy color and was able to withstand sudden changes in temperature without breaking. When Queen Charlotte purchased a set of the new product, it quickly became known as “Queen’s Ware.” Several years later, when Josiah Wedgwood supplied the queen with a beautifully executed tea service, she granted the potter the right to advertise himself as a supplier to the crown. From this point, the industrialist’s fortunes were secured, and his Queen’s Ware became one of Britain’s most successful exports. To satisfy the demand from his customers, Wedgwood had to mechanize and further refine his production techniques. New lines of china followed, the most successful of these being the Jasper Ware that began production in the 1770s. The designs of Jasper Ware remain synonymous in many modern people’s minds with the Wedgwood Company. Its great possibilities for decoration arose from the fact that it was formed and covered with a white glaze and then bas-relief decoration was applied in a variety of colors. Using this technique, Wedgwood was able to produce high quality, imitation cameo patterns, vases, and other decorative items. The rise to popularity of Jasper Ware in England and throughout Europe coincided with the new Neoclassical fashions popular in the later eighteenth century. Wedgwood himself judged that his finest achievement was his successful copy of the Portland Vase, a beautiful Roman work from the first century C.E. that had found its way to England. Wedgwood executed his first copy around 1789, and one year later he began mass-producing the works and supplying them to those who had previously subscribed to the edition. In this way his production and marketing techniques anticipated the “limited editions” that were to become increasingly important among decorative arts collectors in the modern world. By this time Wedgwood’s porcelain factory had already become highly mechanized. Engines now turned the lathes that produced the pottery, and sophisticated thermostats kept the temperature within the kilns constant to avoid over-or under-firing the pottery. In this way, Wedgwood’s scientific experiments had laid the foundation for a product notable for its consistency. For these innovations, the potter was named a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society in 1783.

The Factory Model

Although many of his works may not have been as beautiful or exquisitely crafted as those of the Sèvres or Meissen factories, Wedgwood’s wares were more affordably priced, consistently produced, and appealed to contemporary tastes. His greatest achievements, like his Jasper Ware copies of ancient Roman vases, were eventually to be imitated by the great French and German porcelain factories. Elsewhere, the kinds of techniques that Josiah Wedgwood mastered to improve the production of porcelains were being adapted to other industries as well. Certainly, Britain was the leader in this industrialization of the decorative arts, and the country displayed an almost insatiable appetite to find ways of producing high quality consumer goods more cheaply and reliably than before. In the British Isles, new techniques allowed for the mass production of such items as flocked wallpapers, silverplate, and ormolu, a kind of decorative bronzework sometimes gilded to appear as if it was solid gold. These new items allowed the English gentry to decorate their homes in ways that imitated, albeit at considerably less cost, the costly brocades, damasks, and illusionary frescoes that had once lined aristocratic walls. These goods allowed merchants and members of the minor gentry to sip their tea in china cups, after filling them from imposing plated tea services, much like the aristocracy. And through the importing of cheaply gilded chair frames and other component parts from overseas, handsome furniture, too, came into the reach of these classes. While England stood at the forefront of this new “consumer revolution,” everywhere in Europe a quickening appetite for goods was prompting producers to find ways to cheapen their costs, while retaining the generally high outward quality and appearance of goods. Mass production thus entered into the European economy to produce both monumental and subtle modulations in the ways in which people lived.


Shifting Values

The Rococo movement that had developed in France and spread to other parts of Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century had reflected changes in the cultivated societies of patrons who commissioned art. The affection for lighter forms of depiction and for themes that treated pleasure and entertainment developed from a growing distaste for the imposing, monumental, and highly dramatic forms of the seventeenth-century Baroque. After 1750, styles in the visual arts changed rather quickly again as Neoclassicism influenced the artistic world. Neoclassicism, a movement that had musical, literary, and artistic dimensions, was inspired from the first by the advances that were underway in the eighteenth century in the study of Antiquity. During the 1730s and 1740s, the first systematic archeological excavations of ancient Roman towns began in Italy. At places like Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy, artists viewed the frescoes and other interior decorative elements of Roman and Greek houses and public buildings. Figures like Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) sketched these ruins and published engravings that were widely circulated throughout Europe, helping to feed the changing taste for classical images and design. Yet the undeniable shifts that occurred in mid-eighteenth century taste might not have occurred if cultivated consumers had not been prepared for them through the works of Enlightenment philosophers. In their philosophical and literary works, these figures had extolled the virtues of ancient Rome and Greece, and they had argued that in Antiquity society had functioned in ways that were more attuned to the demands of rationality. Thus Neoclassicism, with its more austere lines and its readily intelligible standards of design, expressed the fervent desire of intellectuals and artistic patrons to create a new kind of society based upon the dictates of human reason. At the same time, the affectionate glance that Europeans cast upon the ancient world was frequently characterized by an almost religious reverence. Thus, although its admirers craved a revival of Antiquity that might express their faith in rationality and its attributes of clarity, harmony, and austerity, Neoclassicism was above all an emotional movement that inspired powerful sentimental love for all things ancient among its supporters, and as such, it carried within it the seeds of the Romanticism that began to supplant it as the dominant style in the arts at the end of the century.

Beginnings of Neoclassicism

It was in Rome where the new spirit first began to take hold. Elites and artists from throughout Europe had long journeyed to the ancient city to complete their educations, and during the course of the eighteenth century Rome had persisted in importance as the ultimate destination of the Grand Tour. At the time, this circuit through Europe’s major cultural capitals was becoming increasingly conventionalized. A Tour undertaken by members of the aristocracy, the landed gentry, or members of the wealthy commercial class in Europe’s cities frequently lasted for two or even three years. On these journeys, wealthy patrons stocked their art collections, buying both contemporary and ancient works to line the halls of their homes. In Britain and elsewhere throughout Europe, a fashion for printed accounts of one’s Grand Tour had grown throughout the eighteenth century. Tourists returning from their journeys published their journals, which recorded their impressions as well as the many fascinating sites that they had seen along the way. This taste for literary accounts of the Grand Tour came to be self-sustaining, as each new generation hoped to outdo the insights of the generation before. By the mid-eighteenth century, both wealthy patrons and artists became aware of the increased knowledge of the ancient world that archeological excavations were producing. As a result of the digs underway in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Mediterranean sites, the connoisseur or artist no longer needed to comprehend Antiquity through the lens of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Renaissance. Through the many prints available for sale in Rome as well as the presence of nearby excavations, an intelligent tourist might witness ancient art and architecture firsthand. A rising appreciation of the classical world’s design principles soon developed. Among the many forces that helped popularize the Neoclassical resurgence throughout Europe was the French Royal Academy in Rome. A talented group of architects, painters, and sculptors who lived and worked in Rome during the 1740s and 1750s were to carry the knowledge that they had acquired of Antiquity throughout Europe as they accepted positions in courts and worked as architects and designers in the second half of the eighteenth century. The presence in Rome of talented and accomplished students from every corner of the Continent also helped feed the Neoclassical appetite. Robert Adam, the great British architect and interior designer, was in Rome at the time that Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s famous engravings of ancient monuments were being published and were helping to develop tastes for the noble architecture of Rome and Greece. By the end of the century, the distinguished list of Roman pilgrims included figures as diverse as the French painters Hubert Robert and Jacques-Louis David as well as the country’s leading architect, Jean-Germain Soufflot; the noted German art historian and esthetic theorist, Johann Winckelmann; the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova; and the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Rome was thus the incubator of Neoclassicism, but the movement was broad and international in scope, with successive generations of artists, patrons, and scholars finding inspiration there before returning to their native lands to create forms of visual art that expressed the new fondness for Antiquity.

The Search for a Classical Language in the Visual Arts

From the first, most Neoclassical artists and their patrons looked with disdain upon the light and breezy styles of painting that had flourished in Europe during the Rococo period. Johann Winckelmann, the greatest theoretician of the new movement, came to exercise a profound influence on the ideas of both patrons and artists at the time with the publication of his works on ancient aesthetics. Winckelmann was a major figure, not only in the Neoclassical movement, but in the entire sweep of art history. Before his time, connoisseurs had often thought of the word “style” in terms of an individual artist’s own way of expressing himself. Winckelmann, however, pioneered the use of the term to describe the entire underlying sense of beauty and compositional organization that was present in a chronological period. Thus it became possible to discuss the art of classical Antiquity in terms of being a coherent body of theory about aesthetics, that is the science of beauty, and for Winckelmann, a disciple of classicism, the art of the ancient world represented the great high point of all world civilizations. Thus if contemporary artists were to emulate this achievement they might succeed in realizing, and perhaps even surpassing, the glories of the ancient world. Winckelmann thus championed imitation in his works as the supreme form of flattering the ancient styles. But he insisted that slavishly copying Antiquity was a dead end that could not lift art out of the merely decorative paths it had fallen into during the Rococo. The historical circumstances of the ancient past had been very different from those of the eighteenth century, and he cautioned that classical models needed to be adapted, rather than merely copied. Thus throughout the 1750s and 1760s, painters and sculptors searched for a new language that might express their reverence for the more austere, harmonious, and balanced design principles they admired in classicism.

Historical Themes

It was in a revival of history painting that Neoclassicism’s impact was to become clearly evident. The fashion for a genre of idealized works, their themes adapted from ancient history and mythology, first appeared at Rome, but it was to find its greatest exponent in the works of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), France’s greatest history painter since Poussin. David was initially to draw more of his inspiration from the works of the great French master than he was from the painting of Antiquity. During the 1780s he created a series of monumental historical paintings that spoke to the rising affection for Antiquity as well as the political situation in France. Louis XVI was then struggling to avoid bankruptcy, while criticism of the state and the extravagance of its rulers and aristocrats steadily mounted. Two masterpieces from the period spoke directly to these crises: Belisarius Begging for Alms (1781) and The Oath of the Horatii (1784). In the first, David depicted the ancient story of Belisarius, a general in the Roman army, who was arbitrarily banished from the halls of power in the Byzantine Empire after the Emperor Justinian had him tried on trumped-up charges of corruption. The story had recently become popular in France through the publication in 1767 of Jean-François Marmontel’s novelBélisaire. It survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a popular theme, even prompting the great Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti to write an opera based upon it. For many in David’s time, the incident had a special importance because it pointed to the damage that an arbitrary and high-handed ruler might wreak on the individual. David’s painting of the theme emphasizes the great pathos of the general Belisarius, as he is forced to beg to survive. The artist’s rendering of the tale achieves a kind of drama similar to Poussin by capturing the moment at which Belisarius is recognized by former associates, and they become aware of the depths to which he has fallen through the emperor’s injustice. In compositional style and feeling, this work resembles very much the great achievements of the seventeenth-century master. The work’s dramatic rendering of the moral in its historical theme granted the artist great authority in 1780s France, as criticism of the injustices that a corrupt state fostered were on the rise. As a painter, David stood outside the academic establishment of the French Royal Academy at the time, yet despite his status as an outsider, his art was enthusiastically received in Paris.

The Oath of the Horatii

Three years after the completion of the Belisarius, David was to present another striking moralistic painting to the Parisian audience: his Oath of the Horatii. By this time David’s mastery of the Neoclassical language was more secure, and the painting ranks as one of the great masterpieces of the late eighteenth century. It shows a classical subject, the oath that three brothers make to their father before they go off to fight for Rome. The theme thus presented a moral very different from that of the corruption that the artist had stressed in his Belisarius Begging for Alms. Here the individual must subjugate his own aims and well-being to the greater service of the state. The patriotism that the work reflects was a theme widely discussed during the crises that France was experiencing at the time, as Enlightenment philosophers and French patriots recommended self-sacrifice as a way to alleviate the country’s fiscal and social dilemmas. With the display of this work, David’s reputation as the greatest painter in France was assured, and he acquired numerous students in his studio. His career reached its high point in 1793, when he painted The Death of Marat, an image that became a force for the French revolutionaries’ identity. The subject was the assassination of one of the Revolution’s leaders in his bath. David immortalized the event with a carefully executed vision of heroism amidst pathos. The revolutionary assembly commissioned David to paint an account of the event one day after the famous assassination had taken place, and the painting was publicly displayed to impress the image of counter-revolutionary terror upon the minds of Parisians. In effect, the work displays a number of religious qualities, and is comparable to images of the dead Christ long popular throughout Europe. Through the success of this and other images that David executed in defense of the Revolution, his influence persisted into the nineteenth century. The readily comprehensible intelligence of his rendering of historical themes survived into the nineteenth century through the many artists he had trained.

Other Genres

Although Neoclassicism’s effects are most easily visible in historical painting, the movement’s design tenets also came to affect portraiture and other artistic forms that treated everyday themes. David and other French Neoclassical artists made major contributions, not only to historical painting, but to the art of portraiture. Instead of the highly elegant confections popular among the artists of the Rococo, these neoclassical images were notable for their greater naturalness and relaxed atmosphere. The new style of portraiture came to affect even the images of the royal family, long resistant to change and innovation. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), the wife of a Parisian art dealer who rose to great prominence in the 1780s, painted some of the most striking and beautiful examples of this new, more naturalistic style. Despite Vigée-Lebrun’s humble origins, she painted thirty portraits of Marie-Antoinette, many showing an increasing informality as the taste for less restricting and ornamental clothing—a taste fostered by Neoclassicism—influenced the highly formal French court. Some at court complained that her portraits lacked the suitable royal bearing and gravity that had long been seen as essential components of images of the king and queen. But Marie-Antoinette admired the artist and supported her nonetheless. Because of her proximity to the crown, Vigée-Lebrun fled France for twelve years during the Revolution, although she returned and carried forward her career well into the mid-nineteenth century. In England, the two greatest exponents of Neoclassical portraiture were Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). These two rival artists influenced painting in England for much of the eighteenth century. Of the two, Reynolds’s influence was greater in portraiture. The artist increased the range of poses he used to render his subjects, adopting new compositional principles drawn from the art of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century as well as from antique sculpture. Reynolds came from an urbane background; his father had been an academic at Oxford. Highly educated, he influenced British painting through his role as director of London’s Royal Academy. There he shaped the education of many of the country’s artists, and as elsewhere in Europe, his tastes fostered a concern for the classical heritage. By contrast, Thomas Gainsborough sprang from much humbler roots: his father was a bankrupt cloth manufacturer. He spent most of his life in provincial surroundings painting landscapes, historical paintings, and portraits for the rural gentry and aristocracy. He moved to London only around the time he turned fifty years old. Rumors have long circulated that Gainsborough was poorly educated, but more recent research has shown that he was intellectually voracious and that in his art he derived influences from an enormous variety of sources. In his career he avidly followed and integrated Neoclassical influences into his work. Toward the end of his life, in particular, he developed a visual language that was influenced by Neoclassicism’s embrace of nature and of rustic settings.


Throughout the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the art of sculpture had continued to be practiced by a number of craftsman-like figures. After Bernini, though, no great genius appeared who was to develop a European-wide reputation. In France, for example, the Gardens of the Palace of Versailles had been decorated with more than 1,400 sculptural fountains in the late seventeenth century. These had been designed and executed by an army of sculptors and stonecutters. In the first half of the eighteenth century, a competent group of craftsman-like artists continued to work at the palace and in Paris, including Jean-Louis Lemoyne and his brother Jean-Baptiste. The latter’s son, again named Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1704-1778), was one of the first French sculptors to adopt the new Neoclassicism to his art, creating in the 1760s a series of classically-inspired portrait busts of several French aristocrats. One of Lemoyne’s students, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), was to carry the new Neoclassical idiom to a high point of development in France, creating not only classically-inspired portrait busts, but sculptural groupings based upon ancient themes. The history of sculpture in Italy was remarkably similar to that of France. Any number of competent programs continued to be undertaken in the decades following the death of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the great genius who dominated the art for much of the Baroque period. Great sculptural commissions continued to be executed throughout the eighteenth century. In Rome, the largest of these was the colossal Trevi Fountain, a project that required the thirty years after 1732 to complete. Its chief designer and executor, Pietro Bracci (1700-1773), was a competent, well-trained artist, and today the work continues to rank as one of the chief tourist attractions of Rome. The Neoclassical revival, however, bred a renewed interest in ancient sculpture, and in the figure of Antonio Canova (1757-1822) the movement produced an artist who ranked alongside Bernini in greatness. His works featured simpler design and clean lines, in contrast to the Rococo fondness for florid elaboration. They also displayed the naturalistic and sometimes even severe presentation Neoclassicism advocated. During his long career, Canova was very much in demand as a portraitist with clients throughout Italy. Later in his career, he enjoyed a reputation as the greatest living European artist, and his skills as a portraitist in the Neoclassical tradition were sought out by many throughout Europe.

Decline of Neoclassicism

Although elements of the Neoclassical style survived into the nineteenth century, the cataclysmic events of the French Revolution called into question the faith in human reason that lay at the heart of the movement. During the 1790s, French Revolutionary leaders adopted the visual embodiments of Neoclassicism to express the ideals of their movement, including its faith in the perfectability of human society and the necessity of developing a set of social mores that were derived from nature, rather than tradition. The enormous bloodletting that occurred during the years following 1789, however, discredited the Enlightenment’s worship of human reason in the minds of many. By the 1790s, in literature, music, and somewhat later in the visual arts a more tempestuous, less harmonious set of ideals and objectives that became known as Romanticism began to flourish. Besides the political problems of the late eighteenth century, rapid industrialization, burgeoning cities and economic problems were helping to destroy the Enlightenment’s onetime faith in rationality. The new movement favored an open expression of human feelings and emotions, as well as privacy and inwardness, rather than a balanced and harmonious idealization of mankind’s potentialities. At its foundation, though, the Neoclassical movement evidenced a nostalgic longing for the past, and the artists and patrons of the movement hoped to put aside the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They longed to build a society, based not in the arbitrary symmetries of the Baroque or in its fondness for imposing monumentality, but on the principles of the natural world. As the movement progressed, the painters and sculptors of Neoclassicism evidenced an ever-greater attention to nature, endowing their subjects with an idealized beauty that suggested the idyllic harmony that might exist in a society untouched by the corruptions of their own age. The fondness for an informal treatment of nature was thus just one of the features that Neoclassicism shared with Romanticism. And while the new romantic spirit contrasted its own exertions in favor of the human emotions and an inward world of sentiment, the features that joined the two periods—Neoclassicism and Romanticism—were closer than their opposing rhetoric leads us on the surface to believe.