Baroque artists were prominent during the seventeenth century. Primarily characterized by a self-confident artistic bravura, dynamic movement, and realistic technique, it swept across Europe and transformed art and architecture forever.
The word “baroque” literally translates as “irregular shape” of pearls. Like many artistic movements, it initially met with opposition. The term “baroque” originally critiqued painters moving away from highly controlled classical compositions. However, the appellation quickly transformed into praise in the years after its inception.
The Catholic Church heavily encouraged Baroque painting as part of the counter-reformation. These awe-inspiring masterpieces reinforced the “true” Church’s superiority in Europe and helped suppress the new Protestant religion. Consequently, many Baroque artworks depict spiritual and religious themes.
While the style reached its zenith in Rome between 1630 and 1680, there were many artists of the Baroque period all over Europe. Famous Baroque art in the Netherlands comes from Peter Paul Rubens paintings, Sir Antony Van Dyck in Britain, and Diego Velazquez in Spain.
Given its astounding geographical reach, it’s worthwhile exploring what defines Baroque period art before looking at some famous examples of the genre.
Baroque period art lasted from the early 1600s until the late 1700s. Particularly popular in Rome, the Baroque painting style also traveled to Holland, Spain, Germany, the UK, and France. It consequently inherited many Renaissance traditions and served as a counterpoint to Protestant austerity and simplicity in art and architecture.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the resultant church schism, the Catholic Church believed art could serve as a valuable way to appeal to the masses. As a result, baroque era art is a celebratory form of religious self-expression and communication, emphasizing splendor, complexity, awe, and wonder.
With its strong religious background, many Baroque painters favored religious scenes with a clear message. In addition, dark backgrounds contrasted against light figures with a powerful sense of movement, furthering the narrative aspects of Baroque art.
Immensely popular in the mid-seventeenth century, the Baroque art style gradually faded in place of the more theatrical and fluid Rococo style. Even so, Rococo was, in turn, surpassed by the structure and control of the Neo-Classical school in the late eighteenth century.
Baroque style painting fundamentally appeals to contrast, movement, and detail principles. It stands in opposition to earlier Renaissance principles of stillness and stability. Indeed, Baroque art aims to surprise and awe its audiences.
Accordingly, Baroque painters often chose warm colors and gold, contrasted against dark backgrounds. In addition, using the three primary colors heightens the sense of drama.
In terms of the content of these paintings, Baroque artists also focus on the moment of most intense drama, which contrasts with earlier Renaissance art, which often depicted moments of rising tension before an event. On the whole, Baroque painters aimed to evoke passion and emotions in viewers, using art as a genuinely communicative medium.
Within these broad characteristics, however, there were significant local variations. For instance, Dutch Baroque artists often focused on secular subjects (group portraits, landscapes, and still life) over religious art. Italian masters often painted highly narrative Biblical scenes, while Spanish Baroque art links to royal and ecclesiastical patronage.
In summary, the characteristics of famous Baroque paintings are:
If you’re searching for famous examples of Baroque painting, here are ten artistic masterpieces created by some of the most famous artists. Explore this fascinating and diverse style from Caravaggio artworks to Dutch artist Rubens and paintings by Vermeer.
Although technically painted just before the Baroque period, Judith Beheads Holofernes by Caravaggio reflects the fundamental qualities of the style. Among all Baroque artists, Caravaggio pioneered the use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light with dark) and moments of extreme drama.
This painting, depicting the moment Judith severs Holofernes’ head, is astounding and extreme in its violence and painterly skill.
Similarly to Judith Beheading Holofernes, many paintings by Caravaggio depicted religious narratives. For example, the Calling of St Matthew represents the moment Christ inspired Matthew to become a disciple.
Commissioned by Cardinal Matthew Contarelli, it also places the holy action directly in a secular setting. The men’s lavish dress contrasts with Christ’s bare feet. Their gloomy world of monetary concerns further juxtaposes faith's literal and figurative illuminating light.
Also commissioned by Cardinal Contarelli, Supper at Emmaus followed The Calling of St Matthew’s fame and success. Painted at the true height of Caravaggio’s fame, it cemented his reputation amongst Baroque artists of the age.
Depicting Christ sharing an evening meal with two of his disciples epitomizes the dramatic moment of revelation when two men realize they are in the company of the Lord.
The Judgment of Paris is one of the most recognized Peter Paul Rubens paintings. Portraying a critical moment of classical mythology, it shows Paris judging a beauty contest between Minerva, Juno, and Venus.
The nude, masculine Paris awards the ultimate prize to Venus. His arm extends to offer her the golden apple, a fateful and dramatic event leading to the eventual destruction of Troy.
Even amongst Rembrandt famous paintings, this artwork shines as a true masterpiece of Dutch Baroque art. Like much northern European Baroque art, The Night Watch painting depicts a secular (as opposed to religious or classical) theme.
The militiamen (members of Amsterdam’s civic guard) appear out of the nocturnal darkness. Rembrandt’s extraordinary use of light picks out specific details, such as the captain’s commanding hand and the young girl’s surprised expression, encouraging the viewer’s gaze to move around the composition.
Amongst Baroque Spanish painters, Velasquez remains one of the most celebrated and admired artists. His Portrait of Pope Innocent X is in Rome's prestigious Doria Pamphilj Gallery.
This portrait painting is acknowledged as the most nuanced portrait ever created, celebrating Velasquez’s fantastic painterly realism. In addition, the portrait provides truly unflinching insight into the strong personality of this highly intelligent yet aging pontiff.
Johannes Vermeer painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, stands the test of time. As well as a much-discussed enigmatic portrait, the work also reveals Vermeer’s expert Baroque stylings.
While not usually classed primarily as a Baroque painter, Vermeer used rich contrasting colors to a great extent. The lapis lazuli blue is juxtaposed with the dark background, providing an almost religious reverence to this deeply mysterious secular work.
Johannes Vermeer The Milkmaid is another example of a secular Baroque painting from the Dutch Golden Age. Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, paintings by Vermeer frequently depicted everyday scenes in urban settings.
The artist’s use of rich color contrasted against a monochrome background is particularly notable in this work. The young woman pours milk into a bowl in a humble kitchen. Despite its low domestic setting, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam refers to the painting as “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions.”
Velasquez paintings are well-known for their drama and mystery. Las Meninas is no exception to this rule. It’s also particularly exemplary for its use of light and shadow.
Velasquez peers from behind a monumental canvas while light and jewel-like colors highlight the infanta, Margaret Theresa. The King and Queen of Spain are visible in the mirror at the back of the room, adding additional layers of drama and intrigue to this fascinating group portrait.
The Rembrandt Prodigal Son painting completes this list of the most famous Baroque paintings. This religious artwork represents the true artistic culmination of Baroque period art, with Rembrandt's painting depicting a moment of extreme emotional resonance.
With each character enigmatically emerging from the dark background, a father tenderly forgives his errant son. The great art historian, Kenneth Clark, described it as “the greatest picture ever painted, " it’s an unparalleled representation of spiritual and familial compassion.
Although Baroque painting eventually gave way to Rococo and Neoclassical styles by the early eighteenth century, it experienced a resurgence in popularity during the twentieth century.
In the intervening years, Baroque has remained in consistent favor. It’s now a movement rightly appreciated for its unique ability to express emotion alongside extreme painterly skill. But, as any art lover will gladly testify, Baroque still holds power to shock and delight to this day.
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