What is Baroque? Like Mannerism, the term was originally coined to
disparage the very style it designates. It meant "irregular, contorted,
grotesque." Art historians otherwise remain divided over its definition.
Should Baroque be used only for the dominant style of the seventeenth
century, or should it include other tendencies, such as classicism, to
which it bears a complex relationship? Should the time frame be extended
to cover the period 1700-1750,
known as the Rococo? More important, is the Baroque an
era distinct from both Renaissance and modern, or the final phase of the
Renaissance? On this last question, we have chosen the first
alternative, while admitting that a good case can be made for the
second. Which of the two we adopt is perhaps less important than an
understanding of the factors that must enter into our decision.
The fact is that the Baroque eludes simple classification. Rather, it
was a time full ot inner contradictions, not unlike the present, and
thus peculiarly fascinating to us. Hence, we run into a series of
paradoxes typical of the conflicting nature of the Baroque. It has been
claimed that the Baroque style expresses the spirit of the Counter
Reformation, which, however, had already done its work by
1600. Catholicism had recaptured
much of its former territory, and Protestantism was on the defensive, so
that neither side any longer had the power to upset the new balance. As
if to signify the triumph of the old faith, in
1622 the heroes of the Counter ReformationIgnatius
of Loyola, Francis Xavier (both Jesuits), Theresa of Avila, Filippo
Neri, and Isidoro Agricolawere
named saints (Carlo Borromeo had been made one in
1610), beginning a wave of
canonizations that lasted through the mid-eighteenth century. In
contrast to the piety and good deeds of these reformers, the new princes
of the Church who supported the growth of Baroque art were known
primarily for worldly splendor.
Another reason why we should guard against overemphasizing the
Baroque's ties to the Counter Reformation is that, unlike Mannerism, the
new style was not specifically Italian, although historians generally
agree that it was born in Rome during the final years of the sixteenth
century. Nor was it confined to religious art. Baroque elements quickly
penetrated the Protestant North, where they were applied primarily to
Equally problematic is the assertion that Baroque is "the style of
absolutism," reflecting the centralized state ruled by an autocrat of
unlimited powers. Although absolutism reached its climax during the
reign of Louis XIV in the later seventeenth century, it had been in the
making since the 1520s (under Francis I in France and the Medici dukes
in Tuscany). Moreover, Baroque art flourished in bourgeois Holland no
less than in the absolutist monarchies, and the style officially
sponsored under Louis XIV was a notably subdued, classicistic kind of
It is nevertheless tempting to see the turbulent history of the era
reflected in Baroque art, where the tensions of the era often seem to
erupt into open conflict. The seventeenth century was one of almost
continuous warfare, which involved virtually every nation in a complex
web of shifting alliances. The Thirty Years' War
(1618-48) was fueled by the dynastic ambitions of
the kings of France, who sought to exert their hegemony over Europe, and
the Hapsburgs, who ruled Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria. Though
fought largely in Germany, it eventually engulfed nearly all of Europe,
even absorbing the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain, which had
been waged since 1581.
After the Treaty of Westphalia formally ended the war and granted their
freedom, the United Provinces entered into a series of battles with
England and France for commercial and maritime supremacy that lasted
until 1679. Yet, other
than in Germany, which was left in ruins, there is little correlation
between these rivalries and the art of the period. It is a remarkable
fact that the seventeenth century has been called the Golden Age of
painting in France, Holand. Flanders, and Spain. We look in vain,
moreover, for the impact of these wars on Baroque imagery. Its chief
manifestation is the etchings of Jacques Callot (see fig.
807), though we
occasionally catch an indirect glimpse of it in Dutch militia scenes,
such as Rembrandt's Night Watch (fig.
We encounter similar difficulties when we try to relate Baroque art
to the science and philosophy of the period. A direct link did exist in
the Early and High Renaissance, when an artist then could also be a
humanist and a scientist. During the seventeenth century, however,
scientific and philosophical thought became too complex, abstract, and
systematic for the artist to share. Gravitation and calculus could not
stir the artist's imagination any more than Descartes' famous motto
Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
There is nevertheless a relationship between Baroque art and science
which, though subtle, is essential to an understanding of the entire
age. The complex metaphysics of the humanists, which endowed everything
with religious import, was replaced by a new physics, beginning with
Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, and culminating in Descartes and
Newton. They instituted a cosmology that severed the ties between
sensory perception and science. By placing the sun, not the earth (and
humanity), at the center of the universe, it contradicted what our eyes
(and common sense) tell us: that the sun revolves around the earth.
Scientists now defined underlying relationships in mathematical and
geometrical terms as part of the simple, orderly system of mechanics.
Not only was the seventeenth century's world view fundamentally
different from what had preceded it, but its understanding of visual
reality was forever altered by the new science, thanks to advances in
optical physics and physiology. Thus we may say that the Baroque
literally saw with new eyes.
The attack on Renaissance science and philosophy, which could trace
their origins and authority back to antiquity, also had the effect of
supplanting natural magic, a precursor of modern science that included
both astrology and alchemy. The difference was that natural magic sought
to exercise practical control of the world through prediction and
manipulation, by uncovering nature's "secrets" instead of her laws. To
be sure, traditional magic, linked as it was to religion and morality,
continued to live on in popular literature and folklore long afterward.
In the end, Baroque art was not simply the result of religious,
political, or intellectual developments. Let us therefore think of the
Baroque style as one among other basic features that distinguish the
period from what had gone before: the refortified Catholic faith, the
absolutist state, and the new role of science. These factors are
combined in volatile mixtures that give Baroque its fascinating variety.
Such diversity was perfectly suited to express the expanding view of
life. What ultimately unites this refractory era is a reevaluation of
humanity and its relation to the universe. Central to this image is the
new psychology of the Baroque. A prominent role was now assigned by
philosophers to human passion, which encompasses a wider range of
emotions and social levels than ever
before. The scientific revolution culminating in Newton's unified
mechanics responded to the same impulses, for it assumes a more active
role in our ability to understand and in turn affect the world around
us. Remarkably, the Baroque remained an age of great religious faith,
however divided it may have been in its loyalties. The counterpoint
between the passions, intellect, and spirituality may be seen, as
forming a dialogue which has never been truly resolved.
PAINTING IN ITALY
1600 Rome became the fountainhead of the Baroque,
as it had of the High Renaissance a century before, by gathering artists
from other regions to perform challenging new tasks! The papacy
patronized art on a large scale with the aim of making Rome the most
beautiful city of the Christian world "for the greater glory of God and
the Church." This campaign had begun as early as
the artists then on hand were late Mannerists of feeble distinction.
Soon, however, it attracted ambitious young masters, especially from
northern Italy, who created the new style.
Foremost among them was a painter of genius, Michelangelo Merisi, called
after his birthplace near Milan
His first important religious commission was for a
series of three monumental canvases devoted to St. Matthew that he
painted for the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi from
1602 (fig. 740).
As decorations they perform the same function
that fresco cycles had in the Renaissance (compare fig.
600). Our view of the
chapel includes St. Matthew and the Angel, in which the
illiterate tax collector turns dramatically for inspiration to the angel
who dictates the gospel. The painting is remote from both Mannerism and
the High Renaissance. Its only antecedent is the "North Italian realism"
of artists like Savoldo (see fig. 689),
but Caravaggio's realism is so radical that a new
term, "naturalism," is needed to distinguish it from the earlier kind.
The Calling of St. Matthew (fig.
741) is the most extraordinary picture of
all. Never have we seen a sacred subject depicted so entirely in terms
of contemporary lowlife. Matthew, the tax gatherer, sits with some armed
men (evidently his agents) in what is a common Roman tavern as two
figures approach from the right. The arrivals are poor people, their
bare feet and simple garments contrasting strongly with the colorful
costumes of Matthew and his companions. For
however, naturalism is not an end in itself but a means of conveying
profoundly religious content. Why do we sense a religious quality in
this scene and do not mistake it for an everyday event? It is because
Caravaggio's North Italian realism is wedded to elements derived from
his study of Renaissance art in Rome, which lend the scene its
surprising dignity. His style, in other words, is classical, without
being classicizing. The composition, for example, is disposed across the
picture surface and its forms sharply highlighted, much as in a relief
271). What identifies one
of the figures as Christ? It is surely not the Saviour's halo, the only
supernatural feature in the picture, which is an inconspicuous gold band
that we might well overlook. Our eyes fasten instead upon His commanding
gesture, borrowed from Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (fig.
"bridges" the gap between the two groups and is echoed by Matthew, who
points questioningly at himself.
Most decisive is the strong beam of sunlight above Christ that
illuminates His face and hand in the gloomy interior, thus carrying His
call across to Matthew. Without this light, so natural yet so charged
with symbolic meaning, the picture would lose its magic, its power to
make us aware of the divine presence. Caravaggio here gives moving,
direct form to an attitude shared by certain great saints of the Counter
Reformation: that the mysteries of faith are revealed not by
intellectual speculation but spontaneously, through an inward experience
open to all people. What separates the Baroque from the later Counter
Reformation is the externalization of the mystic vision, which appears
to us complete, without any signs of the spiritual struggle in El
paintings have a "lay Christianity" that appealed to
Protestants no less than Catholics. This quality
made possible his strong, though indirect, influence
on Rembrandt, the greatest religious artist of the
Protestant North. In Italy, Caravaggio fared less
well. His work was acclaimed by artists and
connoisseurs, but the ordinary people for whom it
was intended, as well as some conservative critics,
regarded it as lacking propriety and reverence. They
resented meeting their own kind in these paintings,
preferring religious imagery of a more idealized and
rhetorical sort. For that reason, Caravaggism
largely ran its course by
when it was assimilated into other Baroque
740. Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi,
The Calling of St. Matthew.
1599-1602. Oil on canvas, 3.4 x 3.5m.
Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Caravaggio's style lived on only in Naples, then under Spanish rule,
where he fled from Rome after killing a man in a duel over a ball game.
His main disciple in Naples was the Spaniard
(1591-1652), who settled there
after having first absorbed
style in Rome and who in turn spawned a school of his own. Especially
popular were his paintings of saints, prophets, and ancient beggar
philosophers. The asceticism for which they were known appealed strongly
to the otherworldliness of Spanish Catholicism. At the same time, such
pictures reflected the learned humanism of the Spanish nobility who
ruled Naples and were the artist's main patrons.
Most of Ribera's figures are middle-aged or elderly men, who
possess the unique blend of inner strength and intensity seen in St.
Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (fig.
masterpiece in this vein. The fervent characterization owes its
expressive force to both the dramatic composition, inspired by
Caravaggio (compare St. Matthew and the Angel in fig.
740), and the
raking light, which lends the figure a powerful presence by heightening
the realism and emphasizing the vigorous surface textures.
St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment.
Oil on canvas.
Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples
It was in the Baroque that women first began to play an important role
in the arts. However, the obstacles they met in getting instruction in
figure drawing and anatomy effectively barred them from painting
narrative subjects. Hence, women artists were largely restricted to
painting portraits, genre scenes, and still lifes until the middle of
the nineteenth century. Many nevertheless carved out successful careers,
often emerging as the equals or superiors of the men in whose styles
they were trained. The
exceptions to this general rule were certain Italian women born into
artistic families, for whom painting came naturally. The most
significant contribution of all was made by
The daughter of Caravaggio's follower Orazio Gentileschi
(1563-1639), she was born in Rome
and became one of the leading painters and personalities of her day. Her
characteristic subjects are Bathsheba, the tragic object of King David's
passion, and Judith, who saved her people by beheading the Assyrian
general Holofernes. Both subjects were popular during the Baroque era,
which delighted in erotic and violent scenes. Artemisia's frequent
depictions of these biblical heroines throughout her restless career
suggest a fundamental ambivalence toward men that was rooted in her
life, which was as turbulent as Caravaggio's. While Gentileschi's early
paintings of Judith take her father's and Caravaggio's work as their
points of departure, our example (fig.
743) is a fully mature, independent work. The
inner drama is uniquely hers, and no less powerful for its restraint in
immortalizing Judith's courage. Rather than the decapitation itself, the
artist shows the instant after. Momentarily distracted, Judith gestures
theatrically as her servant stuffs Holofernes' head into a sack. The
object of their attention remains hidden from view, heightening the air
of intrigue. The hushed, candlelit atmosphere in turn establishes a mood
of exotic mystery that conveys Judith's complex emotions with
Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes,
Oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts
The conservative wishes of everyday people in Italy were met by artists
less radical, and less talented, than Caravaggio. They took their lead
Annibale Carracci (1560-1609),
another recent arrival in Rome. Annibale came from Bologna where, since
the 1580s, he and two other members of his family had evolved an
anti-Mannerist style based on North Italian realism and Venetian art. He
was a reformer rather than a revolutionary. Like Caravaggio, who
apparently admired him, it was his experience of Roman classicism that
transformed his art. He, too, felt that art must return to nature, but
his approach emphasized a revival of the classics, which to him meant
the art of antiquity, and of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and
Correggio. At his best, he succeeded in fusing these diverse elements,
although their union always remained somewhat precarious.
Between 1597 and 1600
Annibale produced the ceiling fresco in the gallery of the Farnese
Palace (fig. 744), his most
ambitious work, which soon became so famous that it ranked behind only
the murals of Michelangelo and Raphael. The
historical significance of the Farnese Gallery is great indeed. Our
detail (fig. 745) shows Annibale's
rich and intricate design. The narrative scenes, like those of the
Sistine Ceiling, are surrounded by painted architecture, simulated
sculpture, and nude, garland-holding youths. The Farnese Gallery does
not rely solely on Michelangelo's masterpiece. The style of the main
subjects, the Loves of the Classical Gods, is reminiscent of Raphael's
Galatea (see fig. 667), and
the whole is held together by an illusionistic scheme that reflects
Annibale's knowledge of Correggio and the great Venetians. Carefully
foreshortened and illuminated from below (as we can judge from the
shadows), the nude youths and the simulated sculpture and architecture
appear real. (The figure in the lower left of fig.
745 was drawn from life.) Against this background the
mythologies are presented as simulated easel pictures. Each of these
levels of reality is handled with consummate skill, and the entire
ceiling has an exuberance that sets it apart from both Mannerism and
High Renaissance art.
fresco. 1597-1600. Gallery, Palazzo Farnese, Rome
Annibale Carracci. Ceiling fresco (detail).
Gallery, Palazzo Farnese, Rome
The sculptured precision of the Farnese Gallery does not do justice
to the important Venetian element in
Annibale Carracci's style. This is most
striking in his landscapes, such as the monumental Landscape with the
Flight into Egypt (fig. 746).
Its pastoral mood and the soft light and atmosphere hark back to
Giorgione and Titian (see figs. 669
and 670). The figures, however, play a far
less conspicuous role here. They are, indeed, as small and incidental as
in any Northern landscape (compare fig. 729).
Nor does the character of the panorama at all suggest the Flight
into Egypt. It would be equally suitable for almost any story, sacred or
profane. Still, we feel that the figures could not be removed altogether
(though we can imagine them replaced by others). This is not the untamed
nature of Northern landscapes. The old castle, the roads and fields, the
flock of sheep, the ferryman with his boat, all show that this
"civilized," hospitable countryside has been inhabited tor a long time.
Hence the figures, however tiny, do not appear lost or dwarfed into
insignificance, because their presence is implicit in the orderly,
domesticated quality of the setting. This firmly constructed "ideal
landscape" evokes a vision of nature that is gentle yet austere, grand
but not awesome. We shall meet its descendants again and again in the
next two centuries.
Landscape with the Flight into Egypt.
Oil on canvas,122.7 x
250,3 cm. Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome
The seeds of the reaction against Carracci's classicism were to be found
within his own studio. The way was led by
(1582-1647), a native of Parma, whose
Annunciation (fig. 747) unites
Correggio's colorism with Caravaggio's drama. The result is an emotive
style that announces the arrival of the High Baroque. Lanfranco s
expressive intensity was the very opposite of the measured economy of
(1581-1641), Carracci's favorite pupil, who thought out every
gesture and expression with impressive logic. Today, however,
Domenichino is remembered more for his paintings of sweetly lyrical
female figures. St. Cecilia (fig.
748), the patron saint of music,
inaugurates a long line of successors through the Rococo.
1616. Oil on canvas.
S. Carlo ai Catinari, Rome
Oil on canvas.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Lanfranco eventually vanquished his adversary Domenichino in fresco
decoration, where the main development of Baroque painting was to take
place through the 1630s. Their rivalry was repeated in this arena By two
other members of the Carracci school,
Guido Reni and
To artists who were inspired by it, the Farnese Gallery seemed to offer
two alternatives. Pursuing the Raphaelesque style of the mythological
panels, they could arrive at a deliberate, "official" classicism; or
they could take their cue from the sensuous illusionism present in the
framework. Among the earliest responses to the first alternative is the
ceiling fresco Aurora (fig. 749) by Guido Reni (15751642),
showing Apollo in his chariot (the Sun) led by Aurora (Dawn), Despite
its rhythmic grace, this relieflike design would seem like little more
than a pallid reflection of High Renaissance art were it not for the
glowing and dramatic light that gives it an emotional force that the
figures alone could never achieve. The Aurora ceiling (fig.
750) painted less than ten years later
by Guercino (1591-1666) is the very opposite of
Reni's. Here architectural perspective, combined with the pictorial
illusionism of Correggio and the intense light and color of Titian,
converts the entire surface into one limitless space, in which the
figures sweep past as if propelled by stratospheric winds. With this
work, Guercino started what soon became a veritable flood of similar
Guido Reni. Aurora.
1613. Ceiling fresco. Casino Rospigliosi, Rome
1621-23. Ceiling fresco. Villa Ludovisi, Rome
The most overpowering of these is the ceiling fresco by
(1596-1669) in the great hall of the
Barberini Palace in Rome, which presents a glorification of the reign of
the Barberini pope, Urban VIII (fig. 751).
As in the Farnese Gallery, the ceiling area is subdivided by a
painted framework simulating architecture and sculpture, but beyond it
we now see the unbounded sky, as in Guercino's Aurora. Clusters
of figures, perched on clouds or soaring freely, swirl above as well as
below this framework, creating a dual illusion: some figures appear to
hover well inside the hall, perilously close to our heads, while others
recede into a light-filled, infinite distance. Cortona's source of
inspiration was surely Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin (fig.
692), which achieves a similar effect.
Cortona's frescoes provided the focal point for the rift between the
High Baroque and Baroque classicism. The classicists asserted that art
serves a moral purpose and must observe the principles of clarity,
unity, and decorum. And supported by a long tradition reaching back to
Horace's dictum ut pictura poesis, they further maintained that
painting should follow the example of tragic poetry in conveying meaning
through a minimum of figures whose movements, gestures, and expressions
can be easily read. Cortona, though not anticlassical, presented the
case for art as epic poetry, with many actors and episodes that
elaborate on the central theme and create a magnificent effect. He was
also the first to argue that art has a sensuous appeal which exists as
an end in itself.
Although it took place on a largely theoretical level, the debate
over illusionistic ceiling painting represented more than fundamentally
divergent approaches to telling a story and expressing ideas in art. The
issue lay at the very heart of the Baroque. Illusionism enabled artists
to overcome the apparent contradictions of the era by fusing separate
levels of reality into a pictorial unity of such overwhelming grandeur
as to sweep aside any differences between them. Despite the intensity of
the argument, in actual practice the two sides rarely came into conflict
over easel paintings, where the differences between Cortona and the
classicism of Carracci's followers were not always so clear-cut.
Nevertheless, the leader of the reaction against what were regarded as
the excesses of the High Baroque was neither a fresco painter, nor was
he an Italian, but a French artist living in Rome: Nicolas Poussin.
Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII.
1633-39. Portion of ceiling fresco.
Palazzo Barberini, Rome
It is a peculiar fact that few ceiling frescoes were painted after
Cortona finished his Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII,
ironically because the new style of architecture fostered by Francesco
Borromini and Guarino Guarini provided so few opportunities for
adornment. But after 1670 they enjoyed an
astonishing revival in older buildings, which reached its climax in the
interior decoration of Il Gesu (fig. 752).
Although his role in this case was only advisory, it is clear
that the plan must have been Bernini's. The commission for the ceiling
frescoes went to
Giovanni Battista Gaulli
and to his young protege known as
Baciccia, while a
talented assistant, Antonio Raggi (1624-1686),
did the stucco sculpture. We sense the same spirit as in the Cornaro
769), and the program, which proved
extraordinarily influential, is testimony to Bernini's imaginative
daring. The entire ceiling is treated as a single unit: the nave fresco,
with its sharp contrasts of light and dark suggesting a mystical vision,
spills dramatically over its frame, then turns into sculptured figures.
Here Baroque illusionism achieves its ultimate expression.
Giovanni Battista Gaulli.
Triumph of the Name of Jesus.
Ceiling fresco. Il Gesu, Rome
The Late Baroque found its greatest representative in
(1634-1705), a Neapolitan who began as an
imitator of his teacher Ribera but became the principal heir to Pietro
da Cortona as the leading decorative painter in Italy. Legendary for his
speed, Giordano was a virtuoso whose remarkable facility resulted in a
prodigious and varied output. The Rape of Europa (fig.
753) shows his spontaneous approach at its
best. The composition, based on one by Veronese, also was to inspire
Francois Boucher. The painting shares its
graceful style with Cortona's, but instead of the latter's blond
palette, it favors a rich tonalism. Although he never fully acceded to
colorism, Giordano set the stage for the great Venetian painters of the
eighteenth century, even in his peripatetic life-style: he became the
first in a line of great Italian artists, culminating in Tiepolo,
to be called to the Spanish court.
Gaulli and Giordano mark the final flowering of Baroque exuberance.
By this time, the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction. Italian
painting during the third quarter of the seventeenth century was largely
characterized by a conservative synthesis of the High Baroque and
Baroque classicism. This yielded to an academic style that flourished in
Rome and Naples, which were then closely linked. It was formulated
chiefly by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713) of Rome, the
most admired artist of his day, and Francesco Solimena
(1657-1747), Giordano's successor in Naples. Maratta may be
regarded as a less doctrinaire counterpart to Charles Lebrun in France.
In contrast to his rival Gaulli (see fig.
752), he sought to revive the grand manner of the Carracci
by emphasizing individual figures through a clear, even light without
entirely abandoning Cortona's color and drama. As might be expected,
however, the results of such a compromise were generally unimpressive.
Giordano. The Rape of Europe.
Oil on canvas.
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
PAINTING IN SPAIN
During the sixteenth century, at the height of its political and
economic power, Spain had produced great saints and writers, but no
artists of the first rank. Nor did El Greco's presence prove a stimulus
to native talent. The reason is that the Catholic church, the main
source of patronage, was extremely conservative, while the Spanish court
and most of the aristocracy preferred to employ foreign painters, so
that native artists were held in low esteem. Thus the main impetus came
from Italy and the Netherlands.
Stimulated by the example of Aertsen and his contemporaries in the
Netherlands, Spanish artists began to develop their own versions of
still life in the 1590s. We see the distinctive character of this
tradition in the example (fig.
by Juan Sanchez Cotan
a minor religious artist remembered today
as one of the first and most remarkable members of the Toledo school of
still life painters. In contrast to the lavish display of food or luxury
objects in Northern pictures, we here find an order and an austere
simplicity that give a new context to these vegetables. They are so
deliberately arranged that we cannot help wondering what symbolic
significance the artist meant to convey. The juxtaposition of bright
sunlight and impenetrable darkness, of painstaking realism and abstract
form, creates a memorable image in which even these humble fruits and
vegetables become sacred examples of God's work.
Although he probably used contemporary North Italian paintings as his
point of departure, Sanchez Cotan's still lifes make one think of
Caravaggio, whose effect on Spanish art, however, is not found until the
following decade. We do not know exactly how Caravaggism was
transmitted. The likeliest source was Naples, where Caravaggio had fled,
which was then under Spanish rule. His principal follower there was
Tusepe Ribera (see page
549), but too little is known of
his activity before about 1625
for us to trace his influence. Be that as it may, the
impact of Caravaggism was felt especially in Seville, the home of the
most important Spanish Baroque painters before
Juan Sanchez Cotan. Quince,
ñ. 1602. Oil on canvas,
68.8 x 84.4
cm. San Diego Museum of Art.
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
painted in a Caravaggesque vein during his early years
in Seville. His interests at that time centered on scenes of people
eating and drinking rather than religious themes. Known as bodegones,
such paintings are the distinctive Spanish counterparts of Dutch
breakfast pieces, for they evolved from the paintings of table-top
displays brought to Spain by visiting Flemish artists in the early
seventeenth century. The Water Carrier of Seville (fig.
Velazquez did at the age of 20
under the apparent impress of Ribera, already shows his
genius: his powerful grasp of individual character and dignity invests
this everyday scene with the solemn spirit of a ritual.
A few years later, Velazquez was appointed court painter to Philip
IV, whose reign from 1621
to 1665 represents the
great age of painting in Spain. Much of the credit must go to the Duke
of Olivares, who largely restored Spain's fortunes and supported an
ambitious program of artistic patronage to proclaim the monarchy's
greatness. Upon moving to Madrid, Velazquez quickly displaced the
mediocre Florentines who had enjoyed the favor of Philip III and his
minister, the Duke of Lerma. He spent the rest of his life there, doing
mainly portraits of the royal family. The earlier of these still show
the precise division of light and shade and the clear outlines of his
Seville period, but after the late 1620s his work acquired a new fluency
During his visit to the Spanish court on a diplomatic mission in
1628, the Flemish painter
Peter Paul Rubens helped Velazquez to discover the beauty of the many
Titians in the king's collection, from which he developed a new fluency
and richness. The magnificent portrait of Pope Innocent X (fig.
773), painted in
1650 while Velazquez was
visiting Italy, is meant to evoke the great tradition of the papal
portraits of Raphael, but its fluid brushwork and glowing color derive
from Titian (compare figs. 668
The sitter's gaze, sharply focused on the beholder,
conveys a passionate and powerful personality so characteristic of the
The Maids of Honor (fig. 774)
Velazquez' mature style at its fullest.
At once a group portrait and a genre scene, it might be subtitled "the
artist in his studio," for Velazquez shows himself at work on a huge
canvas. In the center is the little Princess Margarita, who has just
posed for him, among her playmates and maids of honor. The faces of her
parents, the king and queen, appear in the mirror on the back wall. Have
they just stepped into the room, to see the scene exactly as we do, or
does the mirror reflect part of the canvas (presumably a full-length
portrait of the royal family) on which the artist has been working? This
ambiguity shows Velazquez' fascination with light. The varieties of
direct and reflected light in The Maids of Honor are almost
limitless. The artist challenges us to match the mirror image against
the paintings on the same wall and against the "picture" of the man in
the open doorway.
Although the side lighting and strong contrasts of light and dark
still suggest the influence of Caravaggio, Velazquez' technique is far
more varied and subtle, with delicate glazes setting off the impasto of
the highlights. The glowing colors have a Venetian richness, but the
brushwork is even freer and sketchier than Titian's. Velazquez was
concerned with the optical qualities of light rather than its
metaphysical mysteries. These he penetrated more completely than any
painter of his time. His aim is to show the movement of light itself and
the infinite range of its effects on form and color. For Velazquez, as
for Jan Vermeer in Holland,
light creates the visible world. Velazquez could
not have known Vermeer's work, for the latter was then only
24, but he may have known scenes
of domestic genre by older Dutch painters. Looking at the open, sketchy
brushwork in The Maids of Honor, we wonder if he could also have
seen works by Frans Hals (compare fig.
787). However, unlike Hals, Velazquez does
not seem interested in capturing time on the wing.
Water Carrier of Seville.
1619. Museum, London
Pope Innocent X. 1650. Oil on canvas,
139.7 x 115 cm. Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome
Velazquez. The Maids
of Honor. 1656. Oil on
canvas, 3.2 x
2.7 m. Museo del
Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
stands out among the painters of Seville for his quiet
intensity. This artist's most important works were done lor monastic
orders and consequently are filled with an ascetic piety that is
uniquely Spanish. St. Serapion (fig.
775) shows an early member
of the Mercedarians (Order of Mercy) who was brutally murdered by
pirates in 1240 but
canonized only a hundred years after this picture was painted.
The painting will remind us of Caravaggio's David with the Head of
Goliath. Each shows a
single, three-quarter-length figure in lifesize. But
Zurbaran's saint is
both hero and martyr, and it is the viewer who now contemplates the
slain monk with a mixture of compassion and awe. The sharp contrast
between the white habit and the dark background lends the motionless
figure a heightened visual and expressive presence. Here pictorial and
spiritual purity become one. The hushed stillness creates a reverential
mood that counteracts the stark realism, so that we identify with the
strength of St. Serapion's faith rather than with his physical
suffering. The very absence of rhetorical pathos makes this timeless
image profoundly moving.
St. Serapion. 1628. Hartford, Connecticut
The work of Bartolome Esteban Murillo
(1617-1682), Zurbaran s successor as the leading
painter in Seville, is the most cosmopolitan, as well as the most
accessible, of any Spanish artist. For that reason, he exerted a vast
influence on innumerable followers, whose pale imitations have obscured
his considerable achievement. He learned as much from Northern artists,
including Rubens and Rembrandt, as he did from Italians like Reni and
Guercino. The Virgin and Child in figure
776 unites these
influences in an image that nevertheless retains an unmistakably Spanish
character. The haunting expressiveness of the faces achieves a gentle
pathos that lends a more overt appeal to Zurbaran's pietism. This must
be seen as part of an attempt to inject new life into standard
devotional images that had been reduced to formulaic repetition in the
hands of lesser artists. The extraordinary sophistication of Murillo's
brushwork and the subtlety of his color show his considerable debt to
Velazquez as well as Anthony van Dyck (see fig.
Virgin and Child.
1675-80. Oil on canvas,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.