Emergence of Baroque Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The ultimate goal of Baroque art and architecture was to dazzle, draw in, and persuade, and its style was permeated with the desire to overwhelm the viewer’s senses through naturalism and drama. The Baroque style emerged in different regions at different times but was well established throughout Europe by about 1620.

Summary of Event

Naturalism and high drama are the primary characteristics of the Baroque style. Used by painters and sculptors to great effect, these qualities imbued sacred and secular images alike with powerful messages conveyed through convincingly naturalistic characters acting out their dramas in believable settings. [kw]Emergence of Baroque Art (c. 1601-1620) [kw]Art, Emergence of Baroque (c. 1601-1620) [kw]Baroque Art, Emergence of (c. 1601-1620) Art;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Architecture;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Religion and theology;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Europe;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Italy;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] France;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Spain;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Flanders;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Netherlands;c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art[0190] Art;Baroque Baroque style

Architects created grand spaces in which to stage the religious and political events of Baroque Europe, devising ever-more-majestic schemes to frame the pomp and ceremony of the Counter-Reformation Papacy as well as the French, Spanish, and English monarchies. The Baroque style also appealed to Protestant audiences, though typically on an intimate scale more appropriate to the well-appointed private homes typical of Holland and elsewhere in northern Europe.

Baroque art first flowered in Counter-Reformation Rome, where painters sought to satisfy the recommendations of the Council of Trent’s twenty-fifth session (December, 1563), which decreed that religious images be clear and truthful. The two major trends in Baroque painting developed in the competing styles of Caravaggio Caravaggio and of Annibale Carracci, Carracci, Annibale as shown by their works for the Cerasi Chapel Cerasi Chapel (Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome). In 1601, Carracci painted the chapel’s classicizing altarpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin Assumption of the Virgin (Caracci) , with the clear colors, bold volumes, idealism, and restrained drama of High Renaissance masters such as Raphael (1483-1520). Caravaggio painted two canvases in 1601 for the chapel’s side walls depicting the Crucifixion of Saint Peter Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Caravaggio) and the Conversion of Saint Paul Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio) with his signature rugged naturalism and dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, known as tenebrism Tenebrism . These images contain the brutally honest characters and stunning tenebrism that was disseminated by many artists throughout Europe, including the French painter Georges de La Tour La Tour, Georges de (1593-1652) and the Spanish painters Francisco de Zurbarán Zurbarán, Francisco de (1598-1664) and Jusepe de Ribera Ribera, Jusepe de (1588-1652, active in Italy). Although radically different in temperament, the Cerasi chapel paintings by Carracci and Caravaggio share a clarity of composition and content typical of Baroque sacred art.

While Baroque architects did design small, intimate churches, the enormous basilica of Saint Peter’s Saint Peter’s Basilica[Saint Peters Basilica] exemplifies the quintessential Roman Baroque church. Begun in the Renaissance after designs by Donato Bramante (1506) and Michelangelo (1546), St. Peter’s was completed between 1606 and 1666 by Carlo Maderno Maderno, Carlo (1556-1629) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bernini, Gian Lorenzo whose magnificent piazza reaches out to visitors, drawing them to Maderno’s classicizing facade and the spectacular church interior. In terms of scale, richness of material, and symbolic references to Rome reborn under the power and authority of the pope, St. Peter’s rivals the propagandistic palaces and decorative programs of Baroque Europe’s great monarchs. Architecture;Baroque

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a classic of Baroque architecture.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Not only was he a great architect, Bernini was also one of the period’s most talented sculptors. Whether pagan or Christian in subject, his marble statues epitomize the naturalism, drama, intensity, and immediacy of the Baroque style. Viewers see mythological and historical events unfold before their eyes, as in the miraculous transformation of human flesh to bark and leaves in his Apollo and Daphne Apollo and Daphne (Bernini) of 1622-1624 or in his intense Ecstasy of Saint Theresa Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (Bernini) , created for the Cornaro family chapel between 1645 and 1652. Bernini’s decoration unites painting, sculpture, architecture, and stained glass to overwhelm and envelop chapel visitors in a profoundly mystical experience, drawing them toward Theresa to witness and share her miraculous vision of God. Sculpture;Baroque

Mythological dramas were quite popular in Baroque Italy, as seen in the frescoes painted for the Farnese and Barberini family palaces by Carracci and Pietro da Cortona Cortona, Pietro da (1596-1669), respectively. Grand allegories of love and power fill the ceilings of these elite Roman families’ magnificent reception rooms, which find corollaries in the Baroque palaces of contemporary French and Spanish monarchs. Landscape painting by masters such as Domenichino Domenichino (1581-1641) and the French-born Nicolas Poussin Poussin, Nicolas and Claude Lorrain Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) are typically filled with mythological or biblical scenes and offered another opportunity to employ the twin Baroque tastes for naturalism and classicism. While highly naturalistic in their light effects, colors, and forms, these compositions are in fact carefully orchestrated to create balanced, harmonious, and idealized views of nature. Painting;Baroque

Catholics and Protestants had decidedly different attitudes about the production and use of religious imagery. Unwilling to abandon centuries of visual tradition, the Catholic Church embraced sacred art as a means to communicate with and better understand God. Devotional images had to be both theologically correct and inspirational, and Baroque naturalism and drama served these demands well. Baroque altarpieces defended Catholic dogma, especially contested beliefs such as transubstantiation. The altar’s symbolic function as sacrificial table that holds the body and blood of Christ miraculously transformed from bread and wine was reinforced by images that focused on Christ’s crucified body, such as Caravaggio’s Entombment Entombment (Caravaggio) of 1603 or Peter Paul Rubens’s Rubens, Peter Paul Raising of the Cross Raising of the Cross (Rubens) and the Descent from the Cross Descent from the Cross (Rubens) altarpieces of 1610-1612.

Spanish painter Esteban Murillo’s A Girl and Her Duenna (1665-1675) evokes the whimsical.

(Harry N. Abrams)

Protestants believed that religious images could lead to idolatry, and, in contrast, their churches were relatively bare. Religious beliefs and morals are not absent in northern works of art, however, as evidenced by the popular views of church interiors executed by Dutch painters such as Emanuel de Witte Witte, Emanuel de (1617-1692) and Pieter Saenredam Saenredam, Pieter (1597-1665), as well as the many stunningly naturalistic Dutch still life compositions, loved not only for their celebration of wealth and abundance, but also for their cautionary moral of vanitas, which reminds viewers that the pleasures derived from material success are fleeting and unimportant before God.

Loyal to the pope in Rome, Spanish artists also incorporated naturalism, truthfulness, and drama in their devotional works, as seen in engaging examples such as Zurbarán’s St. Serapion St. Serapion (Zurbarán)[Saint Serapion (Zurbarán)] (1628) or Ribera’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Ribera) . Subject to the king of Spain, Flanders also saw the production of grand religious imagery, best exemplified by Rubens’s riveting portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion in his two grand altarpieces painted for Antwerp Cathedral. Of a decidedly different nature are the quiet devotional works by Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban (1618-1682) or French painter La Tour. La Tour’s images adapt the tenebrism of Caravaggio with a serenity and silence not seen in his model’s often brutal dramas. Murillo’s pictures share this peaceful calm, but with a colorful palette, even lighting, and idealism not found in La Tour. These examples offer a glimpse of the range found in Baroque religious painting, underscoring the difficulty in identifying a single or singular Baroque style.

Baroque drama and naturalism also appealed to Europe’s monarchs, who were keen to express and confirm their absolute power and control through numerous secular works. Rubens not only worked in his native Flanders but also found himself in high demand throughout Europe. His combination of naturalism, drama, and sensuality of color and form allowed him to create grand spectacles suitable for his royal patrons’ aspirations, as exemplified by the series of twenty-one canvases painted for the Parisian palace of the queen regent Marie de Médicis Marie de Médicis of France (r. 1610-1617). These ostensibly biographical paintings portray her life as one of continuous triumph, magnificence, and splendor overseen and blessed by the classical pagan gods.

Beginning in 1669, her grandson, King Louis XIV Louis XIV;Versailles (r. 1643-1715), would create the ultimate expression of Baroque grandeur with his palace and gardens at Versailles Versailles , intended to overwhelm visitors with their size and magnificence. Art patronage;France Numerous references to Apollo remind viewers of Louis’s claim to be the Sun King, while the extensive grounds designed by André Le Nôtre Le Nôtre, André (1613-1700) and the opulent interiors overseen by Charles Le Brun Le Brun, Charles suggest that in late seventeenth century France, the world truly did revolve around the monarch. Ironically, while Spain’s political power declined in the seventeenth century, Spanish artistry achieved its Golden Age. As painter to king Philip IV Philip IV (king of Spain);Velázquez and (r. 1621-1665), Diego Velázquez Velázquez, Diego created many royal portraits and battle scenes, such as The Surrender of Breda Surrender of Breda, The (Velázquez) (1634-1635) and Las Meninas Meninas, Las (Velázquez) (1656), which impress viewers through their vibrant and immediate naturalism, while creating effective propagandistic images of royalty and power.

In the Baroque period, the Dutch Republic saw the accumulation of incredible wealth through thriving international trade and commerce. As a result, Holland’s large merchant population, with the highest per-capita income in all of Europe, fueled a vibrant artistic economy. Because Calvinism forbade religious imagery in churches, Dutch artists specialized in secular picture types, including portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and genre scenes, all of which were well served by the Baroque interest in naturalism and clarity of composition. Portraiture reached new heights of immediacy and impact in the hands of artists such as Rembrandt Rembrandt and Frans Hals Hals, Frans (c. 1583-1666), who relied on established conventions to reveal the sitter’s social status yet captured their subjects’ personalities with a new sense of intimacy and emotional power.

Proud and protective of their small territory, the Dutch loved landscape and coastal views of their native Holland. Artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Ruisdael, Jacob van Albert Cuyp Cuyp, Albert (1620-1691), and Meindert Hobbema Hobbema, Meindert (1638-1709) exemplify the many painters who earned their reputations painting the flat terrain and vast, cloud-filled skies of their patrons’ homeland. Genre painting and still life are two other picture types that were commonly displayed in middle-class Dutch homes. These scenes of daily life, painted with painstaking skill and unparalleled naturalism, frequently incorporated symbolism to remind viewers to be wary of vices such as avarice, gluttony, greed, envy, or lust. As their Netherlandish forebears, Baroque still life and genre were meant to be appreciated on many levels, aiming to be edifying as well as beautiful. Whether in the interiors of Jan Vermeer Vermeer, Jan or in the collections of luxury items painted by still life masters such as Pieter Claesz Claesz, Pieter (1597/1598-1661), Willem Heda Heda, Willem (c. 1594-between 1680 and 1682), and Willem Kalff Kalff, Willem (1619-1693), Dutch genre and still life painting allowed patrons to take pride in their worldly accomplishments while remaining mindful of the ephemeral value of wealth and material goods.


The word “baroque” was first used in the late eighteenth century as a derogatory term to distinguish the Neoclassical style from the art of the seventeenth century. While considerable debate remains as to the origin of the term, all etymological suggestions imply that Baroque art is somehow irregular, bizarre, or depraved.

Even though nineteenth century writers attempted to establish the value of the Baroque style, they also saw it as distinct from the classical tradition. More recently, the Baroque has been studied as an extension of and elaboration upon many themes and concerns prevalent in the Renaissance. Although Baroque art developed as a direct refutation of the graceful yet stilted forms of the Italian Mannerist style, Baroque artists and architects drew widely from ancient and High Renaissance sources, pursuing similar goals of naturalism, dramatic narrative presentation, and effective means of engaging the spectator.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blunt, Anthony. Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700. 5th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. An illustrated survey of French Renaissance and Baroque art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Jonathan. Painting in Spain: 1500-1700. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. An illustrated survey of Spanish painting with particular attention to Spain’s Golden Age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Held, Julius, and Donald Posner. Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Art. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1972. A classic text on the development of Baroque art and architecture in Europe, organized by region and medium.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, John Rupert. Baroque. London: A. Lane, 1977. A classic study that focuses on the major themes of Baroque art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minor, Vernon Hyde. Baroque and Rococo: Art and Culture. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999. A well-illustrated exploration of Baroque art in its social, political, and cultural contexts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slive, Seymour. Dutch Painting: 1600-1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. An illustrated survey of Dutch Baroque art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wittkower, Rudolph, Joseph Connors, and Jennifer Montagu. Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750. 6th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. The standard, illustrated survey of Italian Baroque art.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Claude Lorrain; Frans Hals; Georges de La Tour; Charles Le Brun; Marie de Médicis; Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; Philip IV; Nicolas Poussin; Rembrandt; Peter Paul Rubens; Diego Velázquez; Jan Vermeer; Francisco de Zurbarán. Art;Baroque Baroque style

Categories: History