The Baroque Era

Topic 6: The Baroque Era

  • The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw Europe coming into contact with new cultures, and beginning its colonization of the New World. It also saw Europe split in half by the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther. The spread of Protestantism is often linked to the new technology of print, one of the first forms of mass media, and literacy rates slowly rose. Because the production of art in Europe was so closely intertwined with religion, the Reformation had a profound effect on the future of art in Protestant Europe.

  • The Protestant rejection of the Catholic hierarchy, the sacraments, and the cult of the saints meant that many forms of art were rendered obsolete in areas that embraced Protestantism. Extreme Protestants saw the use of religious images as idolatrous and in some places much art was simply destroyed. Art production in northern and western Europe, where Protestantism became institutionalized, came to focus on secular subjects such as portraits, landscapes, and still lives. Art objects such as paintings were collected by members of the newly wealthy middle classes, as well as by the nobility, as symbols of wealth and cultivation. The secular works of artists such as Vermeer are representative of this cultural phenomenon.

  • On the other hand, those parts of Europe that remained Catholic embraced the use of art as a form of religious propaganda as part of what was known as the Counter-Reformation. The Catholic art of the Baroque era emphasized emotion and action. Different art forms - painting, architecture, and sculpture - were combined to theatrical effect. The stylistic exaggeration of the late Renaissance continued in different ways. The use of light and shadow to create a sense of both depth and drama, called chiaroscuro, is a key element of the Baroque style as seen, for example, in the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio. Dynamic compositions incorporating sweeping diagonals were preferred to the stable and balanced compositions of the Renaissance.

  • As Catholic Spain was the dominant colonial power, colonial Latin American art was largely Baroque in style, with some indigenous influence. In the colonies, as in Europe, newly rich merchants saw art as a way to reinforce their social status. In Europe, the colonial wealth supplied by the New World ensured the position of Spain and its royal court as a major center of artistic production, with the Spanish royal family patronizing such innovative artists as Diego Velasquez.

  • Interest in, and increased commerce with, other regions of the globe, including the New World, led collectors to seek out both natural and manmade objects from far away. This was the age of the "cabinet of curiosities" (wunderkammer in German), where collections of paintings, art objects and scientific specimens would be displayed together, merging aesthetic appreciation with the quest for knowledge. The same interest in cataloging and classification is evident in one of the distinctive genres of Spanish colonial art, the casta painting, which depicted the various racial combinations to be seen in the multiethnic colonies of Latin America.

  • Later in the seventeenth century, as France replaced Spain as the dominant power in western Europe, something of a return to Classicism emerged. The palace of Versailles and its decorations reflects this trend, as well as the continued use of art as a form of political propaganda for Europe's monarchies.

Related Links:
Europe and the Colonial Americas in the Early Modern Era, Part I Quiz
Europe and the Colonial Americas in the Early Modern Era, Part II Quiz
Early Christian Art
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes