Chapter 24 Baroque Art Notes

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)

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Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) Hal’s younger contemporary was widely recognized as the leading Dutch painter of his time. Rembrandt’s move from his native Leiden to Amsterdam around 1631 provided him with a more extensive clientele, contributed to a flourishing career. In his portraits, Rembrandt delved deeply into the psyche and personality of his sitters. In the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip, he deviated further from the traditional group portrait than had even Hals. Rembrandt chose to portray the members of the surgeon’s guild (who commissioned the group portrait) clustered together on the painting’s left side. In the foreground the corpse that Dr. Tulip is in the act of dissecting. Rembrandt diagonally placed and foreshortened the corpse, activating the space by disrupting the strict horizontal, planar orientation found in traditional portraiture. Though the students wear virtually identical attire, their varying poses and facial expressions suggest unique individuals. Rembrandt produced this painting at age 26.
Rembrandt amplified the complexity and energy of the group portrait with his painting of 1642, The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq better known as Night Watch. This title is a misnomer for the painting is not a nocturnal scene. Though Rembrandt used dramatic lighting, the darkness of the painting is due more to the varnish the artist used than the subject depicted.
This painting is one of many civic guard group portraits produced during this time period. It appears that Rembrandt was commissioned to paint the two officers, Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch along with 16 members of this militia group (each contributing to Rembrandt’s fee). This work was one of six paintings commissioned from different artist’ around 1640 for the assembly and banquet hall of the new Musketeer’s Hall in Amsterdam. Some scholars have suggested that the occasion of the commissions was the visit of Queen Marie de Medici to the Dutch City in 1638.
Rembrandt captured the excitement and activity of the men preparing for the parade. Rembrandt's inventiveness was by this time becoming a conventional portrait format. Rather than present assembled men, Rembrandt depicted them scurrying about in the act of organizing themselves, thereby animating the image significantly. The prominent girl to the left of center is unidentified. The large canvas placed in the hall in 1642, was moved in 1715 to the Amsterdam town hall, where it was cropped on all sides, leaving us today with an incomplete record.
Rembrandt also created many religious artworks despite the Calvinist injunctions against religious art. The images were not the opulent, overwhelming art of Baroque Italy. Rather his art is that of a committed Christian who desired to interpret Biblical narratives in human, rather than lofty theological terms. The spiritual stillness of Rembrandt’s religious paintings is that of inward turning contemplation, far from the heavenly tumult of Bernini of Pozzo. Rembrandt portrays the humanity and humility of Jesus. His psychological insight and his profound sympathy for human affliction produced at the very end of life one of the most moving pictures in all religious art Return of the Prodigal Son. Tenderly embraced by his forgiving father, the son crouches before him in weeping contrition, while three figures immersed in soft shadow note the lesson of mercy. The light everywhere mingled with shadow, directs the viewer’s attention by illuminating the father and son and largely veiling the witnesses. It focus is the beautiful, spiritual face of the old man; secondarily; it touches the stern face of the foremost witness. Return demonstrates the degree to which Rembrandt developed a personal style completely in tune with the simple eloquence of the Biblical passage.
The use of light was a hallmark of Rembrandt’s style. His pictorial method involved refining light and shade into finer and finer nuances until they blended with one another. Earlier painters’ use of abrupt light and dark changes gave way to the gradation seen in the work of Rembrandt and Velazquez. The dramatic effect of shape chiaroscuro was sacrificed for a greater fidelity to actual appearances. This technique is closer to reality because the eyes perceive light and dark as always subtly changing and not static.
Generally speaking, Renaissance artists represented forms and faces in a flat, neutral modeling light. They represented the idea of light, rather than the actual look of it. Artists, such as Rembrandt discovered degrees of light and dark, degrees of difference in pose, in the movement of facial features, and in psychic states. They arrived at these differences optically, not conceptually or in terms of some ideal. Rembrandt found that by manipulating the direction, intensity, distance, and surface texture of light and shadow, he could render the most subtle nuances of character and mood, both in persons and whole scenes. He discovered for the modern world that variation of light and shade, subtly modulated, could be read as emotional difference. In the visible world, light, dark, and the wide spectrum of values in between are charged with meanings and feelings that sometimes are independent of the shapes and figures they modify. Theater and photography have used these discoveries to great dramatic effect.

Rembrandt carried over the spiritual quality of his religious works into his later portraits. The “psychology of light,” as some have said. Light and dark are not in conflict, they are reconciled, merging softly and subtly to produce a visual quietness. Their prevailing mood is that of tranquil meditation, of philosophical resignation, of musing recollection, a whole cluster of emotional tones heard only in silence.

In a self portrait produced late in life, light shines from the upper left of the painting and bathes the subjects face while leaving the lower part of the body in shadow. The artist depicted himself as possessing dignity and strength. The portrait can be seen as a summary of the many stylistic and professional concerns that occupied him throughout his career.

Many artists took up etching when it was perfected early in the 17th century. It was more manageable than engraving and allowed greater freedom in drawing the design. For etching, a copper plate is covered with a layer of wax or varnish. The artist incises the design into this surface with an etching tool, exposing the metal surface below, but not cutting into its surface. The plate is then immersed in acid, which etches or eats away at the exposed metal surface. The mediums softness gives greater carving freedom than woodcutters and engravers have working directly in their more resistant media of wood and metal. Prior to the invention of the lithograph in the 19th century, etching offered the greatest subtlety of line and tone.

If Rembrandt never painted, he still would be renowned, as he principally was in his lifetime, for his prints. Prints were a major source of income for him, and he often reworked the plates so they could be used to produce a new issue or edition. This constant reworking was unusual within the context of 17th century print making practices. Christ with the Sick around Him, Receiving the Children (Hundred Guilder Print) is one of Rembrandt’s most celebrated etchings. The title by which the print is best known, Hundred Guilder Print, refers to the high price the work brought during Rembrandt’s lifetime. Like his other religious works, the print is diffused with abiding piety. Christ appears in the center preaching to the blind, the lame, and the young. On the left, a group of Jews heatedly discuss issues among themselves. The central theme her is Christ’s humility and mercy.
Rembrandt's genius is undisputed. He is revered as an artist of great versatility, as a master of light and shadow, and a unique interpreter of the Protestant conception of Scripture. Because of the esteem in which Rembrandt's work is held, his work and style have been the focus of forgers and copyists. To counteract this, a group of scholars has launched the Rembrandt Research Project, whose goal is to provide definitive identification of the hundred’s of works currently attributed to Rembrandt.
Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a portraitist, like Hals, her teacher. She has depicted herself in this portrait as the artist. She allows the viewer to evaluate her skill, which is considerable. Though she painted many subjects, her specialty was genre scenes with a comical image like the one in the portrait. Leyster’s elegant attire distinguishes her as a member of a well to do family.
Dutch Landscape

In addition to portraiture, the Dutch avidly collected landscapes, interior scenes, and still lifes. Landscape scenes abound in Dutch Baroque art. Due to topography and politics, the Dutch had a unique relationship to the terrain, one that differed from those of other European countries. After gaining independence from Spain, the Dutch undertook an extensive land reclamation project that lasted almost a century. Dikes and drainage systems were everywhere across the landscape Because of these efforts, the Dutch developed a direct relationship with the land. The marshy and swampy nature of much of the land made it less desirable for large scale exploitation, so the extensive feudal landholding system that existed elsewhere in Europe never developed in the provinces. Most Dutch families owned and worked their own farms, cultivating a feeling of closeness to the Dutch terrain.

Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) produced works of careful observation and deep respect for and understanding of the Dutch landscape. A Distant View of Dordrecht, with a Milkmaid and Four Cows, and Other Figures, often referred to as The “Large Dort,” reveals Cuyp’S substantial skills. The title indicates the location was important to the artist. Unlike the idealized landscapes in many Italian paintings, this landscape is specific. The church in the background has been identified as Grote Kerk in Dordrecht. The dairy cows, shepherds, and milkmaid refer to a cornerstone of Dutch agriculture - the demand for dairy products such as butter and cheese, which increased with the growth of urban centers.
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-1682) was one of the major Dutch landscape painters. In View from Haarlem from the Dunes at Overeen, van Ruisdael gives the viewer an overarching view of this major Dutch city. The specificity of the artist’s image - Saint Bavo Church in the background, with numerous windmills that refer to the land reclamation efforts, and the figures in the foreground stretching linen to be bleached (a major industry in Haarlem) - endows the painting with a sense of honesty and integrity. Yet this is primarily a landscape painting. The human element is portrayed small and miniscule so as to blend into the landscape. The horizon line is low, so the sky fills three quarters of the picture space. The landscape is illuminated by patches of sunlight braking through the clouds. Van Ruisdael not only captured specific and historic locations in his paintings, he imbued them with a quiet serenity that takes on an almost spiritual quality.
Jan Vermeer

The Dutch were also very fond of interior paintings depicting the lives of prosperous, responsible, and cultured citizens. The best known and highly regarded of these was Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) of Delft. Vermeer derived most of his income from his work and an innkeeper and art dealer. He painted no more than thirty five paintings that can be attributed to him. Vermeer’s paintings were small, luminous and captivating. Flemish artists of the 15th century had also painted domestic interiors, but they were often occupied by those of sacred significance. In contrast, Vermeer and his contemporaries composed, neat, quietly opulent interiors of Dutch middle class dwellings, with men and women and children engaging in household tasks or recreation. These commonplace actions reflected the values of a comfortable domesticity that had a simple beauty.

In The Letter, Vermeer ushers the viewer into a room of a well to do Dutch house. The drawn curtain and open doorway through which the viewer must peer, reinforces the viewer’s status as an outsider and affirms the scene’s spontaneity of the moment. The focus on the women emphasizes her role as the one responsible for the tranquility and order of the home. In The Letter, the woman of the house is not involved in cleaning and child rearing activities; her elegant attire suggests a woman of wealth. He lute playing seems to have been interrupted by a maid, who has delivered a letter. The missive is a love letter; Vermeer includes visual clues that would prompt this inference from a 17th century Dutch audience. The lute was a traditional symbol of the music of love, and the calm seascape on the back wall served as a symbol of love requited. In the book Love Emblems, published in Amsterdam in 1634, the author wrote, “Love may rightly be compared to the sea, considering it changeableness.”
Vermeer was a master of pictorial light. He could render space so convincingly that it appeared that the viewer was looking through a pane of glass at the actual scene. Historians are confident that Vermeer used as tools both mirrors and camera obscura, an ancestor of the modern camera based on passing light through a tiny pinhole or lens to project a image on the wall of a room or a screen. This does not mean that Vermeer simply copied the image. Instead these aids helped him obtain results he reworked compositionally, placing his figures and the furniture of a room in a beautiful stability of quadrilateral shapes. . This gives his design a matchless classical serenity. This quality is enhanced by colors so true to the optical facts and so subtly modulated that they suggest Vermeer was far ahead of his time in color science. Close examination of Vermeer’s paints shows that shadows are not colorless and dark, that adjoining colors affect each other, and that light is composed of colors. Thus he painted reflections off of surfaces in colors modulated by others nearby.
Vermeer’s, Allegory of the Art of Painting, depicts himself and his profession. Vermeer’s back is facing the viewer. He is dressed in historical Burgundian attire and is hard at work on a painting of a model portraying the attributes of Clio, the muse of history. The map of the provinces on the back way serves as another reference to history. The viewer is located outside the space of action. Some art historians have suggested that the light radiating from an unseen window on the left illuminates both the model and the canvas Vermeer is painting alludes to the light of artistic inspiration. The allegorical reading of this painting was affirmed when Vermeer’s window, wishing to retain this painting after the artist’s death, listed it in her written claim as “the piece... wherein the Art of Painting is portrayed.”
Satirizing Dutch Life

Jan Steen (1625-1679) provided a counterpoint to Vermeer’s charm and beauty of Dutch domestic life. The Feast of Saint Nicholas depicted a household scene of Chaos and disruption. Saint Nicholas had just visited this residence, and the children are in an uproar as they search there shoes for the gifts from saint Nick. Some children are delighted, such as, the little girl clutching her gifts refusing to share. Others are disappointed - the boy on the left is in tears because he received a birch rod. A festive atmosphere reigns, which contrasts sharply with Vermeer’s decorum. Steen frequently used children’s activities as satirical comments on foolish adult behavior. The Feast of Saint Nicholas can be seen as alluding to selfishness, pettiness, and jealousy.
Still Life

The prosperous Dutch were proud of their accomplishments and the popularity of still life paintings, particularly images of accumulated material wealth, reflected pride. These beautifully crafted images are both scientific in their optical accuracy and poetic in their beauty and lyricism. Vanitas_Still_Life_by_Pieter_Claesz_(1597/98-1660)'>Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz (1597/98-1660) reveals the pride Dutch citizens had in their material possessions, presented as if strewn across a table top or dresser. This pride is tempered by the ever present morality and humility central to the Calvinist faith. Thus, while appreciating and enjoying the beauty and value of the objects depicted, the viewer is reminded of life’s transience. This reminder consists of references to death. Paintings with such features are called Vanitas paintings; each feature is referred to as a memento mori. In Vanitas Still Life, references to mortality include a skull, timepiece, tipped glass and cracked walnut. All suggest the passage of time or a presence has disappeared; something or someone was here and now is gone. Claesz emphasized the element of time and showed his great skill by including a self portrait reflected in the glass ball on the left. But in an apparent challenge to the message of inevitable morality the Vanitas paintings convey, the portrait serves to immortalize the subject - in this case the artist himself.

Willem Kalf (1619-1693) in his painting, Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, reveals both the wealth Dutch citizens had accrued and the exquisite skills - both technical and aesthetic - of Dutch Baroque artists. Kalf was enamored by the lustrous sheen of fabric highlights glinting off reflective surfaces. His works present an array of ornamental objects, such as Venetian and Dutch glassware and the silver dish. Kalf’s inclusion of the watch, Mediterranean peach, and peeled lemon suggests these works, despite their opulence, served as vanitas paintings. In Still Life, Kalf also highlighted the expensiveness of Dutch Maritime trade through his depiction of the Indian floral carpet and the Chinese jar used to store ginger (a luxury item).
Like still life paintings, flower paintings were prominent in Dutch Baroque art. Because he did not live long, flowers often appeared in vanitas paintings. However, floral painting as its own genre also flourished. Among its leading practitioners was Rachel Ruysch (1663-1750). Ruysch’s father was a professor of botany and anatomy, which may account for he interest in and knowledge of plants and insects. She acquired an international reputation for he lush paintings such as Flower Still Life. In this image the lavish floral arrangement is so full of blossoms they seem to be spilling out f the vase. Ruysch carefully constructed her paintings. Here, she positioned the flowers so that they create a diagonal running from the upper right to the lower left and it offsets the opposing diagonal of the back edge of the table. Ruysch became famous for her floral paintings and still lifes. From 1708-1716 she served as court painter to the elector of Palatine in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Dutch Baroque art has a unique character that sets it apart from Italian Baroque in many ways. The appeal of Dutch Baroque art lies in both its beauty and serenity, as well as, in the insights it provides into Calvinist Dutch life and history.


The history of France during the Baroque period is essentially the culmination of increasing monarchial authority that had been developing for centuries. This consolidation of power was embodied in King Louis XIV (1661-1715), whose obsessive control determined the direction of French Baroque society and culture. Although its economy was not as expansive as that of the Dutch Republic, France became the largest and most powerful European country in the 17th century.

Religious conflicts caused great tension throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. After the Reformation, Protestants in France challenged royal authority, which results in a sequence of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In 1598, King Henry IV (1589-1610), issued the Edict of Nantes, which in effect decreed religious tolerance. Despite this edict, Protestants eventually were driven from the country.
In the early part of the century, the appeal of Rome enticed many French artists to study there. Fascination with both ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance cultures accounted for Rome’s allure. Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), born in Normandy, spent most of his life in Rome. There, inspired by its monuments and countryside, he produced his grandly severe and regular canvases modeled on the work of Titian and Raphael. He also carefully worked out a theoretical explanation of his method, and was ultimately responsible for establishing classical painting as an important manifestation in French Baroque art.
Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (I, Too, in Arcadia, or Even in Arcadia, I [am present]); was informed by Raphael’s rational order and stability and by antique statuary. Landscape, for which Poussin became very fond, provides the setting for the picture. The foreground is dominated by three shepherds, living in the idyllic land of Arcadia, who spell out an enigmatic inscription on a tomb as a statuesque female figure quietly places her hand on the shoulder of one of them. She may be the spirit, reminding these mortals, as does the inscription, that death is found even in Arcadia, supposedly a place of Edenic bliss. The countless draped female statues surviving in Italy since Roman times supplied the models for this figure. The youth with one foot resting on a boulder is modeled on Greco Roman statues of Neptune, the sea god leaning on his trident. The compact balanced grouping of the figures and the light, reserved, mournful, mood set the tone for Poussin’s art in its later phase.
In notes for an intended treatise on painting, Poussin outlined the “grand manner” of classicism, of which he became a leading exponent in Rome. Artists must first of all choose great subjects. “The first requirement, fundamental to all others, is that the subject and the narrative be grandiose, such as battles, heroic actions, and religious themes.” Minute details should be avoided, as well as all “low” subjects, such as genre - “Those who choose base subjects find refuge in them because of feebleness of their talents.” Clearly, these directives rule out a good deal of decorative art, as well as the genre scenes that were popular in the Dutch Republic.
Poussin represents a theoretical tradition in Western art that goes back to the Early Renaissance. It asserts that all good art must be the result of good judgment; a judgment based on knowledge. In this way, art can achieve correctness and propriety, two of the favorite characteristics of the classicizing artist or architect. Poussin praised the ancient Greeks who “produced marvelous effects” with their musical “modes.” He observed that the word “mode” really means the system, or the measure and form which we use in making something. It constrains us not to pass the limits; it compels us to employ a certain evenness and moderation in all things.” Such evenness and moderation are the very essence of French classical doctrine. In the age of Louis XIV, scholars preached this doctrine as much for literature and music as for art and architecture.
Among Poussin’s finest works is Burial of Phocion. As was typical, Poussin carefully chose his subject from the literature of classical antiquity. His source was Plutarch’s Life of Phocion, a biography of the distinguished Athenian general whom his compatriots unjustly put to death for treason. Eventually the state gave him a public funeral and memorialized him. In the foreground, the hero’s body is being taken away, his burial on Athenian soil initially forbidden. The two massive bearers and the bier are starkly isolated in a great landscape that throws them into solitary relief, eloquently expressive of the hero abandoned in death. The landscape’s interlocking planes slope upward to the lighted sky at the left. Its carefully arranged terraces bear slowly moving streams, shepherds and their flocks’ and’ in the distance, whole assemblies of solid geometric structures (temples, towers, walls, villas, and a central grand sarcophagus). The skies are untroubled, and the light is even and revealing of form. The trees are few and carefully arranged, like curtains drawn back to reveal a natural setting carefully cultivated for a single human action. Unlike van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem, this scene was not intended to represent a particular place and time. It was Poussin’s construction of an idea of a noble landscape to frame a noble theme. The Phocion landscape is nature subordinated to a rational plan.
The art of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), was described as a softer version of the disciplined rational art of Poussin, with its sophisticated revelation of the geometry of landscape. Unlike the figures in Poussin’s paintings, those in Claude’s landscape tell no dramatic story, point out no moral, and praise no hero. The often appear as an excuse to do a landscape itself. For Claude, painting involved essentially one theme - the beauty of a broad sky suffused with the golden light of dawn or sunset glowing through a hazy atmosphere and reflecting brilliantly off rippling water.
The subject of his work often remains grounded in classical antiquity, as seen in Landscape with Cattle and Peasants. The figures on the right chat in animated fashion, on the left cattle relax contentedly. In the middle ground cattle amble away slowly. The fore, middle, and background recede in orderliness until all forms dissolve into a luminous mist. Atmospheric and linear perspective reinforce each other to turn a vista into a typical Claudian vision, an ideal classical world bathed in sunlight in infinite space. Even though there are many classical features in the landscape, Claude, like the Dutch painters, studied the actual light and the atmospheric nuances of nature. He recorded carefully in hundreds of sketchbooks the Roman countryside, its gentle terrain accented by stone pines, cypresses, and poplars, and by the ever present Roman ruins. he made these fundamental elements in his compositions. Travelers could understand the picturesque beauties of the outskirts of Rome in Claudian landscapes.
Claude preferred, and convincingly represented, the sun’s rays as they gradually illuminated the morning sky or, with their dying glow, set the pensive mood of evening. He matched the moods of nature with those of human subject’s. Claude’s infusion of nature with human feeling and his decomposition of nature in a calm equilibrium greatly appealed to the landscape painters of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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