Baroque Painting: Style, Characteristics & Artists

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  • 2:17 Caravaggio
  • 3:49 Velazquez
  • 4:47 Rubens
  • 5:32 Poussin & Lorrain
  • 6:18 Rembrandt
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson covers the development of Baroque painting as it spread across Europe. We explore the works of Caravaggio in Italy, Velazquez in Spain, Rubens in Belgium, Lorrain in France and Rembrandt in Holland.

Themes of Baroque Painting

As the 16th century drew to a close, a new form of art arose in Western Europe. This new style, called the Baroque, had a profound impact on all forms of art, including architecture and sculpture. Yet nowhere is the Baroque style more evident than in painting.

Baroque painting can be seen as the apex of realism in European art. In the Renaissance, European painters had learned the importance of form and anatomy in representing human figures realistically. Indeed, Renaissance painters were so proud of their accurate portrayal of the human form that their figures almost always took the fore in their scenes. While the background might be detailed, it remained just that - a background.


If the Renaissance painters were obsessed with form and figure, Baroque painters were obsessed with light. It was not just the figures that needed to be realistic, but also their surroundings, as well and their place in the overall picture. Baroque painters supplemented Renaissance perfection of form and figure with an unprecedented consciousness of how light reacts to different materials, different surfaces and in different contexts. As a result, Baroque painters put just as much effort into depicting an accurate landscape or interior scene as they did into creating realistic figures.

Indeed, this emphasis on the background became so popular that some Baroque painters abandoned human figures altogether, focusing entirely on how light played off a bowl of fruit or a landscape at sunset. This exploration of new themes was not limited to backgrounds. As time progressed, Baroque painters were just as likely to paint a scene from Greek myth as one from the Bible, and a portrait was as likely to be a portrait of the artist himself as of his local lord or the Virgin Mary.

So, we've seen some of the major themes of Baroque painting:

  • A de-emphasis of the figure
  • A mastery of light and shadow
  • Realism in all things
  • And new subjects like landscapes, still life and self-portrait

Let us look for these new themes in the works of the great artists of the Baroque.

Italy: Caravaggio

Not surprisingly, the Baroque started out in Rome. The Roman Catholic Church had long been the greatest patron of the arts, and they supported the Baroque style in its infancy. One of the earliest forms of Baroque art was the open ceiling fresco. In this style, the ceiling of a room was painted in such a way that it appeared to be open to the heavens.

In the ceiling of the Barberini Palace by Pietro da Cortona, we see a shift in emphasis from the central figure to the illusory framing that gives the ceiling its depth. This shift in emphasis is even clearer in the ceiling fresco of Sant'Ignazio by Andrea dal Pozzo.


Look at how much time and attention has been put into the architectural elements that border the heavenly theme. Also, note that rather than faces looking down from on high, we see the feet of people ascending upward, who are only occasionally looking down.

Yet though these ceiling frescoes are bathed in rays of glory, the true baroque mastery of light and realism comes to the fore in the canvasses and panels painted by Caravaggio. As Caravaggio and his fellow Italians were right under the nose of the Vatican, it is not surprising that their subjects remained highly religious.

Yet Caravaggio did explore other themes on occasion, as evidenced by his painting Love Conquers All, which shows a winged cupid standing over objects representing all other human endeavors, including warfare, politics and music.


Spain: Velazquez

Though Spain remained a Catholic country, they did not seem to feel so constrained to religious themes. This is most evident in the work of the great Spanish painter Velazquez. In Velazquez, we see the same attention to shadow and light that characterizes the Baroque. Yet the subject matter is much more mundane, like these weavers or this old woman cooking eggs. And in his painting Las Meninas, Velazquez gets truly creative.


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