The Baroque Era (c. 1550-1750ce)

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Unit Four

The Baroque Era

(c. 1550-1750ce)

Lesson Five: Baroque’s Trendy Monarchies - France and England

The Baroque in France and England

In the 17th century, the two most powerful countries in Europe were France and England. Both countries were run by divine-right monarchies, in which the ruler exercised absolute power over virtually all facets of his kingdom. In short, he ruled over law, religion, military, economic policy, and in some cases also set the cultural trends in art and style. While the peasants demanded rights, the nobility flaunted its power and demanded that the people fall in line.

In Lesson Two, we looked at how the French monarchy (notably Louis XIV) used the baroque style of art and architecture to enhance their stately position and present visitors with a sense of awe. The Palace at Versailles just screams with bold staircases, fancy furniture, and intricate gold ornamentation. French Baroque art was just as awe-inspiring, but it used big, open, landscapes and nature as its primary themes. Have you ever gone to one of those “scenic overlook” rest stops on a family vacation, and upon looking at it, it takes your breath away? Same concept here. French artists knew that big nature is more powerful than any earthly king, and painted scenes to depict that.

Since religious art was prohibited in the Puritan churches of England, English Baroque art took the form of portraiture that defined and elevated one’s status in the eyes of others. It was also an outlet for social critics like William Hogarth to speak out against the injustices in society, aiming his barbs at the upper classes in particular.

Nicolas Poussin: A Step Toward Classicism

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Self-Portrait; 1650; Musee du Louvre, Paris

Nicolas Poussin (1593-1663) was the most famous French painter of the 17th Century. His passion for painting was drawn from the Classics of Greece and Rome, which is why he did the bulk of his work in Rome, rather than Paris; it is here where he also established his reputation. The themes of his work also reflect this passion for the classics, as they usually have allusions to Biblical history or mythology. Poussin was a man of contrasts, both sensual and intellectual, who prized order and reason, and tried to blend these ideas into his works. Underlying all of Poussin’s art is the search for ideal beauty and form, which he believed he could reveal through the understanding of reason. Poussin took this “classical rationalism” very seriously. For example, one time King Louis XIV summoned him to Paris to paint a fresco on the ceiling of his palace – Louis wanted to see winged saints flying through the air, which was a stylistic trend at the time. Upon looking at Louis’ plans, Poussin refused to fulfill the king’s request and paint the scene; using his penchant for rational logic, he figured that people (even saints) don’t have wings, thus the figures couldn’t possibly fly and shouldn’t be depicted as such. Needless to say, he lost that commission.

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The Arcadian Shepherds; 1638; Musee du Louvre, Paris

Painted in the middle of his career, The Arcadian Shepherds was created in the most successful part of Poussin’s career. It reveals his desire to balance passionate beauty and dispassionate reason; in this scenic mythological landscape, the group of young shepherds encounters a tomb and now must the rational inevitability of death. The figures are placed in a narrow space, almost as if they are actors on a stage with a landscape backdrop for scenery; their gestures look calculated and posed, and set up to frame the tomb as the key feature. To further emphasize the tomb, the shepherd in blue traces the epitaph with his finger; the message on the tomb is “Et in Arcadia Ego” (even in Arcadia, I {meaning death} am present) – this painting thus becomes a catalyst for an intellectual and poetic discussion on human mortality and the only certainty in life.

Dance to the Music of Time; 1640; Wallace Collection, London

Much of Poussin’s work can be read as a debate on serious moral issues or contemplations. Above is his work Dance to the Music of Time. This small painting was commissioned by Pope Clement IX; before becoming pope, he was a playwright and a philosopher – just the type of guy that would collect Poussin’s work. The painting introduces an intellectual message, mixed with the mythological allegory, appealing to reason rather than emotion. The four figures in the center represent Wealth (in white and gold), Pleasure (in the blue and orange), Industry (the male figure in green) and Poverty (orange dress, yellow turban). All four figures in the circle are holding hands with the exception of wealth and poverty, where wealth is deliberately tantalizing poverty with only a slight touch on the wrist. The baby blowing bubbles from a pipe at the bottom left represents the brevity of life while a greying “father time” (providing the music for the dance) and a baby holding an hourglass look on from the right. They represent death and the inevitability we will all face when the hourglass runs out. There are a number of other symbols that represent time in this piece – how many can you find?

Nicolas Poussin’s major works:

  • Death of Germanicus; 1628; Institute of Arts, Minneapolis

  • Adoration of the Golden Calf; 1638; National Gallery, London

  • Seven Sacraments; 1644; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinborough

  • Rape of the Sabine Women; 1637; Musee du Louvre, Paris

  • Funeral of Phocion, 1648; Musee du Louvre, Paris

Claude Lorrain: Big Time Nature

Sketch of Claude Lorrain, artist unknown

After Poussin, the best known French artist was Claude Lorrain (1600-82). Born Claude Gellee (and known simply as Claude), his surname comes from the Duchy of Lorraine, his native town in France. He was on friendly terms with Poussin and spent most of his life passionately attached to Italy. Claude focused on painting idyllic landscapes and gave them a dreamlike, almost unbelievable beauty. He would spend months at a time living among shepherds, sketching fields and trees, just to capture that indescribable essence of nature. Later he began to incorporate the romantic ruins of Classical Italy into his nature scenes on a very small scale, believing that man’s creations are merely temporary and easily subject to decay over time, whereas nature has a beauty that continues to renew itself eternally. His most noteworthy pictures also include scenes of people interacting with each other, but with the appearance of miniscule guests in Mother Nature’s incredibly large world. Look at the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, shown below, and take note of what truly is the focus of the piece.

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Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah; 1648; National Gallery, London

Clearly, the star of the show is Nature itself. Sure there is a couple getting married, there’s dancing and merriment, etc. but it all appears dwarfed by the awesomeness of nature. Claude uses strong primary colors in their clothing to help the wedding party stand out (it is a Biblical story after all – Genesis 24), but in a way that accents the scenery; Claude uses the people as a tool to draw the viewer’s eye into the wide lake above their heads, up through the tall framing trees, and eventually the viewer is left gazing into the into the distance. Just as in most Baroque paintings, we are also extended an invitation to participate in the scene: Claude seemingly wants us to walk down the highlighted path in the foreground and seat ourselves among the circle of guests, so that we can participate in the joyous occasion while immersing ourselves in the overwhelming nature on every side.

Claude was admired by his contemporaries for his skill at capturing the natural effects of light, which he did with flawless ease. Lengthening the shadows in the foreground makes a subtle contrast with the background, which still has that foggy morning haze present. Claude increases the illusion of distance by using cooler shades of blue in the receding background, which contrasts nicely with the warmer greens and browns placed in the foreground; this natural phenomenon also occurs scientifically - colors lose their intensity as distance increases due to the increasing volume of air between the two points. It’s called “atmospheric perspective.” Who would have thought an artist could get so scientific?

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Mercury Stealing Apollo’s Oxen; 1645; Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome

Claude Lorrain’s major works:

  • Landscape with Merchants; 1630; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

  • Port with Villa Medici; 1637; Uffizi Gallery, Florence

  • The Finding of Moses; 1638; Museo del Prado, Madrid

  • Pastoral Landscape; 1638; Institute of Arts, Minneapolis

  • View of Tivoli at Sunset; 1644, San Francisco Museum of Art, San Fransisco

William Hogarth: The Social Critic

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Self-Portrait; 1757; National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite its incredibly rich history and status the foremost power in Europe since around 1066, England really had a dearth of notable artists. Sure you had famous people painting in England, like Hans Holbein and, um, well…Hans Holbein – but he was a Dutch transplant and not one of the island’s native sons. The list of recognizable names in English painting to this point could be counted on no hands. William Hogarth (1697-1764), however, set out to change all of that.

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An Election Entertainment; 1754; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Hogarth’s lifelong crusade was to overcome England’s inferiority complex with regards to her native artists, and her love affair with the artists of continental Europe. He believed that European artists were too consumed with beautifying the irregularities in regular people and that folks should be shown as is, with all of their hardships and problems on display – after all, who doesn’t like to see other people be more miserable that you? Unfortunately for Hogarth, the answer to that question was “almost everybody” as his style led to very few commissions. There was a silver lining in that, however: since Hogarth struggled at selling his art, it led him to his true calling of creating snarky, satirical prints.

Hogarth invented an entirely new genre for himself that people of all socio-economic classes could understand and enjoy: the comic strip. He started to draw and make engravings of scenes that poked fun at people’s problems, idiosyncrasies, and flawed character traits. His targets were wide ranging and covered nearly all walks of life a (he was an equal-opportunity smart aleck), but among his favorite were the idle aristocracy, corrupt politicians, and the drunken urban worker bees. Newspapers often picked up his works for print, which exposed his “political cartoons” to a much wider audience and gave him a voice to make some serious noise with his works. Through his cartoons, Hogarth sought to expose deplorable working conditions, hypocritical decisions made by politicians, and the unfairness of life wherever he saw it. In some cases, his influence even led to new political legislation by those in power, like the Gin Act of 1751, which was enacted in part thanks to the following two cartoons:


Hogarth used this set of companion prints entitled Beer Street and Gin Lane in an attempt to warn society about the dangers of alcoholism. Hogarth engraved Beer Street (above left) to show a happy London drinking the 'good' beverage, versus Gin Lane (above right) which displayed all of the problems of drinking hard alcohol excessively. People are shown as artistic, fun, and generally healthy living on Beer Street, while in Gin Lane they are sickly, angry, and wrought with problems. The woman in the foreground of the Gin Lane print (the one carelessly taking care of her baby) is said to represent the true story of Judith Dufour, an English citizen who allegedly strangled her baby so she could sell its clothes for gin money. Probably not the best candidate for Mother of the Year.

Overall, Hogarth established a foothold for England’s reputation in the art community, and succeeded in paving the way for the eventual founding of the Royal Academy. Score one for the smart guy.

William Hogarth’s major works:

  • A Rake’s Progress; 1735; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

  • The Shrimp Girl; 1740; National Gallery, London

  • Captain Coram; 1740; Coram Foundation, London

  • An Election Entertainment; 1754; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Thomas Gainsborough: Informally Formal Portraiture

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Self-Portrait; 1759; National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in Sudbury, England, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), grew up wanting to paint. He idolized the works of Anthony van Dyck (remember Lesson Four? Go back and check). By studying the works of the Belgian master, Gainsborough learned how to elongate bodies to make them seem regal, and set them in poses that suggested continued movement and a mere pause in the model’s action. He developed into an incredible portrait artist in his own right, usually having his sitters wear casual, contemporary dress, which echoed his easy-going, laid-back personality and style. Where he differed from van Dyck, however, is that he wanted to branch off from his standard portrait art. Gainsborough also loved to paint landscapes and was fascinated with the many different colors and textures in nature. Problem with that, however, was that very few wealthy people in England shared his fascination and even fewer were interested in buying landscape art. Solution? Combine the two genres by setting your portraits outside, providing a natural and scenic backdrop for your portrait art. Smart thinking.

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Mr. and Mrs. Andrews; 1749; National Gallery, London

In this piece, you can clearly see Gainsborough’s combination of portrait art with the landscape backdrop that we just mentioned. The happy couple is the recently married Robert Andrews and Frances Carter, who were married in Gainsborough’s hometown of Sudbury in November of 1748. This piece was commissioned to celebrate their marriage, and the landscape is recognizably their estate, also near Sudbury. In a way this piece serves as two separate pictures, a double portrait on the left and a landscape on the right, which Gainsborough merges to complement one another: the light blue sky on the right ties to her slightly darker blue dress on the left, and the husband’s light yellow coat and stockings complement the slightly darker yellow field of grain. He also uses symbolism to merge the two sides of this marriage portrait; grain traditionally represents fertility and the well-kept farm is a metaphor for the hard work it takes to keep a marriage running smoothly. There is a traditional, businesslike quality about the couple, which contrasts nicely with the escapist quality of the open field. Overall, it is a beautiful, well-balanced piece of art – it’s no wonder Gainsborough was one of the most sought after painters in England!

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The Blue Boy: 1770; Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California

Thomas Gainsborough’s major works:

  • Lady in Blue; 1770; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

  • Two Daughters with a Cat; 1759; National Gallery, London

  • Johan Christian Bach; 1776; National Portrait Gallery, London

  • The Honorable Richard Savage Nassau de Zuylestein, MP; 1778; Institute of Arts, Detroit

  • Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons; 1785, National Gallery, London

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