Baroque Art Movement

1600 – 1725

How to identify Baroque art?

1. Landscape paintings (e.g. Sunrise in a Wood by Jacob Van Ruisdael)

Sunrise in a Wood by Jacob Van Ruisdael

2. General Still Lifes (e.g. Still-Life with Fruits, Shells and Insects by Balthasar van der Ast)

Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects by Balthasar van der Ast

3. Still Lifes of fruit bowls (e.g. Still Life by Willem Kalf)

Still Life by Willem Kalf

4. Theatrical light i.e. the dramatic use of light and shade (chiaroscuro) where the painting appears to have a spotlight/shaft of light highlighting a portion it, e.g. The Nightwatch by Rembrandt

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt

5. Paintings show dramatic and emotional moments (e.g. moments of victory or death), e.g. Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio

Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio

6. Sacred figures and saints in biblical scenes and miracles depicted as ordinary people in every-day activities, e.g. Supper at Emmaeus by Caravaggio

Emmaeus by Caravaggio

How Baroque art got its name?

Baroque means irregularly-shaped pearl, derived from barocco in Portuguese, first used during the mid-1700s.
Baroque art does not have any relation to pearls but the word was used as an epithet for a style that did not meet the great artistic standards of the preceding Renaissance era. Regardless of its origin, it carried connotations of “bizarre” and “absurd” when used by its critics who dismissed it as a decadent successor to the revered Renaissance movement. Till the end of the 19th century and occasionally in the present time, some people use this word in its original sense as an insult towards anything they find grotesque or abnormal. For example, a blogger in 2011 harshly criticized the movie Black Swan alliteratively as “bleak, baroque and berserk”.

What gave rise to Baroque art movement? And where?

Superseding Mannerism, Baroque art emerged in Rome, the artistic capital of Europe in the 17th century and spread to other European countries where it merged with local traditions and cultures. Religious paintings continued to predominate but that period also introduced the emergence of non-religious paintings like royal portraits, landscapes, still lifes and paintings depicting private and court life as well as historical events. Royalty and rulers commissioned portraits for displays of grandeur. Non-religious themes became more popular. Seventeenth century’s royalty, aristocrats and other wealthy people were essentially no different from people today, they used the available technology and tools (i.e. paintings and other visual arts) to show off their wealth by hiring artists to paint portraits of them proudly posing and displaying their dress and jewellery. Commissioning an artist to paint an elaborate portrait of yourself in order to hang in your house was a status symbol similar to today’s latest smartphone or cool car.

Next time you see a Baroque-style religious painting, remember that chances are it’s from Catholic Europe (e.g. Italy, France, Spain and Flanders), but if it’s non-religious (e.g. Still Lifes, landscapes and portraits) then it’s likely from Protestant Europe i.e. Holland and England. There are exceptions to this rule because some Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt, chose to paint religious paintings for prospective buyers.

Religion (Sacred vs. Secular)

Baroque art owes its roots to the religious tension that persisted into the 1600s. By then the Catholic Church had lost large parts of Europe where it had ceased to be the Rome-based supreme power, as it was a century earlier. That followed a major revolt by many Christians who “protested” against Catholic traditions and teachings. Later the religious movement was called Protestant Reformation. In Catholic Europe, art’s main purpose was to glorify Catholic beliefs and the Church itself. Hence, in such time of religious conflict, there was no second thought about using art for political purposes, particularly that the Church was the wealthiest and most powerful organization in Europe alongside the European royalty. Catholics alarmed by those attempting to “reform” their centuries-old Church, embarked on a spiritual fight (and at times militant) trying to win back the “lost souls” by any means possible. Dramatic biblical representations in visual ecclesiastical art was one of the easier methods to address and impress the ordinary people as most Europeans were illiterate. The Church was commissioning art with a populist appeal, not for the well-educated elite but for the peasant class. Their artistic “marketing campaign” sought this art style which appeals to people to draw them back to the Church by commissioning artists who portrayed dramatic, vivid scenes of biblical stories, miracles and saints. These commissions initiated the era of Baroque art where it was simply a Catholic Counter-Reformation instrument. That is exactly why it was initially resisted in Protestant countries, but later embraced as a purely secular art, spreading across the rest of Protestant Europe where it became devoid of religious or political messages.

In Catholic churches, since its early history, art served a very high purpose. Iconic images of Christ, or other biblical scenes had always been considered sacred, while in Protestant (Reformed) churches, visual art including paintings, banners, crosses or even occasional sculptures were considered only symbolic or ornamental, and not sacred in themselves. The deeply iconoclastic Protestant Church did not commission art. The lack of approval process administered by bishops, where artists could face the possibility of rejection if their artwork is based on a “false doctrine” left room for artists to break the old rules of visual interpretation


Capitalism had been gaining ground far earlier than the Baroque era, but it developed very rapidly in Western Europe in the 1600s. In Protestant countries, it was aided by Reformation thought that removed the stigma of usury, therefore interest-based money lending was allowed and wealth was seen favourably as a sign of heavenly blessings. Poverty was not a virtue anymore. Hard work and investing to acquire wealth was encouraged, which led to the rise of a sizable middle class in countries like the Netherlands. Note that despite the secularization of culture today, this belief is still at the heart of Western Capitalism, seen by ardent believers as a long-lasting harmonious relation between the Protestant ethic and the free market, both of which emerged almost at the same time and place in history. Some Protestant leaders like John Calvin opposed and removed icons and other images from inside churches, as they were considered idolatrous. It’s no wonder that the free market replaced the Church as the main patron of art. This is the moment when for the first time in Western art history, art became commercially available for purchase and custom orders were on request to virtually anyone. It was the birth of market-driven art business. Although this art movement originated in Catholic Europe (e.g. Italy, France and Spain), it flourished in Protestant countries like Holland. Replace the Church and monarchy of Catholic Europe with the middle class in Protestant countries, you realize a much larger market for art. Unlike Catholic Italy or France, Holland’s rising art market stimulated Baroque painters, increased competition among them and the production of paintings boomed. Art as a business thrived, fierce competition forced prices down, there was no liking for bare walls, ownership of paintings for home décor turned into a fad, houses of the wealthy had up to 100 and sometimes 200 paintings. Art became so popular that it is said that almost every Dutch house had paintings decorating its walls. Historians call the 17th century in the Netherlands, in particular, the Dutch Golden Age for art, trade and science.

The new class of self-made men (middle class) supplanting the aristocracy and the Church as the chief consumers and commissioners of art, weren’t looking for biblical or mythological themes, they wanted to see themselves. Daily life of the ordinary citizen became the main theme, the fashionable artistic topic. Paintings of domestic life, parents, children, animals, housework would feature in paintings, even the most mundane or the unsightly tasks, like:
Interior with a Mother delousing her Child’s Hair [removing lice], known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’ by Pieter de Hooch who was born in Rotterdam in 1617.

As artists were trying to keep up with the market demand, they would let potential customers walk into their studios to watch them at work and to view their paintings. Artists would sell most of their work but keep some masterpieces in the studio to advertise their skills.


Feudalism (9th-15th century) is sociopolitical structure where the king divides up his land among the noblemen (also known as landlords, that’s when this term was first used) who recruited knights to protect the land, and the peasants (serfs). The peasants live on and farm the land (known as the fief or feudum in Latin). This social contract was unfair for millions of families who lived their whole lives in servitude while keeping the bare minimum to themselves. The peasants were often treated as slaves who worked for the landlords in return for protection from outsiders. By the mid-1500s or 1600s, feudalism had almost disappeared from Europe and powerful military nation states were rising under absolute monarchies. In the “good” old days of the dark Middle Ages, a king or a queen from a royal family came to the throne because it was considered a birth right. However an absolute monarchist is a ruler who believes and propagates that their absolute power, is more than a birth right, it’s a God-bestowed (“divine”) right, which worked in their favour since criticism could potentially mean an attack religion. In other words if you utter anything but praise regarding the King, God’s appointed authority, you might be committing blasphemy. The rise of the absolute monarchy filled in the gap left behind with the waning influence of the Catholic Church and the declining feudal nobility. Among the absolute monarchies that appeared in Europe during the 1600s: France (Louis XIV) , Spain (Phillip II), Prussia, a former state in Germany (Frederick the Great) and Russia (Peter the Great followed by Catherine the Great). (Side note: have you noticed that many monarchs seem to have the words “the Great” attached to their names?! I wouldn’t mind such as a label in history books, rather than being forever known as the 16th-century Russian “Ivan the Terrible.”) Economically Capitalism replaced Feudalism, and politically absolute monarchies replaced the weakened feudal monarchies. In many European countries like France, Baroque art played a role for emerging monarchies, where it was used by rulers and aristocrats to display their prestige and wealth. While Baroque art was being used as a tool for propaganda by Italy’s Church of Rome, it was also being used, for similarly propagandistic aims by the European rulers. Louis XIV was a poster child for Europe’s absolute monarchy (pun intended, he actually became a king at the age of 5 years old).

Even though art during the reign of Louis XIV was mainly to glorify him and the state of France, he was also a great patron of art who generously endorsed it. Louis XIV became a symbol of the excess of the Baroque era, personifying France in art, as the head of state in absolute power. He was fascinated by his own image, commissioned 300 portraits of himself. While it’s not unusual for a monarch to commission a large number of portraits, requesting your face to be drawn 300 times is a bit narcissistic! When you’re a politician with plenty of free time, a good portion of it can be spent posing for photographss… or paintings. Immortalized by a probable misquote: “l’état, c’est moi,” (meaning “I am the state”), the self-centered Sun King even commissioned ‘war artists’ to follow him to record and paint his military campaigns. In the pre-photography days, that was the only way to graphically record important events. Louis XIV endorsed art in all forms, paintings, sculpture and architecture. Despite his eccentricities, he turned France into one of the major European centres for art and culture, a status that was maintained till the Second World War.

Philosophy and Science

Among the cardinal Protestant ideals was fostering the autonomy of Christian individuals from the authority of the traditional Church, meaning the Church wouldn’t have to be the one and only intermediary between worshippers and salvation. That concept of spiritual independence was reflected in all aspects of life including art. Expanding knowledge and the new currents of individualism, rationalism and Humanism, as well as the Reformation heralded the intellectual Age of Enlightenment starting in the mid-1600s, then spanned the 1700s and beyond. Their creed was René Descartes’ philosophy: “je pense, donc je suis,” (“I think, therefore I am”). For artists that ideology of individualism meant freedom. Artists moved beyond simply religious or political imagery. Till that point in Western history, art served a clear purpose or had to carry a message, whether it was to teach the public morality, raise the worshippers’ spirituality, record important events, glorify rulers, decorate cathedrals or pompously decorate palaces. As art became independent from the Church’s centuries-old command, that opened the gates of creativity for artists. If I were a Baroque artist, I am now free to create artwork devoid of any humans, I can paint a fruit basket, or trees (a landscape), or go back to religious paintings but portray biblical scenes the way I view them, not the way I’m instructed to view them. That unrestrained creativity pioneered a new concept that was known later in the 19th century, in Théophile Gautier’s words as “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake).

Also by the mid-1600s, the majority of scientists in Europe were Copernicans (a reference to the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus whose shocking yet scientifically-proven theory of 1543 stated that the Earth is not the centre of the universe). Not everyone was ready to give up their geocentric (earth-centered) belief, particularly the clergy. From their viewpoint that meant that humans and their place (planet) in the Universe is not of the utmost significance, a belief held for hundreds of years. Unlike the Catholic Church in its rejection of the recent scientific theory regarding the sun, Protestants slowly started adopting the heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the solar system among other theories of the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and 1600s. The effect of this electrifying scientific theory on art was another reason artists questioned the importance of humans in their artwork. You could see signs of that in landscapes with no human presence or still lifes with mere representation of simple objects.

Rebels of a New Generation

Renaissance art including the Mannerist style that preceded Baroque movement was symmetric and restrained, traditions that were rebelled against by Baroque artists. Some described the Baroque movement as art of the heart, an answer to the Renaissance-era art of the mind. Baroque art was dramatic and emotional, appealed to the public, attempted to get closer to the contemporary viewers, and identified with ordinary people. Taking a different path, unlike the Mannerist generation, Baroque painters portrayed realistic unidealized life in their paintings, stripped from heavenly imagery or mythology, just common people or even at times no people at all (landscapes and still lifes). A Renaissance or Mannerist painter would certainly find nothing spiritual about a fruit bowl. The stiff, controlled, idealized classical forms of the Renaissance era did not change but human emotions were introduced, and they were intense, in a way unseen before. Emotions and dramatic expressions were visible on the faces of subjects in paintings. Breaking with the past, also was the introduction of a heavy contrast between light and dark. Despite the deviation of the new artists from the older traditions, they still did not smash all conventions. There were boundaries to their art that they would not dare cross. For example, painting nude art in puritanical Spain meant you risk excommunication, fine and exile, enforced by the Spanish Inquisition, and any nude paintings were burnt. Italy was an exception as it had been influenced by pagan classical nude sculptures.