In Western visual arts, “Baroque” refers to the works of the 17th century, which are all about engaging the viewer with drama, emotion and dynamism.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Tiger Hunt, c.1616, Fine Arts Museum, Rennes
Like “Gothic” before it and “Impressionist” after it, the word “Baroque” was actually first used as a kind of insult. Critics from the 18th century thought that some of the art of the 17th century was too busy and irregular, so they started calling it “baroque,” which referred to irregular pearls. The word is still used by jewelers in that sense today:
Pearl Shapes — Source: shecypearljewelry.com
It is only in the late 19th century that the word “Baroque” stopped being negative and started to describe the art of the 17th century as a whole, which was a period of exuberance and excess after the more orderly Renaissance and the austere Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Baroque style was especially used by the Catholic Church and absolutist monarchs in Europe to show their wealth and power in the most impressive ways.
How do you spot the Baroque in the visual arts? Here are its main characteristics:
- strong sense of movement
- asymmetrical design
- emphasis on diagonal lines
- strong contrast between light and shadow
- use of curves in interior design
- rich decorations
One of the best-known Baroque painters is Peter Paul Rubens, who is famous for portraits, female nudes, and highly dramatic scenes like the tiger hunt above and the hippopotamus hunt below:
Peter Paul Rubens, The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, c.1615, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Others include Georges de la Tour, whose use of chiaroscuro, that is to say a strong contrast between light and shadow, is typically Baroque, along with tension, emotion and drama:
Georges de la Tour, Saint Sebastian Attended by Irene, 1649, Louvre Museum, Paris
Baroque sculptures show the same characteristics, with a lot of tension and movement. Major examples can be found in the works of Bernini, the most famous Baroque sculptor and architect:
Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1620s, Galleria Borghese, Rome — Source: nihilnovum.wordpress.com
Bernini, David, 1620s, Galleria Borghese, Rome — Source: pinterest.com
Bernini also created the main Baroque decorations for the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, including the central baldachin:
Bernini, Saint Peter’s Interior, 1629-1676 — Source: all-free-photos.com
A lot of the architecture and design of the 17th century follows similar rules, with rich decorations showing wealth and power. A case in point is the Palace of Versailles, where the Royal Chapel perfectly illustrates Baroque principles:
Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Palace of Versailles Royal Chapel, built 1684-1710 — Photo by J.M Manaï
By the way, an amazing virtual visit of the Royal Chapel can be found at chapelle.chateauversailles.fr. Give it time to load. It’s really worth it.
So, if it’s from the 17th century or thereabouts and is very dynamic, dramatic and richly decorated, it’s Baroque. If it’s from the 18th century and looks like an extreme version of Baroque, then it’s probably Rococo.