Overview of Visual Arts

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of Visual Arts

A Legacy of Technical Achievement.

Increasing technical mastery and experimentation in the visual arts had characterized the three centuries that preceded the rise of the Baroque style around 1600. During the Renaissance, artists had gradually perfected a number of techniques that allowed them to portray the natural world in ways that appeared more realistic than ever before. They had also studied the art of Antiquity, and by 1500 many Italian artists, in particular, worked in a fashion that was heavily influenced by their understanding of a classical harmony and proportion. New media, like oil paints, came to allow later Renaissance artists to portray the world in ways that were strikingly realistic. Thus as the Baroque age approached, Western painters and sculptors inherited several centuries of rising mastery over their craft. This trend provided them with the tools to portray nature and the human with a variety of techniques that increased art's verisimilitude, that is, its ability to mirror the natural world. During the brief period of the High Renaissance, roughly from 1490 to 1520, artists working in Rome and Florence had developed a classical language notable for its finesse, harmonious beauty, and monumental scale. For much of the rest of the sixteenth century, many artists in Italy and Northern Europe experimented with a less serene vision. In Italy, the new style was known as Mannerism, and it produced a highly intellectual and often self-consciously elegant art. In contrast to the standards of balanced and proportional design that High Renaissance masters had favored, Mannerist artists presented the human body in contorted poses with elongated forms. They dispersed the figures in their compositions to the edges of their panels and canvases, subverting the Renaissance tendency to create groupings of figures at the center of a picture. At the same time, the Mannerists evidenced a fashion for difficult to understand symbols and themes. The new style flourished most decidedly in Italy's courts, although the migrations of Italian artists into Northern Europe, and the journeys of artists from the Netherlands, Flanders, Germany, and Holland to Italy, helped popularize Mannerism elsewhere in Europe. Above all, this movement prized artistic creation as an artificial phenomenon, as Mannerist artists came to reject the longstanding Renaissance trend toward naturalism. Instead Mannerist artists and their patrons favored creations that were more beautiful and elegant than nature really was.

Crisis and Renewal.

The sixteenth century, although a time of brilliant cultural achievements in all the arts, was also a troubled era in the arenas of politics, religion, and society. The Protestant Reformation was to tear asunder the more than one thousand years of Christian unity in Western Europe and to initiate more than a century of religious conflict and wars. The church response to this crisis was at first piecemeal but as the sixteenth century progressed, a broad Catholic Reformation gathered increasing strength. At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), Catholic leaders met to answer Protestant charges, and their response was to define the course of Catholicism until modern times. In the final days of the meeting, the church fathers considered the issue of religious art and the role that it should play in the life of the faithful. In contrast to many Protestant leaders who had aimed to curb its uses, the Catholic leadership reaffirmed religious art's powerful role as a textbook for the illiterate. At the same time, Trent's decrees insisted that bishops should carefully supervise the works displayed in churches to insure that they were readily intelligible to the masses. The Council did not formulate clear guidelines concerning what kinds of art were appropriate for use in the Roman Catholic Church, and its pronouncements on the matter were hurriedly crafted. But in the years that followed, two Catholic reformers and bishops, Charles Borromeo of Milan and Gabrielle Paleotti of Bologna, were to work for the reform of religious art in Italy and Europe. The writings of both figures were to have a major impact on the development of early Baroque art. In their writings on the subject, each figure took a slightly different tactic concerning religious art. Milan's bishop, Charles Borromeo (1538–1610), insisted that religious art must have a clear message and serve to educate people in the tenets of the faith. Beyond this, he stressed that paintings and sculpture should stir the emotions, moving the faithful to repentance. As bishop of Bologna and an influential member of the church's hierarchy, Gabrielle Paleotti (1522–1597) was to patronize a group of artists who led a reaction against Mannerism. He found this art overly intellectual and thus too difficult for the average Christian to understand. He insisted instead that religious art's meanings should be more thoroughly didactic, and the styles he favored were more naturalistic and realistic than those generally in fashion in late sixteenth-century Italy. Although he patronized artists who shared his vision, Paleotti grew increasingly pessimistic in the later years of his life about the possibility of a true artistic reform. In the years immediately following his death, though, several artists working in Rome were to lay the groundwork for a new style, helping to fashion a visual language that in some ways mirrored Paleotti's pronouncements concerning art.

The Emergence of the Baroque Style.

In the years around 1600, this extraordinary group of artists created a number of works that were to help to define the new Baroque style. No single path was evident in these works, but instead the art of the developing Baroque evidenced a great variety from the first. In the monumental ceiling frescoes of Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), for example, the new style took a highly dramatic and dynamic turn. Carracci's works were heavily influenced by the tense and muscled figures Michelangelo used to populate the Sistine Chapel ceiling and by the art of the Parman painter Correggio (1494–1534), a figure who had been widely overlooked by Mannerist artists during the sixteenth century. In his ceiling frescoes at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, Carracci attempted to wed the fine draftsmanship that had been typical of Florentine and Central Italian Renaissance masters to the rich use of colors that had flourished in Northern Italy in such figures as Titian, Veronese, and Correggio. In place of the static, harmonious, and highly intellectual compositional strategies of Renaissance and Mannerist artists, Carracci's works suggested swift, dramatic movements and were notable for their appeal to the emotions. A drama of a somewhat different kind was typical of the art of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). Instead of presenting images of idealized beauty like Carracci, Caravaggio painted from life models, immortalizing the typical faces and gestures of the contemporary Roman street. The artist also relied on dramatic contrasts of light and dark in his paintings, using these to capture the excitement of the precise, crystallized moment in which a miracle or religious conversion occurred. In his famous painting of the Conversion of St. Paul (1601), for instance, he showed the exact moment when the apostle was thrown from his horse and blinded by a light from Heaven. Inspired by this unprecedented artistic insight, many Roman painters came to imitate his example, and in the first half of the seventeenth century, centers of Caravaggesque painting soon developed throughout Italy.

Painting in Northern Europe.

The experiments of figures like Carracci and Caravaggio in Italy were also to inspire several generations of painters in Northern Europe, many of whom came to study in Rome in the first half of the seventeenth century. Among the figures that made the journey to the ancient capital were Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641), Georges de la Tour (1593–1653), Claude Lorrain (1604 or 1605–1682), and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). While a few of these masters ended up staying in Italy, most were to return to Northern Europe, where they were to produce stunning masterpieces that forged elements of their own native traditions with the dramatic intensity and monumental style that was becoming ever more pronounced in the Italian Baroque. Of the many masters who were affected by the example of Italian masters, Peter Paul Rubens was to rank among the greatest creative figures of the seventeenth century. Rubens, a Catholic convert from Antwerp, seems to have been initially affected by the art of the High Renaissance as well as the enormous scale typical of Carracci's works and the dramatic immediacy and lighting techniques of Caravaggio and his followers. Returning to his native city, Rubens made these elements his own, forging a style that appealed to the deeply pious churchmen and patrons in his native city. He soon won continental acclaim. Developing a highly successful studio, Rubens was to fill the halls of courtly palaces from Spain to Germany with enormous canvases that displayed a swift brushwork that suggested a hitherto unseen dramatic intensity and sense of movement. Despite Rubens' success in Catholic Antwerp, the artistic excitement his career inspired did not long outlast his death in 1640. Flanders, a region battered by the religious and economic changes of the era, was to fall into a profound and prolonged depression, as artistic innovation shifted northward to the now independent provinces of the northern Low Countries. In Holland, the largest of the counties in the new confederation known as the United Provinces, a commercial market in art was emerging in which art dealers purchased and traded in the works of many masters. Here art was becoming a venerable investment for the first time in European history. Holland and the other members of the United Provinces were Calvinist, and as such, artists working there were to produce few great religious works. During the late sixteenth century, most Dutch churches had been whitewashed and their religious paintings and sculptures had been removed. While some Dutch painters like Rembrandt van Rhijn (1606–1669) were to paint religious works for private consumption and for Catholic patrons elsewhere in Europe, most of the Dutch masters produced portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes of everyday life. Great variety characterized these works' styles, ranging from the free, expressive brushwork and psychological insight of Rembrandt to the spiritualism and faithful realism of Jan Vermeer.

Bernini and Cortona.

As Holland's market in painting was heating up, the Baroque style continued to develop in Italy, entering upon a new phase of complexity and dramatic intensity by the mid-seventeenth century that art historians have long called the "High Baroque." The two greatest artists of this stylistic phase were Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), a universal genius similar to Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, and the painter Pietro da Cortona (1597–1669). Bernini was a master of all the artistic media, but above all an architect and sculptor. With the election of his patron, the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, he began to rise to a favored position among all the artists of the city. From this vantage point, he left an indelible stamp on Rome's cityscape, designing numerous fountains and other public monuments that were to transform the town. The dramatic proportion and energy of these monuments was to be widely imitated, not only in Italy, but also throughout Europe during the remainder of the Baroque period. At the same time that Bernini was completing his many architectural and sculptural commissions, the great Northern Italian artist Pietro da Cortona was completing a series of works that were to inspire many artists over the coming centuries. Cortona's most imaginative creation was a new kind of ceiling fresco in which various scenes were combined into an entire complex whole that stretched across the broad spaces soaring above Baroque palaces. Like Bernini's sculptural creations, Cortona's style of ceiling frescoes found their way to many places beyond Rome, inspiring numerous imitators. Until the eighteenth century, no one came to surpass Cortona's sense of scale, complexity, dramatic energy, or ornamental beauty.

Rococo and Neoclassicism.

The visual language that Baroque and High Baroque masters created dominated painting and sculpture in much of Europe until the early eighteenth century. The style was particularly popular among the many absolutist kings and princes of the era, since the new style's complexity, moralistic themes, and monumental scale could be infinitely adapted to rulers wishing to impress their subjects with images of their power and authority. Around 1700, though, a new, lighter fashion, eventually to be called Rococo, began to appear in France before spreading to other parts of the Continent. The Rococo resulted from a number of complex changes underway in French aristocratic society. In contrast to the grand receptions characteristic of the Baroque court, cultivated Parisian society now came to favor small, intimate gatherings held in exquisitely decorated salons. Patrons commissioned works that treated everyday pleasures for these bright spaces. Artists like Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), François Boucher (1703–1770), and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) epitomized the Rococo's search for an art that was deliberately elegant, light, and beautiful. All three masters were prolific draftsmen and the circulation of engraved copies of their works helped popularize the highly ornamental Rococo style throughout Europe. The imprint of these three artists, too, was to leave its mark on the decorative arts, as the patterns and drawings of each came to find their way onto everything from upholstery fabric to porcelains. Although the Rococo's rise and advance throughout Europe was rapid, it was also uneven. Italy and England proved relatively impermeable to the movement's decorative impulses, while Central Europe and Spain enthusiastically welcomed the new fashions.


While the Rococo's spread throughout aristocratic societies in Europe had been swift, a new fashion for Neoclassicism would supplant its influences in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Rococo had arisen from a number of complex social changes that were transforming life in eighteenth-century Europe. So, too, Neoclassicism arose from a similarly multifaceted mixture of social and intellectual forces. During the 1730s and 1740s, the first systematic archeological excavations of ancient towns began at Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy. These digs were to uncover a dramatically different picture of the art and architecture of Roman Antiquity than that which had been popular throughout Europe since the Renaissance. Through the undeniably beautiful engravings of artists like Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), an appreciation for the standards of ancient design grew among contemporary artists and their patrons. By this time Rome had become the ultimate destination of the Grand Tour, an artistic and cultural pilgrimage that the sons and daughters of wealthy aristocrats, merchants, and gentlemen made as the culmination of their education. In Rome, these tourists came to collect ancient sculpture and decorative arts according to the growing fashion of the time, as well as to patronize the many classically influenced artists working there. Returning home, they continued to indulge their love of Antiquity, a fashion that also fit with the developing intellectual currents of the Enlightenment. In France, England, and Central Europe, the philosophers of this movement recommended the austere severity of ancient art, with its clear, readily intelligible principles of design, as most befitting to societies that were striving to reform themselves according to the demands of human reason. Neoclassicism thus became synonymous in the imagination of the age with the attempt to clear away superstitions and to foster a more logical social order. The style was to leave its largest imprint on historical paintings, a genre that had flourished throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the works of figures like Jacques-Louise David (1748–1825), a new genre of moralistic history painting came to narrate ancient themes in ways that were a commentary on the ills of contemporary life. In the decades after 1760, Neoclassicism's influence came to reshape portraiture, sculpture, and the decorative arts. Yet like the rise of the Rococo, the pervasiveness of Neoclassicism was short-lived, as the faith the movement placed in human reason came to be questioned in response to the cataclysmic events of the French Revolution. Elements of Neoclassicism survived into the first decades of the nineteenth century, but a new fashion for a sentimental and emotional art, a movement that became known as Romanticism, was already beginning to become evident in the final years of the eighteenth century.

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Overview of Visual Arts

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Overview of Visual Arts