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What is Baroque art?

Baroque originated in Rome and is associated with Counter Reformation

SUPPOSEDLY DERIVED from the Portuguese word for misshapen pearl, Baroque has three current meanings in the English language — to describe the dominant art style in Europe in the 17th Century, as a general label for the period when this style flourished, and to refer to any art form that follows the general principals of the art of the period.

Baroque art originated in Rome and is associated with the Catholic Counter Reformation. Salient features of this art include overt rhetoric and dynamic movement being well suited to expressing the self-confidence of the reinvigorated Catholic Church, grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, vitality, tension, emotional exuberance and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts. The Versailles is perfect example of different artistic disciplines from architecture and sculpture to painting and decoration coming together to create an impressive whole.

The Bulfinch Guide to Art History describes the works of the period when, "reposeful balance is forsaken for dynamic movement and the integrity of individual materials is subsumed into the all-important illusionism calculated to impress upon the faithful the actuality of the spiritual experiences of Catholic saints represented before, above and all around them." The Web Museum lists Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci as the two great figures who stand at the head of the Baroque tradition. They brought a solidity and weightiness to Italian painting. Their work harked back to the dignified and harmonious art of the High Renaissance. However, these masters brought in something totally their own into the works. Carracci brought in exuberance and Caravaggio, physicality. A fusion of Mannerism from which Baroque art borrowed movement and fervent emotion, and Renaissance from which came the solidity and grandeur, this was a new and dynamic art form.

Bernini with his boundless energy and virtuosity was another high priest of Baroque art. With a view to engaging the viewer physically and emotionally, naturalistic illusion heightened by dramatic lighting created an unequalled sense of theatricality, energy and movement. Long files of rooms and extended views through doors and windows were used to create illusions of space. The emotional properties of colours were also used to startling effect, while chiaroscuro was employed for a keen sense of drama.

The Baroque period is divided into three — Early Baroque (1590-1625) ruled by Carracci and Caravaggio, High Baroque (1625-1660) a time that saw international masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez and Anthony van Dyke come to their own and Late Baroque (1660-1725) when Rome lost its primary position to France under Louis XIV. Baroque spread from Rome, flowering in Catholic regions like Flanders (in the work of Peter Paul Rubens), Spain and South America.

Protestant Britain and Holland resisted Baroque — Vermeer and Rembrandt are however exceptions. By the 18th Century, Baroque was replaced by the lighter, decorative and elegant Rocco style.


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