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9-08-2015, 17:52

Art and architecture

Art and architecture in the seventeenth century is full of the same fascination with the natural world that led to the creation of learned societies and collections of curiosities. Much of it is also a celebration of the power of strong leaders, both secular rulers and church offi cials, who ordered, paid for, and sometimes helped design gigantic paintings and buildings. The word usually used to describe seventeenth-century art, architecture, and music is “baroque,” which may be derived – the origins are debated – from the Portuguese word for a pearl that is deformed and not perfectly round, barroco . The word was fi rst used in the middle of the eighteenth century as a term of criticism to describe art that was exaggerated, emotional, confused, twisted, and theatrical. This baroque style was a decline, in the eyes of its eighteenth-century critics, from the classical forms prized and emulated in the Renaissance and early seventeenth century, and favored again in their own day. Even worse, in some eyes, was “rococo,” a term fi rst coined by late-eighteenth-century artists to dismiss art and architecture from the early eighteenth century that they judged overly fussy, busy, precious, and decorative. Since the words were invented, art historians and cultural critics have debated what was and what was not “baroque” or “rococo,” and whether these terms should be used at all. They still prove useful to describe certain trends and style, however, though they have lost their distinctly pejorative sense; whether you like baroque, rococo, or classicism – or all three – is a matter of personal taste. Art later labeled baroque fi rst appeared in Rome in the late sixteenth century, when the papacy, the Jesuits, and other patrons encouraged art that was more emotional, powerful, and exciting than the orderly and often symmetrical art of the Renaissance. Dramatic art would glorify the reformed and reinvigorated Catholic Church, appealing to the senses and proclaiming the power of the church to all who looked at paintings or sculpture or worshipped in churches. Secular rulers, especially in Catholic Europe, recognized that this grand style would express the authority of the state as easily as that of the church, and built magnifi cent baroque palaces set in elaborate gardens with cascading fountains, trees trimmed into fanciful shapes, and artifi cial grottoes lined with shells, fossils, and other interesting natural objects. Louis XIV’s palace of Versailles (begun in 1661) sits in the middle of just such gardens; it has about 1,300 rooms, including the huge Hall of Mirrors decorated with paintings glorifying the king’s achievements, one of which is the frontispiece in chapter 9 . Baroque architecture was designed with large numbers of columns, sweeping curved forms, and ornate decoration, while baroque sculpture pulls the viewer into the scene with a tremendous sense of movement, strong feelings, and realistic features. Baroque painting tends to display large-scale dynamic forms and intense emotions, with strong contrasts between light and dark (called “chiaroscuro”); the fi gures are often arranged diagonally to heighten the drama. Painters and their patrons in different parts of Europe favored different subjects and styles, however, so that there are striking variations in paintings that are all labeled “baroque.” In Italy, Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573–1610) used people who looked like village peasants or artisans when portraying traditional biblical fi gures, sometimes offending the church offi cials who had commissioned his paintings with these unidealized and unorthodox interpretations. He often cloaked his fi gures in shade penetrated by a bright light from an unknown source, combining this technique – called “tenebrism” – with gestures and facial expressions designed to capture the exact moment of a startling event, such as the conversion of St. Paul or the beheading of John the Baptist. Artemisia Gentileschi (1597–?1651), who learned to paint from her father, was one of the many painters inspired by Caravaggio’s revolutionary vision, frequently portraying powerful biblical or classical heroines at a particularly tense moment. The infl uence of Caravaggio appears in many Spanish painters, including Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), whose intense pictures of meditating monks and saints seem to be both real people and ethereal models to be venerated. Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), the offi cial court painter to King Philip IV of Spain for nearly forty years, also uses dramatic lighting and bold colors in his many portraits of royal family members. Artists working in the Netherlands, especially Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), also showed deep insight in their work, capturing individual personalities often engaged in introspection. These qualities emerge most clearly in the series of about a hundred etched, drawn, and painted self-portraits that Rembrandt made throughout his life, fashioning his visual legacy to match Vasari’s judgment that painters were “rare men of genius.” Rembrandt did not spend all his time gazing inward, however, for he also received commissions for individual and group portraits, primarily from wealthy middle-class urban residents. Rembrandt and his contemporaries, Franz Hals (1580?–1666), Jan Vermeer (1632–75) and others, are often called the “Dutch masters,” most of whom perfected one type of painting, such as portraits, seascapes, still lifes, or the intimate domestic scenes of women reading, children playing, or families eating called genre paintings. Many of these paintings were not done for specifi c patrons, but were sold at fairs or increasingly at the shops of professional art dealers, who produced catalogs describing their wares. Art shops became gathering places for those interested in new cultural forms, and art dealers also bought and sold antiquities and imported artifacts along with locally produced paintings, prints, and drawings. In the eighteenth century, reproductions of famous works, offered at a price middle-class people could afford, were sold in shops in every city, while lesser-known artists sold their works at street fairs and markets. In terms of reputation and commissions, the most successful seventeenth-century artist was Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), who used every square inch of his gigantic canvases to glorify royal power when his patrons wanted this. His paintings of events from secular and Christian history and from mythology are crammed with writhing muscular men, fl eshy semi-nude women – a body type later dubbed “Rubenesque” – and chunky smiling cherubs, even when the main subject is a saintly miracle or a royal wedding. Rubens ran a huge workshop, and his pupils and assistants did much of the actual painting after the master had designed the composition and provided oil sketches as models, with Rubens returning at the end to add a line or spot of color here and there. Rubens oversaw the mass-production of prints and tapestries based on his paintings, organized pageants in which his paintings served as backdrops, and served as a diplomat in warring post-Reformation Europe. After one of these missions – to Madrid trying to broker a treaty between Spain and England – he was knighted by Charles I of England. Among Rubens’s many apprentices was Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641), who became the court painter to Charles I. Van Dyck’s elegant and refi ned portraits of the royal family set a pattern for fl attering portraits of the wealthy and powerful, later followed by the English painters Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) and Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), two of the founders of the Royal Academy of Arts. By the end of the seventeenth century, Paris began to rival Rome and Amsterdam as an artistic capital. Though in terms of scale Louis XIV’s architectural projects are often seen as baroque, in terms of style Louis favored a slightly more restrained look that became known as classicism, typifi ed by the dignifi ed, serious mythological and biblical scenes of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). After Louis’s death in 1715, however, French aristocrats decorating their houses in Paris and villas in the country increasingly favored the light, delicate, and highly ornamented style later called rococo. They painted interiors and exteriors pink, yellow, and aqua, adding embellishments made of plaster, shells, and artifi cial marble. For the walls they purchased paintings of games, shepherdesses, or couples courting, lighthearted subjects of which Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) was the undisputed master. From France, rococo spread to southern Germany and Austria, where palaces, churches, and even monasteries were built in this intricate style, with mythological goddesses mixed in with Christian saints. Rococo never became very popular in England or Italy, where architects and sculptors – and their patrons – continued to prefer more classical styles, taking their inspiration from the sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80). Palladian style, also called neo-classical, used simpler forms such as the square and circle rather than curves and swirls, and favored white rather than the bold colors of baroque or the pastels of rococo. (The preference for white was in part an imitation of classical statuary, which was dug up in great quantities after the discovery of the buried Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the middle of the eighteenth century. We now know that most classical statuary was originally brightly painted.) Neo-classical buildings and statues appeared in country houses and city squares in Britain, and then in other countries of Europe and the British colonies as well. White domed and pillared neoclassical buildings form the heart of Washington DC today, and many North American government buildings have also been designed in this very familiar style.