Exploring the Extravagance and Drama of Baroque Art and Architecture

Baroque Period Baroque Art Baroque Sculpture Baroque Painting

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Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, European artists and architects adopted an increasingly elaborate style. Known as Baroque, this approach is characterized by an ornate, over-the-top aesthetic that evokes ethereality and aims to inspire awe.

Today, the Baroque period remains one of the most celebrated cultural movements in western art history. Here, we take a look at this flamboyant style, exploring the history and evolution of its exuberant art and architecture.

 

What was the Baroque period?

Named after barroco—a Portuguese term for an irregularly shaped pearl—the Baroque period is defined by the grandeur and opulence of its art and architecture. With roots in Rome, the movement spread across Italy and other European countries between 1600 and 1750, becoming particularly popular in France, Spain, and Austria.

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Painting

Nicolas Poussin, ‘A Bacchanalian Revel before a statue of Pan' (ca. 1632-1633) (Photo: The National Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

 

What are the major characteristics of Baroque art?

Baroque art and architecture tend to be incredibly extravagant and exhibit movement, tension, emotion, and dramatic use of light and shadow.

As the Baroque period overlapped with the Italian Renaissance, it is not surprising that the two movements shared some stylistic similarities. Both Baroque and Renaissance artists employed realism, rich color, and religious or mythological subject matter, while architects working in both styles favored balance and symmetry. What sets the Baroque style apart from its Renaissance counterpart, however, is its lavishness—a characteristic evident in both its art and architecture.

 

Baroque Art

 

Painting

While the subject matter and even style can vary between Baroque paintings, most pieces from this period have one thing in common: drama.

In the work of well-known painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, an interest in drama materializes as intense contrasts between beaming light and looming shadows.

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Painting

Caravaggio, ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew ‘ (ca. 1599 or 1600) (Photo: Ibiblio via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Painting

Rembrandt, ‘The Nightwatch' (1642) (Photo: The Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Baroque artists like Gentileschi, Poussin, and Rubens achieved a heightened sense of drama through movement. Often, this action-packed iconography was inspired by tales from the bible and stories from ancient mythology.

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Painting

Gentileschi, ‘David and Goliath' (ca. 1605-1607) (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

In addition to energetic compositions, Rubens captured drama through his rich and radiant color palette. “Rubens avoided painting in such a way that the color sank in. The luminous clarity of his work was proof of the excellence of his technique,” artist Max Doerner explains in The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting. “His colors had so much brilliance and binding medium within themselves, that, like Van Eyck‘s pictures, they had a gloss without needing to be varnished.”

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Painting

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Samson and Delilah (ca. 1609-1610) (Photo: The National Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

 

Sculpture

Figurative bronze and marble sculptures produced during this period depict an interest in dynamism. Through swirling silhouettes, twisted contours, and flowing drapery, sculptors like Bernini were able to evoke movement. Added elements like water fixtures often enhanced this theatrical approach.

Bernini, Bernini, Apollo and Daphne

Bernini, ‘Apollo and Daphne' (1622-1625)

Like Renaissance statues—including Michelangelo's iconic DavidBaroque sculptures were often intended to adorn stately buildings. They also were commissioned for other grandiose settings, like gilded church interiors and royal gardens.

Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Bernini, ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa' (1647–1652)

Apollo's Fountain

Charles Le Brun, The Fountain of Apollo in the Gardens of Versailles (1668-1671)

 

Baroque Architecture and Interior Design

Interiors

Similar to art of the era, Baroque interiors conveyed an interest in over-the-top grandeur. Furniture and other decorative art objects frequently featured scrolling—a patterned design reminiscent of spiraling foliage—and other elements inspired by the natural world. Similarly, putti—Cupid-like figures—often adorned tapestries and ceiling paintings.

Baroque Interior Design Baroque Architecture Baroque Period

Interior of Herzogenburg Abbey Church, Lower Austria (Photo: Uoaei1 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

Baroque Interior Design Baroque Architecture Baroque Period

Interior of the Schaezlerpalais, Augsburg, Germany (Photo: Adam63 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

As expected, the materials used to craft these interiors exuded luxury, as evident in the “rich velvet and damask furnishings and gilt-wood and marquetry furniture” (Victoria and Albert Museum) often found inside palaces.

dibs!

The Dauphin's Bedroom in the Palace of Versailles

 

Exteriors

Baroque architecture is also characterized by ornamentation. Often, the façades of Baroque buildings are adorned with intricate relief carvings, gilded accents, and columns—namely, Solomonic columns, whose corkscrew aesthetic was favored by architects from Spain to Austria.

DSC04039 (explored)

St. Charles Church, Vienna (1737)

Architects all over Europe also topped many Baroque basilicas, churches, and other edifices with domes. Besides oval domes, which were erected all over the continent, the preferred style of domes typically varied by region, with onion domes prevailing in Central Europe and bulbous domes proving popular in Germany.

Above all else, Baroque architecture conveyed a preference for balance.

Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano e Colonna Traiana, Roma

Dome of Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano Church, Rome (1736-1751)

 

Legacy

Though the Baroque style emerged centuries ago, it remains one of the most beloved movements in art history. Whether gazing at a priceless collection of paintings in the Louvre or throwing a coin in Rome's popular Trevi Fountain, the lasting legacy of Baroque art and architecture is as obvious as its opulence.

Baroque Art Baroque Period Baroque Sculpture

Nicola Salvi, The Trevi Fountain' (1732-1762) (Photo: RoyFokker via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

 

This article has been edited and updated. 

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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