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.
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 extravagance—a characteristic evident in both its art and architecture.
While 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 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.
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.”
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.
Like Renaissance statues—including Michelangelo’s iconic David—Baroque sculptures were often intended to adorn stately buildings. They also were commissioned for other grandiose settings, like gilded church interiors and royal gardens.