The Dawn of the 17th century found Europe wrecked by the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants. The division between the European states brought changes, not only in religion but on many levels of private and public life. Art could not be absent from the radical changes that took place during this century.
Catholicism brought forth the development of a new approach to religious and secular art. The Catholic church launched a new movement of its own during this time. It was called the Counter-Reformation and it affected every aspect of life, including art. The Catholics felt the need to impose their own version of Christianity upon people who were subjects of Catholic kings and rulers. Rome and all the city-states of Italy had a long tradition of Arts and artists who left mankind standing in awe before their masterpieces.
Thus, the Church decided to use Art in order to empower and revitalize the psyche of their people. Baroque was exactly that. A shocking disregard for rules combined with the creation of illusions through the exploitation of light as a special effect, was the new method of the artistic expression in the 17th century Europe.
The majesty that was created through hyperbole in the baroque masterpieces affected and influenced architecture, sculpture, painting and music. Artists would easily use luxury and grandiosity in order to provoke religious wonderment. An excellent example of the use of architecture as a means of religious provocation of awe, was the temple of Gesu in Rome, which was painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709). (Picture 1)
- Triumph of the Name of Jesus (aka Worship, Adoration, or Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus)
A factor that cannot be ignored is that the 17th century was an era of absolute monarchy, a time when the rulers sought out the constant affirmation of their power, by heavily investing in art, despite their religious preferences. Both Catholic and Protestant rulers, hired some of the best painters, architects and composers to create masterpieces, with the hope that by being sponsors of those masterpieces, they too would achieve immortality. Wealth and opulence were now tools in the hand of the artist, which were used to create some monumental temples, especially by the Jesuits, hoping that the flock will be humbled in their sight.
Baroque was exactly the correct artistic expression in the correct moment in history, which is why baroque masterpieces, such as the work of Vivaldi and Bach, are still relevant to this day. Not to mention architectural masterpieces which became landmarks and still provoke shock and awe stemming from their size, their ambiguity and their luxurious madness sometimes, as one may feel in the Chamber of the Mirrors in Versailles.
Baroque in the Republic of Netherlands: The portraits of Rembrandt van Rijn.
In order to understand the evolution of art in Protestant Netherlands, it is crucial to examine the tremendous alternations which took place in Europe after the Reformation. Northern provinces of Netherlands rebelled against the Spanish conqueror Filipe II and in 1566, against the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands segregated from the Catholic South.
The republic, free from the Catholic anchorage, implemented free trade rules and practically created the middle class as we know it today. Merchants were now in the market for a nice portrait by one of the great painters of Amsterdam or Leiden; art was not a monopoly for priests anymore.
Being a baroque artist in a Protestant region though was not an easy endeavor. The animosity against the Catholics affected the artistic expression as well, since protestants rejected the impressive statues and pompous paintings as idolatry.
This new situation practically deprived the protestant artists from their main source of income; the Church was always the major patron of the arts in the world prior to Reformation. Furthermore, some hardcore Calvinists also rejected the luxurious decoration of private residences as well. As a result, the wealthy seculars stopped ordering massive paintings or statues for their homes, being afraid that they would provoke the clergy, which would lead to their depreciation.
The alternative for the protestant artist during 17th century was iconography and of course, luckily for us all, the portraits of important (and in some cases not so important) persons. The first great painter of this era was Frans Hals (Picture 2), who was actually born in the late 16th century, but his most important work took place during the first half of the 17th century. Hals’ portraits were so unique that he quickly gained fame and was soon receiving orders for wedding portraits from the wealthy citizens of Netherlands.
- Frans Hals, Jester with a lute 1620-1625
His technique included, but was not limited to, the use of daylight to depict a moment in time, something like the modern-day screenshot or photograph. A great example of this is his painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, (Picture 3) where the protagonist’s faces are not embellished, but are depicted naturally as the painter saw them. Hals captured the images with a few wet brushes, and he managed to create some phenomenal portraits, which as we said before, looked much like an artistic photographic portrait.
- Frans Hals, The Banquet of the Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company in 1627
However, the painter who astonished the republic of Netherlands, and quickly gained fame over the whole artistic world of the time, was the brilliant genius Rembrandt van Rijn, an artist who stunned the world with his exceptional portraits and paintings. Rembrandt left his hometown Leiden in his mid-twenties and moved to the busy city of Amsterdam, which already had become a trade center, attracting people from every corner of the known world.
One thing is sure about Rembrandt; he despised the embellishment and beautification of his subject. His portraits, and more so, his self-portraits, do not look like a photograph, but they still seem to come alive. The finest examples of Rembrandt’s technique are his self-portraits.
He was not a handsome man; this is universally acknowledged. However, beauty comes from within, as the famous cliché states. The penetrating eyes in Rembrandt’s self-portrait, which he finished in 1658, stun the unsuspecting viewer. It is as if the artist is staring right into his own immortal soul, trying to capture it with his brushes.(Picture 4)
- Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1658
There is an explanation for this obvious disregard of the classicist notion of beauty from Rembrandt. Unlike the other renowned Dutch painter of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt was born and raised in the free North and not in the Catholic South. Consequently, Rembrandt felt free to create his paintings with a realism that had been earlier seen in Caravaggio. The latter was a great influence for Rembrandt and his realistic depictions and disregard for beauty and ugliness can be compared to those of Caravaggio. (Picture 5)
- Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599
If we compared Rembrandt’s portraits with some of the greatest piece of art of all times, we would immediately spot the difference in Rembrandt’s technique. As Gombrich states in his book The Story of Art, even Mona Lisa would stop smiling at some point. When we look at Rembrandt’s paintings, we do not have such thoughts. He has depicted his model in a naturalistic way, without any intention to hide or underline anything.
The viewer’s impression is that they see a person with a whole and complete personality; an ordinary citizen which happened to have a place of power in the Republic of Netherlands and not just a smiling model who is merely a stage presence.
In the 1658 self-portrait, the viewer sees a realistic yet tormented face, someone who is looking back at himself without posture. It’s the genuine gaze of a man who is trying to finish a painting. This is what makes Rembrandt unique, his realistic depiction of faces and sometimes his severe lack of interest for details. They are all ingredients of his greatness.
A classic example of Rembrandts indifference towards details is the portrait of Jan Six, in which he simply left Six’s hand inside the glove just sketched and not painted over. As the artist said, the project is finished when it has fulfilled its purpose. Clearly, if we stare at Jan Six’s portrait, we could not care less about the sketched hand. We have a whole man before our eyes, someone who is slightly annoyed and maybe a bit arrogant, with eyes as real as the viewer’s. This portrait indeed fulfilled its purpose. (Picture 6)
- Rembrandt, Portrait of Jan Six, 1654
There is no need for magisterial gestures or extreme movements in Rembrandt’s portraits. Nor there is a need for theatrical effects or anything like that. He developed a new way of painting faces in his portraits. He used different patterns of light and shadow, rather than just lighting one side of the face and shading the other.
Shadows around the eyes of Rembrandt’s models give a sense of mystery to their expressions. This gives the viewer the remarkable sensation of a living and thinking mind of the person depicted.
Unfortunately, as it is usual for great men, Rembrandt made some poor life choices which brought him financial disaster and in 1669, he died poor and alone. Rembrandt’s work is to this day an object of admiration and this is what many people say makes an artist really great after all, his posthumous fame.
- E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art
- Edward M. Burns, Western Civilizations