You Gotta Know These Baroque Painters
- Caravaggio (1571–1610; full name Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) was an Italian painter who developed a style of painting involving chiaroscuro, or stark contrast between darkness and vibrant light, that was known as tenebrism. One of Caravaggio’s best-known paintings is The Calling of Saint Matthew, in which Christ, who is at the right, points at a group of men sitting at a table illuminated by a shaft of light; scholars have debated whether a bearded man at the table is pointing at himself or at the young man sitting next to him. Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (meaning “Love Conquers All”) shows a naked Cupid trampling musical instruments and a set of armor. Caravaggio led a violent life; he was forced to flee Rome after being sentenced to death for murder. Caravaggio was greatly influential during and after his life; artists who imitated or were influenced by his style were known as “Caravaggisti.”
- Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) was an Italian painter whose work includes numerous biblical and mythical scenes, as well as many self-portraits—including one showing her as Saint Catherine and another showing her at work painting. As a teenager, Gentileschi was raped by painter Agostino Tassi; during the public trial that resulted after her father Orazio (also a painter) pressed charges, Gentileschi testified against Tassi while being tortured to supposedly ensure that her account was truthful. Gentileschi’s most notable works include her depictions of Judith Slaying Holofernes, in which she showed herself as the biblical slayer of an Assyrian general; she may have also painted Tassi’s face on Holofernes. The painting, which was partly inspired by a similar Caravaggio painting, is extremely graphic for its time: blood spurts from Holofernes’s neck as Judith coldly saws through it with a sword.
- Frans Hals (1582–1666) was a Dutch painter who worked in the city of Haarlem, and who created some of the best-known portraits of the Dutch Baroque. Many of Hals’s works are tronies (from the Dutch word for “face”), which are portraits in which the subject has an unusual, artificial facial expression or costume. Hals’s best known painting is The Laughing Cavalier, a 1624 portrait of a man in a wide-brimmed hat and extravagant clothes with an upturned moustache and a bemused expression (notably, the subject of the portrait is not actually laughing); because the subject of the painting looks straight forward, the painting’s eyes seem to follow the viewer. Hals’s other works include a portrait of a Gypsy Girl in a white shirt and red bodice, as well as Malle Babbe, which shows a witch-like folk character holding a stein as an owl sits on her shoulder.
- Judith Leyster (1609–1660) was a painter of the Dutch Golden Age who worked mainly in portraits and genre scenes. Her notable works include The Proposition, an early feminist work in which a woman pointedly ignores a man offering her a handful of gold coins in exchange for sex while she focuses on sewing by candlelight; the footwarmer under her dress indicates she is married and is behaving virtuously. Her Self-Portrait shows her unrealistically in fine dress, working on a canvas showing a man in blue playing the violin. Leyster was married to fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer; after her death, her work was largely attributed to either her husband or Frans Hals. Leyster was not credited as the painter of her works until the late 1800s.
- Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) was a French painter who did most of his productive work in Italy. Poussin’s output mainly consisted of mythical, biblical, and historical scenes. Poussin’s notable works include Et in Arcadia Ego, a pastoral scene showing three shepherds and a woman examining a tomb on which the painting’s title has been carved. The title—a Latin phrase roughly meaning “I am even in Arcadia”—refers to the universal nature of death, and is an artistic memento mori, or reminder of human mortality. Poussin’s mythology paintings include A Dance to the Music of Time—which shows Apollo’s chariot in the sky above four figures dancing in a circle as an elderly representation of Time plays a lyre—and a depiction of The Rape of the Sabine Women.
- Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) was a Dutch painter widely regarded as one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. His The Night Watch is a massive canvas showing a militia company led by Frans Banninck Cocq, who appears at the painting’s center in a red sash; behind Cocq is a woman with a chicken hanging from her belt. The painting was once larger than it is today; it was cut down to fit into a display space, with the trimmed parts lost. Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp shows the title surgeon using forceps to hold up the muscles of an arm for other physicians to see; the corpse being dissected is that of a recently-executed criminal. Rembrandt is renowned for his many self-portraits, both as himself in normal clothing (such as with his Self-Portrait with Two Circles), and as other characters (including as the title figure in The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, alongside his wife Saskia).
- Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was a Flemish painter who also served as a diplomat; his travels on diplomatic affairs allowed him to study art held in many different areas of Europe. Rubens worked in nearly all major genres of painting of his time, including portraits (such as his numerous depictions of his second wife, Helena Fourment), biblical scenes (such as his 1614 Descent from the Cross, part of a triptych), mythological works (such as his The Origin of the Milky Way, a scene also painted by Tintoretto), and various landscapes. Rubens’s Marie de’ Medici cycle is a set of 24 portraits and highly allegorical works showing events from the life of Marie de’ Medici, who was the queen of France, wife of Henry IV, and mother of Louis XIII; the cycle includes The Coronation in Saint-Denis and The Triumph of Truth. Rubens is known for his many depictions of the nude female body in a full-figured, fleshy state.
- Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) was a Flemish painter who created his most recognizable works while living and working in England. Van Dyck trained and worked for many years in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens. In 1632 van Dyck was appointed the court painter to Charles I of England, whom he depicted in numerous portraits, including several equestrian portraits showing the king atop a horse in full black armor. Van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt shows the king leaning on a walking stick and casually looking over his left shoulder while resting his left hand on his hip, next to a horse that is lowering its head. While in England, van Dyck also painted many portraits of English nobility and other court figures, such as his works depicting Henrietta Maria and Princess Mary.
- Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) was the leading Spanish painter of the Baroque era and served as court painter to Philip IV of Spain. Velázquez’s masterpieces include Las Meninas, which shows the Infanta Margaret Theresa alongside her maids, dwarfs, and a dog; the painting also includes a self-portrait of Velázquez, who is at work on a large canvas, as well as the king and queen, who appear in a mirror on the background wall. Velázquez’s mythology-inspired works include the Rokeby Venus (so named because it was first displayed in England at Rokeby Park), in which a nude reclining Venus gazes at herself in a mirror being held up by Cupid. Velázquez also painted The Surrender of Breda, showing the moment after a military victory when the Spanish general Ambrogio Spinola was given the key to the title Dutch city.
- Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) was a Dutch painter who lived and worked in the city of Delft, which he depicted in his 1660 work View of Delft—one of the earliest prominent examples of a cityscape in painting. Only 34 recognized works by Vermeer have survived to the modern day. Of these, likely the best-known is Girl With a Pearl Earring, which shows a young woman in a blue and gold turban looking back over her left shoulder, highlighting the title piece of jewelry; the painting inspired a novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier. Vermeer’s The Music Lesson shows a young girl with her back to the viewer playing a virginal, as a man standing next to her sings. Vermeer’s works have been the subject of theories advanced by artists and scholars, including British painter David Hockney, that claim Vermeer used a camera obscura to assist in painting his works.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.