Italian and Spanish Baroque Painting

1. Caravaggio

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul, c. 1601

tenebrism: intense and dramatic use of chiaroscuro, generally with large areas of darkness and an unseen light source

Although similar to chiaroscuro, tenebrism is more dramatic and usually contains areas of chiaroscuro within it. Tenebrist paintings generally have a large area of darkness, and many of the figures in the painting are almost buried by this area of intense darkness. The central figures, however, are set off by a harsh, raking light which is often used to indicate a moment of revelation.

Although Caravaggio is associated with a high degree of naturalism in his paintings, his light is dramatic and symbolic, and in most cases, we can't find a natural source for the light within the painting. The combination of naturalism and symbolism is highly characteristic of Caravaggio's work, sometimes resulting in figures who are less than completely believable, even if the setting or details appear to be very accurate. That difference is especially notable in his early works, before 1600, such as Judith Beheading Holofernes, where Judith is anatomically the least believable figure in the painting.

Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1599

The story of Judith and Holofernes was very popular and had been represented in paintings and engravings since the middle ages.  What changes in some of these representations is the meaning attributed to the story, the degree of violence depicted in the work, and the way Judith is shown. Caravaggio's painting is one of the first to make the beheading explicit and violent, and to show Judith in the act of doing it.

The story: Holofernes was an Assyrian general who laid siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia. The residents were about to give up and surrender when the widow Judith devised an independent plan. Taking her maid Abra with her, she set out for the enemy camp, finds the tent of Holofernes, and says she has come to help him. She tells him that the Israelites cannot be defeated unless they sin against god, but they were about to do so. Therefore, she said, Holofernes should extend the siege a little longer. This he does, and while he waits, he invites Judith into his tent. He plans to seduce her but being drunk, he falls asleep. Judith takes his sword and cuts off his head, gives it to Abra who puts it in a bag of food, and they leave and return to Bethulia. The Assyrians fall apart without their leader and are now defeated by the Israelites. The story is usually considered as an allegory rather than as history.  In some versions, Judith is thought to be the equivalent of Judaism and Bethulia is the House of God.  In other versions, such as that used by Caravaggio, Judith is associated with Mary as the symbol of the church, and Holofernes represents all sinners who can be saved if they choose to repent.  This is the only way to explain the frail and ineffective representation of Judith, in contrast with the image of Holofernes.

The Contarelli Chapel

The first really significant commission for Caravaggio, and a commission which resulted in a considerably more dramatic and innovative approach to religious subjects, was his commission for three paintings in the Contarelli chapel in Rome. The chapel was dedicated to St. Matthew, and the patron wanted paintings of three scenes from Matthew's life. The most important of these is the Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600).
Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Caravaggio: The Entombment of Christ, 1602-4

The Entombment was located directly above the altar with Christ's body parallel to the altar.  As this painting demonstrates, Caravaggio consistently created coarser, less idealized figures than his Renaissance predecessors.  One of the striking features of this composition is the way the artist used two-point perspective to make the slab appear to jut out from the painting, over the viewer's head who would have to be standing in the ground near the place where Christ's body will be lowered. The combination of one and two-point perspective in the same painting is not unique with Caravaggio (recall Aertsen's painting of the meat market), and it becomes more commonplace in the baroque period.

In addition to Caravaggio's influence in terms of tenebrism and the new, unidealized naturalism, we see another theme in his work which characterizes the Baroque era -- a transition from the sacred to the secular. It is intriguing that in Caravaggio, this transition occurs within the context of religious paintings, as the religious painting becomes a painting of "street theater."  In other artists, the transition will be manifested more directly in terms of subject matter, narratives, and the eventual replacement of religious narratives with narratives of secular history and contemporary secular life.

2. Artemisia Gentileschi's Paintings of Judith

Artemisia Gentileschi painted at least four versions of the Judith story.  An important artist in her time, she contributed significantly to the development and spread of the style associated with Caravaggio.  The scandal associated with her may have compromised our understanding of her today more than it did then, given that she did have a lot of patrons who probably did not attempt to analyze her paintings in terms of hidden revenge fantasies. It is only very recently that historians have begun to look at her work in terms of how changes in her style reflected where she was living, her patrons (who did, after all, request the subject), and her own development as an artist.
Gentileschi: Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612-15 Gentileschi: Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1620

Artemisia's first version of Judith bears the influence of Caravaggio's version, but she has placed Holofernes in a more powerless and defeated position.  The dark lighting and realistic expressions, the blood and diagonal movement are similar to the Caravaggio painting although her composition concentrates more on the action, in part through compression of the space.  This brings more attention to Abra and Judith, resulting in less balance between them and Holofernes.  Symmetry, if it exists, lies between the two women because Abra is not a foil here --- she actively participates.  She is close to being a double of Judith and may in fact have been the character in the painting who is closest to a self-portrait.  Judith here is determined and vengeful; if Abra is the self-portrait, as one writer has suggested, it may have allowed Artemisia some psychological safety in her identification.

In 1620, she repainted the decapitation, creating a broader space behind the figures.  Here the blood spurts more dramatically.  This Judith is more mature.  Her sexuality is perhaps more overt but it is not an appeal to the viewer since she stands before us as the woman who has just succeeded in beheading Holofernes.  Judith's appearance is deceptive, and that contrast, between deception and revelation, between appearance and reality, is a theme of this version.  She violates our expectations of women's behavior, but she succeeds in a noble deed.  She is luxuriously attired but engaged in a brutal act and the blood is spotting her dress.  Because the shape of this canvas is closer to square, the sword now appears almost directly in the center and the cross created by its handle cannot be missed.  If this is retribution, it appears to be justified and it carries with it the evocation of Christ's triumph over Satan.

Gentileschi: Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1630-3

In the self-portrait, the artist uses the iconographic description of Painting as a woman with disheveled black hair, a gold chain around her neck, and brushes and palette in her hands to suggest her identification with Painting. The complexity of this pose, requiring two mirrors so that she can show herself from almost a complete profile and in the act of painting with her right hand holding the brush, is not the least of its strengths. The manner in which her body merges with the background in parts of the painting, while in other parts it encircles and absorbs the background, is the real strength. Not only has she shown herself as La Pittura but she has essentially united the painting with herself and herself with the painting.

Artemisia has both benefited from and suffered from the feminist interest in identifying female icons. Reclaimed by feminist art historians, she was initially seen as an example of a woman who had to overcome a misogynist and chauvinist environment in order to succeed. Although there may be some truth to that, it led to a tendency to create moralizing and romantic narratives out of her life (she is the subject of novels and movies) without examining her art. It has only been since the 1990s that art historians have turned their attention to a serious analysis of her art, focusing not only on the subject matter but on the style and execution. Today, we might see her fate as an example of how changing historical paradigms lead to changed understandings of the things we study.

 3. Spanish Baroque: Velasquez

Spanish baroque art has more in common with the Italian baroque than the northern European baroque because of its strong commitment to the Catholic church. As in Italy, this tends to be an art of dramatic and emotional intensity, in its response to the Counter-Reformation and the desire to move people to be more devout. At the same time, however, because King Philip had an excellent collection of art, Spanish artists continued to unite influences from northern Europe with Italian influences, and at this point in time, Caravaggio was the key Italian influence. Caravaggio’s art influenced artists throughout Europe – in Spain, his influence is primarily seen in the tenebrist use of light and the interest in naturalism.
Velazquez: The Water Carrier of Seville, 1619 Velazquez: The Surrender of Breda (The Lances), 1634-35 (10' x 12')

The Water Carrier, done at the precocious age of 19, demonstrates this artist's ability to convey varied textures and the sculptural solidity of objects in his paintings.  The painting also demonstrates the influence of Caravaggio, from the naturalistic details to the dramatic lighting, on his work at this early point in his career.  The Surrender of Breda likewise demonstrates his naturalistic skill but adds another element -- his ability to visualize new forms for old stories.  In this case, Velazquez tells the story of military defeat through the appearance of order in the victors' bodies and lances and the appearance of disorder in the bodies of the defeated.  Their defeated bodies are matched by the plumes of smoke behind them.  This painting also reveals a side of Velazquez we don't often see: the ability to create an extensive and visually absorbing landscape.

Painting the act of making a painting

Velazquez: Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), 1656 (approx. 11' x 9')

This painting has been extensively analyzed by many writers. Some of the features which have been of particular interest are the presence of the King and Queen in the mirror (making a visual reference to Van Eyck's Arnolfini portrait), the presence of the artist himself, in the act of painting and wearing a large key around his neck, and the detailed rendering of the studio in which he's working.  As most people recognize, despite the natural setting, this painting is more than a genre painting.  Traditionally, it has been looked at as a testament to Velazquez's achievement in earning the exclusive right to paint King Philip (signified by the key which gives him access to the King's chamber) and a testament to his attempt to elevate the art of painting to noble status.  Also important to this painting is the canvas on which Velazquez works. Several suggestions have been made as to what he is painting: a portrait of the king and queen, and a portrait of the princess (la Infanta) are two hypotheses.  It is large enough to be the canvas for Las Meninas, so this has been suggested as well.  Given that in the rest of the painting, Velazquez has accurately reproduced the room's dimensions and the paintings and their positions on the walls, he may either be aiming for complete fidelity by suggesting that he is at work on the painting we see, or he may be using the canvas in the painting to communicate the possibility that Las Meninas is a metaphor: a metaphor for art in which the King and Queen not only recognize painting as a noble art but serve as witnesses to their action of doing this, and a metaphor for art-making in which the artist gives us a life-sized reflection of the artist at work.