Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.1: Chapter 4 Introduction (1600 – 1700)

  • Page ID
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)


    After the Crusades, famines, and plagues of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period they brought new changes in the possibility of human invention and exploration. By the Baroque period, European societies expanded, conquered other territories, and urbanized cities. The Italian towns acted more like states, led by wealthy merchant family associations and generally linked to the Papal establishment, both actively and lavishly funded artists with generous commissions. By the end of the 1500s, the revolt against the Catholic church's excesses and the upheaval from the success of Martin Luther establishing an alternative religious manifesto led to the Council of Trent by the Catholic church. The council defined new requirements, outlining forbidden books, building new churches, instituting austerity and purity within the church, and starting the Inquisition. The conflict between Protestant and Catholic factions led to turmoil and wars throughout Europe.

    Expanding new territories and markets allowed a wealthy merchant class to progress in the European countries as the primary monetary centers moved from the Mediterranean regions to Europe. Antwerp and Amsterdam became the wealthiest cities in the Netherlands, leading to the Dutch Golden Age, as exotic goods and spices brought by the Portuguese shippers passed through the towns. The Portuguese sent traders to China, establishing contacts with the Ming Dynasty for silk and porcelain. Europe's economic structures were structured on gold or silver. No longer was wealth only existing in the realm of the ruling class; ownership and availability of money also became a part of the burgeoning middle class.

    European art expanded, and private citizens paid artists to paint, sculpt, and weave. Artists no longer worked as individual craftspeople in large workshops; some artists gained fame in their lifetime or recognition through later discoveries. The Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands and Germany changed the ideals of spiritual paintings still found in Italy and Spain. Art was no longer based only on religious concepts; people wanted portraits of themselves or other interesting images. The images of non-religious art also opened the door for female artists to create art about objects they found in their homes. Artists were generally nuns, daughters, sisters, or wives of existing artists. The women had to go around the strict rules imposed on their personal life and artistic paintings. Female artists were supposed to paint portraiture and fruits and flowers. The women frequently disregarded the rules and hid mythological and religious images in self-portraits. This period was when women artists began to develop an emergent role as artists.

    In Asia, landscape ink painting was considered the national art form and was supposedly dominated by male artists. Modern historians found many female artists also helped develop the concepts and forms of landscape painting; however, they needed to be better documented then. In China, men controlled society, and females had a relatively low status. Women were property owned by their fathers, husband, or other male relatives. In the Tang Dynasty, economic and cultural growth brought more freedom, and women began to paint birds or flowers because they were easy to create at home. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, female artists expanded to landscapes and developed different brush and color techniques.

    Light and Dark of Baroque

    Baroque painting was defined by dramatic images of incredible depth from new techniques of chiaroscuro, tenebrism, and sfumato – all methods to manipulate light and dark. Chiaroscuro combined the Italian chiaro, light or defined, and scuro, dark or ambiguous. Artists used light contrasting against dark shadows to develop three-dimensional figures. Tenebrism brought even more dramatic use of light and dark, with a darkness almost the dominant focus of the painting, most of the images hidden with little illumination. Parts of the hands or faces were the significant elements illuminated against the contrast of an exceptionally dark setting, creating vivid and emotional scenes. Initially, religious scenes were the principal use of chiaroscuro; the light was used to illuminate the divinity of Christ. Other artists expanded the concept using shafts of light shining from an unknown source to light elements of the otherwise dark and foreboding scene. Some artists used a visible candle to light and reflect on the figures. The extreme dark depth of tenebrism brought even more drama.

    Because the paintings were made with very dark colors, the method used to apply the underpainting was different. Most artists used middle or dark tones for the base instead of light colors. Paints were applied in thin layers of glazes to build the underpainting, the dark colors requiring many layers to achieve the dimensional effects. "Highlighted areas are very thin and fine. Color applied in thin glazes tends to be clear, luminous, and without brush marks. Shadows and dark colors, however, appear as thickly as built-up surfaces, creating ridges visible in raking light where they come into contact with the delicate light areas."[1] Artists frequently used heavy white impasto paint on the areas to be highlighted, then added dark washes, building layers as needed. Dark heavy brushstrokes in some spaces helped create a sense of tension or movement.

    Interactive Element: The Power of Chiaroscuro

    What is Chiaroscuro and how has it been used in painting throughout history? Chiaroscuro originated in the Renaissance period but is most notably associated with Baroque art. Chiaroscuro is one of the canonical painting modes of the Renaissance.

    Faces in the Dutch Golden Age

    Facial images have existed for centuries as the faces of rulers appeared on coins or the official statuary. The idea of self-images returned during the Renaissance as patrons of the arts wanted their images captured on canvas. During the Baroque period, especially in the Netherlands region, half or three-quarters of facial views were widespread. The new merchant class commissioned their likeness to display at home, while organizations procured group portraits.

    Painting a portrait or self-portrait is complex; the proportions of the face are similar from person to person, yet different. Several unique proportional assumptions are used to paint a face correctly. A person's eyes and ears are generally positioned halfway down the head, and the head is about five eyes wide. The edge of the nose is in line with the tear ducts found in the corner of the eyes. The space between a person's eyes is as wide as the eyes to align the eyes correctly. For most people, the corners of the mouth align with the pupils in the eyes.

    Illumination is an integral part of painting a portrait, where the light originates, how light reflects on the face, where shadows are formed, and how color fluctuates based on light. Light is an essential part of painting a portrait, and the artist must define the shades based on the position of the head. The artist must determine what they will emphasize, what type of lighting will highlight the right parts of the figure and the direction of the light. Essential lighting is generally the first consideration, with light shining directly on the face as the significant illumination point. The fill light is positioned on an angle to balance shaded areas, while the rear light is angled from behind to produce contours or form an outline around the head. The artist must also decide how to highlight the background to create a shadow by the head.

    Still Life in the Dutch Golden Age

    As cities in the Netherlands expanded trade, the wealthy merchant class grew, and cities were urbanized. The desire for still life painting grew, painting new commodities and imports and displaying unusual flowers, foods, or objects, all part of the growing trade. Early works focused on domestic products (butter, cheese, herring, beer) and expanded to include other European products (bread, lemons, oranges, figs, raisins, hazelnuts, and wine). As the Dutch East India Company expanded across the oceans, still life work was structured to include the new exotic products (pepper, spices, tea, salt, tobacco, and porcelain).[2] The still-life paintings illustrate the vast collection of products the Dutch imported and how they displayed their ability to indulge in the products.

    Floral still life painted in oils was popular, frequently combining herbs, flowers, and other plant exotics in an elegant vase or bowl. Each petal, stem, or berry is painted with extensive detail, a drop of dew perched on a leaf or a flower slowly dying and drooping over the vase. The artists used deeply contrasting dark and light to highlight unique colors and flower elements. Artists used small brushes to achieve finely detailed results, sometimes with just a few hairs.

    The concept of a feast or exotic foods became the subject of most still-life artists. The colors and tones of the items were significant; a white or neutral tablecloth might provide the background for the rest of the painting, and glass or metals like silver or pewter vases, bowls, or plates added to the neutrality letting the pile of oranges or the blushing peach shine. The materials used in a painting were carefully prepared. Each specimen was individually arranged on the table to define each element optimally; a bug was sitting on the leaf, a basket of lemons appeared to roll away, or the transparent skin of a melon. Harmony and perspective in the composition were significant; do the grapes appear in the foreground or background, are they hanging or laying, in what direction is the fish laying, and does the eye show or is the fish hanging? Everything was thoughtfully placed.

    Interactive Element: Rachel Ruysch, Fruits and Insects

    Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects, 1711, oil on wood, 44 x 60 cm located in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

    Hand Scrolls in Asian Art

    Hanging scrolls and hand scrolls were common art forms in Asia. Western paintings were made to hang continuously on the wall, and the scrolls are viewed occasionally. A hanging scroll was lightweight and hung on a wall to view the entire painting. The scrolls ranged from 60 to 180 centimeters. Hand scrolls were usually 22 to 35 centimeters high and over 800 centimeters long. They were portable and easy to carry around. The viewer usually opened and unrolled the scroll a portion at a time. The backgrounds or the scrolls were made from paper or silk and painted with water-based inks and colors. The artist has to grind to inks or pigments and create a watery, thin solution. Many artists used the mogu technique for their flower-and-bird paintings. Instead of drawing the lines of an image and then painting, the mogu approach applied color directly and used tiny water droplets to blend the appropriate tones and hues. The style allowed painters to create an image closer to the natural element with proper shading on each petal, leaf, or feather. Hand scrolls also had written commentary as part of the scroll. Friends, collectors, or artists might write a poem or description about the painting, biographical information about the artist, or some historical notation. On the scrolls are personal red seals added by the collector or owner.

    Interactive Element: Ancient Chinese Art

    Maxwell Hearn, the new head of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, demonstrates the ancient art of understanding and appreciating Chinese scroll paintings.

    [1] Barrett, S., Stulik, D., (1995). An Integrated Approach for the Study of Painting Techniques, Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice, The Getty Conservation Institute, p. 8.

    [2] Hochstrasser, J. B. (2007). Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age, Yale University Press.

    • Was this article helpful?