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4.3: Baroque (1600s - 1750s)

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    Baroque art reflected the social turmoil existing in Europe and the Catholic church's influence, stressing images of intense piety. Artists developed strong styles with dramatic colors, using the effects of light and theatrical physical poses. Baroque art is well-known for the artists who used the techniques of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, creating intense dark spaces punctuated by delicate features.

    The Renaissance focused on classical symmetry, the central thrust of energy appearing in the center, a significant figure contrasted on the left and right. "The whole picture is so planned that the central figure has no counterpart but only favorable contrasts."[1] In Baroque art, contrast became radical; spatial symmetry is broken, becoming asymmetrical. The eye may start at the center and be compelled by the power of asymmetry, then forcefully moved to other sections of the overlapping, twisted figures. The faces of the figures displayed grandiose visions of rapture, bereavement, or mortality. Throughout the centuries, artists have used folded and draped material to create depth, light, and dark. "Yet the Baroque trait twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque folds unfurl all the way to infinity."[2]

    Artists in the Section:

    • Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)
    • Louise Moillon (1610-1696)
    • Mary Beale (1633-1699)
    • Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684)


    Interactive Element: How to Recognize Baroque Art

    Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, dynamism, movement, tension, emotional exuberance, and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.

    Artemisia Gentileschi

    Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was born in Rome, now recognized as the most influential female artist from the Baroque period and one of the most expressive artists of the era. Although few women could become professional artists then, her father recognized her abilities and taught her painter's skills. "By 1612, when she was not yet nineteen years old, her father could boast of her exemplary talents, claiming that she had no peer in the painting profession, which she practiced for three years."[3] The style of Caravaggio had influenced her father's painting, and Gentileschi also learned to work with deep dark colors and illuminated highlights. As her capabilities grew, her father hired the well-known painter Agostino Tassi to further her education. Unfortunately, she was raped by Tassi, who eventually was brought to trial on the charges, an emotionally difficult trial for Gentileschi. During the trial, they used thumbscrews on her to ensure she was telling the truth. After a lengthy trial, Tassi was sentenced to eight months in jail. Many historians believe the rape and trial heavily influenced Gentileschi and how she painted.

    Her father arranged her marriage a month after the trial. Gentileschi and her husband moved to Florence, where she became a successful painter, the first female allowed into the Accademia Delle Arti del Disegno. Instead of focusing on still life or portrait painting, she based most of her work on biblical or historical concepts. After success in Florence, Gentileschi moved back to Rome, successfully painting portraits yet not receiving any profitable commissions based on altarpieces. She also spent time in England, working with other artists who recognized her talents. Throughout modern times, critics have written about Gentileschi's incredible talent, how her female subjects were powerful, rebellious, not timid or weak, her brushwork to be strong and bold, not hesitant, and an artist who fought the prejudices against women with determination and courage. She excelled in the use of tenebrism, contrasting the dark recesses and light areas.

    Susanna and the Elders (4.3.1) was painted in 1610 when Gentileschi was sixteen, a subject painted by other male painters as a classical myth with elaborate settings, attempting to seduce a young girl. However, she treated the subject matter differently, the older men as voyeurs, the horizontal stone wall as the only barrier to a possible sexual assault, and the visceral emotions evident. She painted the girl anatomically correctly with "unflattering details of a woman's body: pendant breast, groin wrinkle, crow's foot wrinkles on her neck and at the top of her right arm, and awkwardly positioned legs."[4] The scene is stark, with only the blue sky and bench as background, the two men hovering over the wall, and the fear on her face as she tries to escape. The painting was completed before her rape by Tassi. Some historians believe Gentileschi may have been harassed earlier. The painting reflects her distress; however, no evidence exists about her feelings.

    Two men trying to seduce a woman sitting on a bench
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Susanna and the Elders (1610, oil on canvas, 173.7 x 121.9 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Artemisia Gentileschi

    You can take a first look at some of the significant loans that will be included in our 'Artemisia' exhibition with exhibition curator Letizia Treves, and Tracy Jones, our Head of Press.

    When women seldom held outside, paid jobs, Gentileschi painted herself in Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (4.3.2), portraying herself as a vigorous and muscular woman, an influential person, holding a brush instead of a sword, presenting herself as the metaphor of painting. Yet, she still displayed principles of the female persona, including the draped golden necklace, unruly locks of hair symbolizing the divine frenzy of an artistic temperament, and drappo congiante, garments with changing colors alluding to the painter's skills.[5] She had been invited to the British court by Charles I and painted her self-portrait there. Her arm creates a solid diagonal line in the composition, the fore-shortened arm bringing a three-dimensional feeling. She appears to be looking at the unknown light source illuminating her face instead of the canvas she is painting. The texture of her silky dress, messy hair, shiny necklace, and smudged hands demonstrates her ability to bring realism to the work.

    In her Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (4.3.3), Gentileschi pictures herself similarly to her other portrait. Lute players were familiar characters found in Baroque paintings. Some believe the painting was a commission for Cosimo II de Medici when she was in Florence. Her clothing reflects the area's trends with the turban, gold embroidery, and sumptuous fabric. Her face is illuminated on one side, enhancing her determined look of strength and capability.

    Self-portrait of the artist painting in a green dress
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638 – 1639, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 73.7 cm) Public Domain
    Self-portrait of the artist in a blue dress playing the lute
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Self Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-1617, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 71.8 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Artemisia Gentileschi

    Tim Marlow briefly introduces Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women who carved out a career in the 17th-century art world.

    Judith and Her Maidservant (4.3.4) demonstrate the influence of Caravaggio's techniques of tenebrism. This painting is a sequel to her work illustrating the moment Judith slays Holofernes. In this work, the maidservant is taking the severed head of Holofernes, wrapping it in a bag as Judith, with a knife in her hand, keeps watch, perhaps hearing a noise as they both appear to hesitate. Gentileschi dramatically uses chiaroscuro techniques, the glow from a candle lighting both women's faces and the front of Judith's golden dress. The deep, dark background of the crimson curtain formed the stage to bring the figures to life in the forefront. The high contrast of the tenebrism from the little light against the darkness creates drama and tension.

    Two women inside a dark room with red drapes with a large knife
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Judith and her Maidservant (ca 1623 – 1625, oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm) Public Domain

    Louise Moillon

    Louise Moillon (1610-1696) was born in Paris and lived in a neighborhood populated by refugees from the Netherlands. Moillon's father, stepfather, and brother were all artists, and she learned painting techniques when she was young. The family brought their interest and concepts of still life painting from the Netherlands, and Moillon developed her style to arrange the objects in her paintings. Moillon became well-known, and the French nobility and King Charles I of England purchased her works. Generally, she completed most of the work before she married in the 1640s and had children. Moillon usually arranged her still life on a table and spread the objects from edge to edge. The backgrounds in her paintings followed the deep dark colors of the Baroque tradition. She contrasted the dark background with warm and cool colors and used light to elevate each object, highlighting the texture and realism of the fruit. Occasionally, Moillon incorporated a figure into her still life, one of the first artists to use the technique.

    Still Life with Fruit (4.3.5) is considered by historians to be one of Moillon's best paintings, created when she was at the top of her career in the late 1630s. The painting has a more complex structure than some of her earlier compositions. The direction of the light and how it was focused on different objects developed the intricacy of the painting. The deep shadows in the background created depth as light developed the chromatic subtlety. Moillon used extra spring produce – artichokes, asparagus, and other greenery, and spring fruit – strawberries, plums, and apricots for the composition. The apricots in the basket contrast the strawberries on the table, pushing them into the foreground because of their arrangement, light, and color. The meticulous detail of all the different greens highlights each type of item. Some dark plums are more visible than others, as Moillon added the reflective light to those in the front.

    Basket of peaches and plums with asparagus and artichokes on the side
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Still Life with Fruit (oil on canvas, 1637, 87.5 x 112 cm) (Public Domain)

    The Market Scene with a Pickpocket (4.3.6) is one of the earliest uses of combining a figure into a still-life scene. Moillon used the ordinary activity of a prosperous housewife shopping for fruit and vegetables. The painting appears to be a snapshot in time, and the figures are part of the still life, frozen in action. The fruit is perfectly placed, the light reflecting color and shape. The detailed baskets demonstrate Moillon's technical ability for precision. In the background, a young street boy steals from her pocket. The vegetable seller can probably see the boy picking the lady's pocket, appearing to make the seller complicit in the theft. The deep, dark background helps conceal the actual boy, only his face and shoulder lighted, his hands almost hidden from sight and what the boy is doing. He is wearing a large hat, easy to pull down and disappear from view.

    Three women in a market stall buying fruit and vegetables
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Market Scene with a Pickpocket (oil on canvas, first half of 17th century, 116 x 165.5 cm) (Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Louise Moillon-Haydn-La Creacion

    The art of Louise Moillon-Haydn-La Creacion set to music with many close-up details.

    Mary Beale

    Mary Beale (1633-1699) was born in England and was a painter and writer. She was considered the most productive female artist in England who painted portraits. Although her father was a church rector, he was considered an amateur painter and probably taught Beale to paint. Beale married when she was eighteen, her husband was a cloth merchant, and they had three children. Beale had no formal training and learned to paint by copying masterpieces she saw. When Beale became successful, her studio became a business with her husband as manager. They performed as equals and partners in the art business, an unusual activity. Beale even used family members as a model, incorporating them into the business. Mary Beale established a thriving portrait studio in London and quickly gained recognition for her talent. She painted portraits of various members of the English aristocracy, including members of the royal family and notable figures from the arts, sciences, and politics. Her work was characterized by its naturalism and attention to detail. She was selective about who she painted; however, she had a good reputation and made enough money to support her family. Beale painted using Baroque standards, and her portraits are known for the deep light contrasts, rich colors, and detailed views of fabric. Her work was praised and panned; color was "pure, natural and fresh" or "heavy and stiff."

    Moll Davis was well-known as an actress and singer in the theaters of England. At one performance, King Charles II of England attended and was enamored with Moll Davis, making her his mistress. Together they had a daughter, and the king gave Davis a house and a stipend for her life. The fame of the actress made her a subject for different artists, including the portrait by Beale. In the painting (4.3.7), the actress sits seductively, her dress casually draped. Beale uses light and dark to build the deeply folded fabric and her attention to how the folds curve and drape. The highly white skin of the subject's torso centers the figure in the dark background. The bench, column, table, and vase are dark in tone to support the figure's vibrancy.

    Mary Beale faced challenges and criticism as a woman working in a male-dominated field. However, her skill and determination helped her overcome these obstacles. She became well-known and respected within artistic circles, and her contemporaries highly regarded her work. Mary Beale's contributions to the art world as a female artist in the 17th century were significant. She paved the way for future generations of women artists and left a lasting legacy as one of the pioneering figures in English portraiture.

    A woman sitting with a brown gown holding a blue blanket
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Moll Davis (1675) (Public Domain)

    Initially, Portrait of a Youth (4.3.8) was considered a poet of the region and later identified as possibly Beale's son. His clothing represents a person at home, unfettered by the layers of restrictive clothing a gentleman was expected to wear when he left home. The dark brown of his gown catches the light and seems to shine against the very dark background. Beale demonstrates her ability to paint textural feeling clothing with folds and creases. His hair is loose and flowing, the length and waves half-hidden by the dark. The youth dreamily gazed to the side as though deep in thought. Beale used browns of all hues and tones; even the skin on the child carries a hint of brown. The brown colors provide tension with each other to be the important one.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Portrait of a Youth (Oil on canvas, 1680s, 638 x 765 cm) (Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Mary Beale

    This McMaster "Museum in a Minute or So" video looks at the art of Mary Beale (English, 1633 – 1699), specifically her oil painting, ‘Portrait of Charles Beale,’ c. 1660—a collection of McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University.

    Josefa de Óbidos

    Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684) was born in Spain and, as a Baroque artist, was considered one of the most prolific. Óbidos grandfather was a painter in Spain, and her, also a painter, father moved the family to Portugal. Her father painted multiple religious images and altarpieces using Óbidos as a helper. She lived in a convent for a while and was educated by the Augustinian nuns. When Óbidos was thirty-one, she received her parent's support to emancipate herself and to control her life independently. (Women at the time were still owned by their parents or husband or lived in a convent.) As an independent painter, Óbidos created several altarpieces, portraits of clients, and still life demonstrating her various capabilities as an artist. She was recognized as one of the most accomplished painters of the time, a recognition occurring when men dominated art.

    Images of the Christ Child were popular among Catholics, and the pictures were familiar in churches, homes, and as gifts. Christ Child as Salvator Mundi (4.3.9) incorporated Óbidos skill with portraits and still life in a religious setting. The term Salvator Mundi meant "savior of the world." The child Jesus holds a staff with multiple symbols of the Passion. The footstool and drapery surround the deep, dark background and are similar to elements in a still life. The chubby baby stands in the center of the painting, its body representing innocence. The translucent gown drapes over his body as the slight folds conceal his genitals. With a crown of flowers in his hair and the strewn flowers at his feet, his arm gesture, and a natural look, the Christ Child appears to be speaking directly to an adoring audience. Óbidos painted several versions of this theme in the latter part of her life.

    A young child with a crown, standing on a red pedestal with drapes held back
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Christ Child as Salvator Mundi (oil on canvas, 1680) (Public Domain)

    Still Life with Sweets (4.3.10) was one of Óbidos' paintings that she made famous in Portugal. The luxurious display of food was unavailable to the townspeople or even Óbidos, who were well off. The painting was probably a commission by a wealthy patron or the imagination of Óbidos idea of a feast. She used different holders for food, pottery, silver, painted metal, and wood. Óbidos used small spots of white across the painting to accent separate sections and foods. The first side has a white cloth punctuated by small white flowers that dance across the top. The silver dish in the center has an upright spoon, bringing focus to the center. An off-white painted metal dish is the most reflective part of the painting, unusually located on the far side. The many types of sweets are exceptionally detailed, some dark and blending into the background.

    Sweet treats in different containers laid out on a table.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Still Life with Sweets (ca. 1676, paint, 80 x 160 cm) (Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Josefa De Obidos

    The art of Josefa De Obidos is set to music with many close-up details.

    [1] Brown, M. (1982). The Classic Is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin's Art History. Critical Inquiry, 9(2), 379-404. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from

    [2] Coppens, J. (2012). Folding Mutants or Crumbling Hybrids?: Of Looking Baroque in Contemporary Theatre and Performance. In Vanderbeeken R., Stalpaert C., Depestel D., & Debackere B. (Eds.), Bastard or Playmate?: Adapting Theatre, Mutating Media and Contemporary Performing Arts (pp. 90-101). Amsterdam University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt6wp64r.9

    [3] Garrard, M. (1989). Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton University Press, p. 13.

    [4] Slap, J. (1985). Artemisia Gentileschi: Further Notes. American Imago, 42(3), 335-342. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

    [5] Garrard, M. (1980). Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. The Art Bulletin, 62(1), 97-112. doi:10.2307/3049963

    This page titled 4.3: Baroque (1600s - 1750s) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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