Chapter 54

Secular matters of the global baroque

This second chapter devoted to the baroque explores how secular works engage with historical, social, and artistic transformations in a global context.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas presents us with an apparently candid snapshot of daily life at the Spanish court, where one of the various European monarchies exerted political power through the absolute power of the King. The monumental painting combines many pictorial genres at once, some of them developing specifically in the baroque period. What we call the “baroque” is an art historical period and style spanning the 17th and most of the 18th centuries that originated in Europe but can be seen throughout many parts of the globe—developing into what some consider to be the first truly global style. As a result of colonization, the spread of Catholicism, and trade, materials, objects, and artists moved across distant geographies yet were more interconnected than ever before. 

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Las Meninas is partially a royal portrait—notice how princess Margarita looks out as if posing in the center of the composition—but also a genre painting. The figures go about their daily business in a domestic interior (the Alcázar palace in Madrid)—from the sleepy mastiff in the foreground, to the menina (or lady-in-waiting) who is offering the princess a small búcaro, an earthenware container that was popular in Spain and was frequently represented in still life paintings. Believed to have been produced in Spain’s American colonies, this búcaro connects to two other baroque developments: colonization and globalization. With vast territories across the globe, Spain was one of the European imperial powers (others included Portugal, England, and the Dutch Republic) exploiting Indigenous populations and their wealth on other continents. 

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

But there is more: behind the canvas of which we can only see the back, a painter—Velázquez himself—holds a brush and a palette while looking out at the viewer. What is he looking at? We will never know, but we are led to believe that the king and queen of Spain—conveniently reflected in the mirror behind the figures—are outside of the picture plane, an extension of the remarkably credible space depicted in the painting that ultimately makes us (viewers like you and me) participants of the scene. For the trick to work, Velázquez used a number of visual strategies, including, but not limited to, the combination of scientific and atmospheric perspective, the alternation of loose and fine brushwork, and multiple sources of light. Because of the complexity of the painting’s composition and the variety of actions depicted, some scholars think that we should also consider Las Meninas a history painting—the most prestigious of the genres at the time for its focus on human figures acting out edifying narratives from mythology, history, or religion. Velázquez’s self-portrait, which draws our attention to his authorship, reminds us that beyond all the political, economic, and social issues at play here, artistic experimentation, recognition, and identity are fundamental aspects of this painting and baroque secular (non-religious) art more generally.

In this second chapter devoted to the baroque, you will learn about secular works which, like Velázquez’s Las Meninas, engage with historical, social, and artistic transformations in a global context. 

Read an essay and watch a video that introduces the baroque

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

The Global Baroque: The forms and surfaces of Baroque artworks from across the globe reflect the Baroque styles’ countless permutations, as well as the overlapping histories and cultural encounters of those who created and enjoyed them. 

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Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8″ / 318 x 276 cm (Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid)

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas: This puzzling painting about painting is half genre scene, half family portrait. But what’s on the large canvas?

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The Lure of (Greco-Roman) Antiquity

Peter Paul Rubens, The Consequences of War

Peter Paul Rubens, The Consequences of War, 1638–39, oil on canvas (Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

Despite traditional misconceptions that regarded the baroque as inherently anti-classical, baroque artists and patrons were deeply interested in Greco-Roman classical antiquity. For artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Nicolas Poussin—with their arduous study of classical sculpture, their interest in neo-stoicism, and erudite iconographies drawn from mythology and classical texts, knowledge of ancient art and ideas was part of their cultivated artistic identity.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Saint John on Patmos

This landscape evokes the classical world not only through the theme of Saint John the Evangelist (born in 10 C.E.) on the Greek island of Patmos while clad in a classical toga, but also through the rigorously structured and idealized landscape filled with ancient ruins. Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, 1640, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 136.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

One outcome of the period’s interest in antiquity was, paradoxically, the development of new pictorial genres. Descriptions of ancient Greek and Roman paintings of landscapes, still lifes, and tavern scenes were known through ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder, and baroque artists intentionally took on these genres to emulate—and hopefully surpass—their ancient counterparts.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622–25 (Galleria Borghese, Rome; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne directly relates to antiquity in its subject matter and medium: figures from Greco-Roman mythology are carved in marble, the preferred material for ancient sculpture, and portrayed with classically inspired, idealized beauty. Still, Bernini goes beyond the classical model to produce a work that is truly baroque in its dynamism, virtuoso skill, and in how it involves the viewer.

Watch videos about the lure of antiquity

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, 1640, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 136.4 cm (39-1/2 x 53-5/8 inches) (Art Institute of Chicago)

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Saint John on Patmos: The view was probably familiar to Poussin who lived and worked in Rome most of his life.

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Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne: Commissioned by cardinal Scipione Borghese for his private villa in Rome, Bernini draws on antiquity to create something new.

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The Impact of Science

Galileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius (in Paltheniano: Prostat Francof, 1610), pages 18–19 (Yale University Library)

Galileo’s astronomical treatise included his observations of the moon, which he was able to do with the use of a telescope. Galileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius (in Paltheniano: Prostat Francof, 1610), pp. 18–19 (Yale University Library)

What did baroque artists and scientists have in common? A lot, actually. Within what is sometimes called the “scientific revolution” of the 17th century—a process of scientific development that brought important changes in astronomy, research approaches, and life sciences—artists played a part as they shared similar interests, working methods, and even spaces with scientists. As places of experimentation, artist’s workshops were much like laboratories where the properties of materials (such as pigments) could be tested, the effects of light rehearsed, and nature closely observed and replicated. 

Discoveries such as Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric, or “Sun-centered,” system formulated in the 16th century, fundamentally changed people’s outlook onto the world as it challenged the notion that the earth (and by extension, everything living on it) was the center of the universe. With the help of a recent Dutch invention, the telescope, in the early seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei expanded on Copernicus’s theories, observing that the earth was not the only planet with satellites, and that the moon—previously believed to be a smooth surface—was jagged and rocky.

Left: Jusepe Ribera, Sense of Sight, 1615-16, oil on canvas (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City); right: Ludovico Cigoli, Assumption of the Virgin, 1612, fresco (Pauline Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy)

Left: Jusepe Ribera, Sense of Sight, 1615-16, oil on canvas (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City); right: Ludovico Cigoli, Assumption of the Virgin, 1612, fresco (Pauline Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy)

Two early baroque works, Jusepe Ribera’s Sense of Sight and Ludovico Cigoli’s Immaculate Conception, are among the earliest representations of a telescope and a cratered moon, and reflect how quickly these developments were assimilated by artists.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620–21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy; photo: Steven Zucker, CC-BA-SA 2.0)

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620–21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy; photo: Steven Zucker, CC-BA-SA 2.0)

Artemisia Gentileschi successfully applied Galileo’s theory of projectile motion to her credible depiction of emanating blood in Judith Slaying Holofernes, which represents the Assyrian general being beheaded by the biblical Judith.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660–61, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 117.5 cm (Mauritshuis)

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660–61, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 117.5 cm (Mauritshuis)

Other optical instruments, such as the microscope, promoted the close observation of even the tiniest of creatures of the natural world, while the portable camera obscura offered unexpected effects that painters (such as Johannes Vermeer) tried to emulate. It was through these investigations that the boundaries between art and science were sometimes blurred.

Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects, detail

Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects, 1711, oil on wood, 44 x 60 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

For example, Rachel Ruysch’s still lifes are informed by her experience at cataloging and recording rare natural history specimens with her father, who was an eminent scientist and professor of anatomy and botany. These examples by Ruysch and Gentileschi challenge assumptions about science during this period, revealing that women artists were aware of the latest scientific discoveries and actively participated in the empirical investigation of nature.

Read and essay and watch a video about the impact of science

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes: It strikes its viewers with both revulsion and awe at the skill of the artist who so convincingly transformed paint into blood.

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Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects, detail

Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects: No wonder Ruysch treats each element of this still life like a scientific specimen—her father preserved insects.

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Picturing the Everyday

Diego Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville, 1618-22, oil on canvas, 105 x 80 cm (Apsley House, London, England)

In this painting, drops of water form on the surface of the large jug in the foreground, and the waterseller is clearly figured after a real life model. Diego Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville, 1618–22, oil on canvas, 105 x 80 cm (Apsley House, London, England)

During the baroque period, artists, patrons, and audiences had an unprecedented interest in the everyday, whether it was popular types usually not included in grand historical narratives, opulent domestic interiors, or even landscapes or cityscapes with tiny figures going about their daily business. The period’s general interest in naturalism helps to explain this new artistic focus, and one of the main characteristics of these daily scenes is precisely their appearance of reality. Take, for instance, Diego Velázquez’s Waterseller of Seville, a painting which focuses on one of the most humble occupations one could have in 17th-century Spain. Velázquez has painted every surface and figure with utmost naturalism. Yet, Velázquez’s painting is full of learned references that betray its highly constructed and artificial nature. Moreover, despite its humble subject matter, this painting was intended for a highly educated elite audience who appreciated it for its novelty, contrived illusionism, and wit.

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670–75, oil on canvas, 55.5 x 62 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

In this cityscape, the bleaching fields, the oversized church, and the windmills in the distance reflect the Dutch pride in their land and their prosperity after their independence from Spain. Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670–75, oil on canvas, 55.5 x 62 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

In the Protestant Dutch Republic, paintings of daily life often carried political connotations. Being predominantly Calvinist, the Protestant Dutch rejected the use of religious images in worship, and as a consequence, Dutch artists specialized in other genres such as portraits, landscapes and cityscapes, still lifes, and domestic interiors. Moreover, having achieved official independence from Spain in 1648 (unofficially since 1609), the Dutch developed nationalistic sentiments that appear reflected in their pictures. Cityscapes and landscapes like those by Jacob van Ruisdael demonstrated the pride in their land and cities.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, oil on canvas, 42.5 cm × 38 cm / 16.7" × 15" (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Here, the painter affords us a glimpse of a lavishly dressed woman caught in a moment of daily life—she is holding a balance over a table loaded with pearls and other jewels. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, oil on canvas, 42.5 cm × 38 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Pictures of orderly wealthy domestic interiors such as Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance were among the most popular types of pictures in the Protestant Dutch Republic—the virtuous home echoing the ideals of the state as a whole. In the competitive world of Dutch painting, Vermeer’s pictures stood out for their painting technique and their subtle play on conventions. Like other Dutch painters—including Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, and Gerard ter Borch, among many others—Vermeer pictured idealized women in idealized homes, but he went beyond by portraying these women with an unprecedented degree of self-possession and introspection.

Watch a video and read an essay about picturing the everyday

Diego Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville, 1618-22, oil on canvas, 105 x 80 cm (Apsley House, London, England)

Diego Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville: For a minute we may think that Velázquez saw this happening on a hot summer day in Seville and painted it on the spot, but nothing could be further from the truth.

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Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664 - detail

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance: Like Velázquez’s picture, Vermeer’s painting has been carefully planned out: the woman stands in front of a picture of the Last Judgment, suggesting a moralizing meaning.

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Global Treasures at Home

Today we are used to going to the grocery store and finding foods from everywhere in the globe. Our clothes, furniture, and tech gadgets are also likely made in places far removed from our city, country, or even continent. But did you know that globalization was already a thing in the 17th century? Regions as far away from each other as Mexico and Spain, Brazil and the Dutch Republic, or Portugal and China were connected through webs of colonization, evangelization, and trade. Among other things, these global connections meant that natural and human-made objects traveled and ended up in the households of (usually wealthy) people across the world.

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Chinese Bowl, Nautilus Cup and Other Objects, 1662, oil on canvas. 79.4 x 67.3 cm (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Chinese Bowl, Nautilus Cup and Other Objects, 1662, oil on canvas. 79.4 x 67.3 cm (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Take for instance Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Nautilus Cup, one of the best examples of the so-called pronkstilleven (sumptuous still lifes) produced in the Netherlands in the second half of the 17th century, after their official independence from Spain. Here, a lemon and an orange from the Mediterranean share space with a Persian carpet, a Chinese Ming bowl (perhaps filled with sugar), and a Nautilus cup made of a mollusc native to the south-west Pacific but often found in the Indonesian archipelago, near the Spice islands, and mounted with silver or gilt silver by European goldsmiths. The Dutch acquired these goods through the Dutch East and West India Companies (VOC and GWC), which monopolized trade (including the slave trade) with Eurasia and Southern Africa and with West Africa and the Americas respectively during much of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that a wealthy merchant associated with these companies may have once owned such a picture. 

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with Ebony Chest, 1652, oil on canvas, 80 x 94 cm (The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Antonio de Pereda’s Still Life with Ebony Chest is a similar work from Spain. Here, the context is aristocratic, and the objects depicted all revolve around the ritual of drinking chocolate—a luxury food from Mexico that Mesoamerican cultures used in religious rituals. Mexico was then one of Spain’s many colonies and was central to the Manila Galleon trade route, a route that Spain maintained from 1565–1815 to bring Asian goods across the North Pacific from Manila in the Philippines to Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico). 

One of a pair of lidded and mounted bowls, late seventeenth century. Japanese porcelain and English gilt-bronze mounts, 13 9/16 x 15 x 10 1/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.DI.178.1. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Manufactured in Arita (Japan), this lidded and mounted bowl would have traveled across the world for over a year, stopping in Batavia (today’s Jakarta, in Indonesia), which was occupied by the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.), and ending in Amsterdam or London, where it was embellished with elaborate mounts. One of a pair of lidded and mounted bowls, late seventeenth century. Japanese porcelain and English gilt-bronze mounts, 13 9/16 x 15 x 10 1/16 in (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Other objects, from gilt-bronze mounted Japanese porcelain bowls to folding screens, similarly showcase the extent at which certain global objects constantly moved and transformed as they entered different geographic and cultural spaces across the globe. 

Read essays and watch a video about global treasures at home

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with Ebony Chest, detail, 1652, oil on canvas, 80 x 94 cm (The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with Ebony Chest: A still life of global dimensions.

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Pair of lidded and mounted bowls (on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in 2012), late seventeenth century. Japanese porcelain and English gilt-bronze mounts, each 13 9/16 x 15 x 10 1/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.DI.178

A pair of gilt-bronze mounted Japanese porcelain bowls: They imitate Chinese porcelain for export in Southeast Asia, West Asia, Western Europe, and the Americas.

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Folding Screen with the Siege of Belgrade (front) and Hunting Scene (reverse), c. 1697-1701, Mexico, oil on wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, 229.9 x 275.8 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

Screen with the Siege of Belgrade and Hunting Scene (or Brooklyn Biombo): This folding screen reinterprets a Japanese folding screen to divide areas within a Spanish colonial home, and reminds us that Asian goods often entered the Americas earlier and with far more intensity than they did in Europe during this period. 

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Portraying Political Authority: Likeness and Allegory

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Philip IV, 1623, oil on canvas, 61.9 x 48.9 cm (Meadows Museum)

In this portrait, Velázquez conveys the majesty of Philip IV through the accuracy of his likeness, the overpowering presence of his enlarged body, and the strength and distance of his impassive demeanor. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Philip IV, 1623, oil on canvas, 61.9 x 48.9 cm (Meadows Museum)

One of the most significant political systems of the baroque period was the absolutist monarchy—a form of government in which the monarch claimed to be divinely ordained to exercise absolute authority over their subjects. Spain, Portugal (after its independence in 1640), England, and France (among others) all had absolutist rulers who considered portraiture the most effective visual means to establish their divine claim to power. Not unlike the portraits of our political leaders today, portraits substituted for the real ruler as they were displayed in institutional buildings, sometimes (as in the case of large empires like Spain) across the globe. These royal portraits had to fulfill a dual function: they needed to offer accurate portrayals of the ruler’s likeness while, at the same time, conveying the concept of the state and the dynasty they represented. Above all, these portraits had to transmit the ruler’s majesty, an ineffable quality supposedly inherent to the royal body that artists often translated into images of impassiveness, distance, bodily strength, and self-control. 

Left: Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt, c. 1635, oil on canvas, 2.66 x 2.07 m (Musée du Louvre, Paris); right: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701, oil on canvas, 9’2” x 6’3” (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)

In Charles I at the Hunt, Anthony Van Dyck omits the traditional regalia (crown, scepter, ermine, orbe, etc. as they appear in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous portrait of Louis XIV of France) and presents us instead with a dashing (and distant-looking) dandy who stands cooly in a landscape setting, taller than anyone else and with his prominent elbow intruding the viewer’s space. Left: Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt, c. 1635, oil on canvas, 2.66 x 2.07 m (Musée du Louvre, Paris); right: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701, oil on canvas, 9’2” x 6’3” (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)

Although today we may appreciate some level of spontaneity and facial expression (including smiles) in portraits of those in power, in the baroque period such an image would have conveyed weakness and inability to control others. Different rulers devised specific ways to convey their majesty.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622–1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622–1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre)

In The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici—part of the first European pictorial series dedicated to celebrating the deeds of a female ruler—Peter Paul Rubens has the main Gods of the Olympus (Jupiter and Juno) oversee the presentation of her portrait to Henry IV, an allegorical (but at the same time quite literal) way to evoke the idea of divinely inspired rule for a controversial regent queen in need of extra pomp.

Rembrandt, Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh, known as the Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands). A more accurate title, one that is in keeping with the naming of other contemporary portraits of this type is the “Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh.”

Rembrandt, Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh, known as The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

In the Northern Netherlands, it was the Regents—upper-middle-class individuals from the cities—who controlled the government of the Republic. Collective, rather than individual, authority was therefore emphasized in works like Rembrandt’s celebrated Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh, known as The Night Watch, an unconventional Militia group portrait commissioned around 1640 for the banquet room of Amsterdam’s new Musketeers Hall. In this work Rembrandt combined portrait, allegory, and history to portray the idea of collective civic pride and duty.

Watch videos and read essays about portraying political Authority

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt: Despite having dismounted, the king he exudes strength.

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Marie de’ Medici, Henry IV, Hymen, and Amor (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622–1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici: A portrait of Marie attracts the king’s gaze.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq), 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Rembrandt, The Night Watch: An unconventional group portrait commissioned for the banquet room of Amsterdam’s new Musketeers Hall.

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The Spaces of Secular Power

Vue du château de Versailles depuis le par, 1664-1710

Versailles was a significant model for many other European baroque palaces, such as the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna or the Peterhof Summer Palace near St. Petersburg. Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre, and Charles le Brun, Château de Versailles, 1664–1710, France (photo: Marc Vassal, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The baroque period was a time of fervent palace building as absolutist regimes across Europe needed grand spaces to glorify their rulers and perform court rituals. Following ancient architects, absolute monarchs embraced the ancient notion of princely magnificence as a desirable and necessary virtue. In practice, magnificence translated into expensive and sumptuous displays of wealth through rich materials, monumental scale, and allegorical symbolism. The most famous and influential of these palaces was undoubtedly the Château de Versailles, begun in 1661 under Louis XIV of France in the outskirts of Paris. Extending across sequences of vast classicizing buildings and gardens, Versailles was a visual representation of the grandeur of the French monarchy. Every space in the palace complex was precisely orchestrated around the princely ceremony and etiquette surrounding the figure of the King, who fashioned himself as the Greek Sun god Apollo. 

Emanuel de Witte, The courtyard of the Beurs in Amsterdam, 1653, oil on panel, 49 x 47.5 cm (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Emanuel de Witte, The courtyard of the Beurs in Amsterdam, 1653, oil on panel, 49 x 47.5 cm (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

But there were other spaces for secular power beyond royal palaces. While Louis XIV and his courtiers staged the spectacle of court society, in Amsterdam, wealthy merchants and brokers from around the world traded goods, currency, and stocks in the newly built Exchange building, a symbol of the incipient system of capitalism (as represented in the painting by Emanuel de Witte). 

Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, c. 1695, oil on canvas (Corsham Court Collection, Wiltshire)

Commissioned by viceroy Gaspar de Silva, Count of Gelves and aiming to impress audiences in Spain, the painting focuses on New Spain’s amazing wealth and abundance, visible in the multitude of peoples of diverse social status and ethnic backgrounds strolling through the market. Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, c. 1695, oil on canvas (Corsham Court Collection, Wiltshire)

Similarly, in Mexico City’s main square or Zócalo, peoples from around the globe purchased exotic goods in its Parián—a large market that was one of the main centers for transpacific trade in the world. The constant influx of global goods allowed New Spain to be one of the most cosmopolitan societies of the baroque period.

Read essays about the spaces of secular power

Garden-facing windows parallel mirrors in the Galerie des glaces (Hall of Mirrors), Palace of Versailles (image: Wikimedia Commons, Myrabella CC BY-SA 3.0)

Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre, and Charles le Brun, Château de Versailles: More than anything else, Versailles was meant to emphasize Louis’s importance.

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grid-cristobal_villalpando_plaza_mayor

Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City: Merchants brought goods from across oceans to sell to the residents of the city in the Parián of Mexico City—a place that Cristóbal de Villalpando’s captures in a painting.

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Baroque Artistic Identities: Self-Portraiture

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Two Circles, c. 1665, oil on canvas, 114.3 cm high and 94 cm wide (Kenwood House)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Two Circles, c. 1665, oil on canvas, 114.3 x 94 cm (Kenwood House)

The baroque was a significant period for the development and display of artistic identity. In Las Meninas, Velázquez looks out at the viewer while holding a palette and a brush, proudly showing off his activity of painting. By the end of his life, Rembrandt similarly pictured himself holding a palette, brushes, and a maulstick in a striking self-portrait against two circles. 

Left: Clara Peeters, Still Life with flowers, a silver-gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruit, sweetmeats, bread sticks, wine and a pewter pitcher, 1611, oil on panel, 52 x 73 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid); right: Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1633, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Left: Clara Peeters, detail showing the artist’s self portrait in a reflection, Still Life with flowers, a silver-gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruit, sweetmeats, bread sticks, wine and a pewter pitcher, 1611, oil on panel, 52 x 73 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid); right: Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1633, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Although there was a significant number of female artists across Europe in the baroque era, the Low Countries were particularly welcoming to women artists, many of whom proudly showcased their artistic identity through self-portraits. Since the 16th century, female artists often portrayed themselves at the easel, in the act of painting. Clara Peeters did so through self-reflections cast on metal surfaces within her still lifes. In her Self-portrait, Judith Leyster expands on this tradition of female self-portraiture by appearing unusually relaxed and confident as she holds a brush in front of one of her merry companies (the figure’s smiley face echoing that of Leyster), the genre that made her famous. 

Anthony van Dyck, Self-portrait with a Sunflower, 1632, oil on canvas, 58.4 x 73 cm (private collection)

Anthony van Dyck, Self-portrait with a Sunflower, 1632, oil on canvas, 58.4 x 73 cm (private collection)

Artists did not always display the tools of their trade however. In his Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, Anthony van Dyck looks out at the viewer while holding a gold chain that his patron, king Charles I of England, gifted the painter in recognition for his work—Van Dyck’s social status and his connection to royalty are given prominence over his activity as painter, reflecting how baroque painters struggled to have their art recognized as an intellectual, rather than manual endeavor.

Read an essay and watch a video about self-portraiture and artistic identities

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, detail

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait: Here, Leyster cultivates confidence in her abilities.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Two Circles (detail), c. 1665 - 69, oil on canvas, 114.3 cm high and 94 cm wide (Kenwood House, public domain)

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles: Rembrandt’s enigmatic self-portrait is an apt example of the artist’s long career in self-exploration.

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Images of Colonial Life

Starting in the 15th century with the Portuguese colonization of the Atlantic islands of Madeira, Azores, and Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, European powers including Portugal, Spain, the Dutch Republic, and England started a process of colonization of non-European territories that brought about tremendous changes to the lives and environments of Indigenous peoples. Cultures were destroyed, new systems of belief and political authority were imposed, labor was forcibly exploited, and an entirely new colonial reality was established. For example, after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, the Spanish crown colonized a vast portion of the Americas, establishing a series of Viceroyalties in which a viceroy directly appointed by the king, and alternated every few years, acted as his representative. Many viceroys commissioned artworks offering idealized views of the order, diversity and prosperity of colonial life, such as Cristóbal de Villalpando’s View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, commissioned by viceroy Gaspar de Silva, Count of Gelves.

Melchor Perez de Holguin, Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosi, 1716, oil on canvas, 240 x 570 cm (Museo de América, Madrid)

Melchor Perez de Holguin, Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosi, 1716, oil on canvas, 240 x 570 cm (Museo de América, Madrid)

Melchor Pérez de Holguín’s Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosí depicts a romanticized view of the viceroy’s triumphal entry in Potosí (in today’s Bolivia), one of the wealthiest cities in the Viceroyalty of Peru, the result of rich silver mines exploited by the Spanish. Like Villalpando’s View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, it uses visual strategies to create the effect of reality, and, in a rare instance of self-portraiture in Spanish colonial art, Pérez de Holguín (a mestizo artist) includes himself in the middle of the composition, lending veracity to the scene. 

Andries Beeckman, The Castle of Batavia, c. 1661, oil on canvas, 151.5 x 108 cm (Rijksmuseum)

Andries Beeckman, The Castle of Batavia, c. 1661, oil on canvas, 151.5 x 108 cm (Rijksmuseum)

In the Dutch context, it was the commercial Dutch East and West India Companies that led the colonization of territories across the world, from Brazil and Surinam in South America, to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, and Japan in Asia. Despite political differences, images produced in the Dutch and Spanish colonial contexts share similar features. For example, Andries Beeckman’s The Castle of Batavia depicts the effects of colonization in Jakarta (Indonesia’s capital), including the transformation of its name to Batavia and the building of an imposing fortress for the Dutch to exert their colonial authority. It emphasizes harmonious diversity and bounty over the realities of exploitation, enslavement, and unrest—and is just as idealized as the examples produced within Spanish colonies. The brutal realities of colonization are similarly removed from many other artworks included in this chapter—from Kalf’s sumptuous still lifes to the painting with which we started, Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

Read essays about images of colonial life

Detail of the artist and his signature, Melchor Perez de Holguin, Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosi, 1716, oil on canvas, 240 x 570 cm (Museo de América, Madrid)

Melchor Pérez de Holguín, Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosí: Pérez de Holguín creates an opulent vision of the city of Potosí, disregarding the infamous stories of poverty and exploitation in the mines of the Cerro Rico.

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grid batavia 2

Andries Beeckman, The Castle of Batavia: This landscape painting with the so-called Castle of Batavia (in what is today Jakarta, Indonesia) highlights Dutch prowess and strength during their ascension to colonial power in the seventeenth century.

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Key questions to guide your reading

What was the appeal of Greco-Roman antiquity, and how did baroque artists transform it in their works?

How did artists incorporate the scientific developments of the 17th century within their artistic practice?

What were some of the social and political connotations of representations of the everyday, including in European colonies?

How does art from this period reflect the movement and transformation of global objects across the globe?

How was political authority conveyed in portraiture and architecture? How did artists transmit their own artistic identity during this period?

Jump down to Terms to Know

What was the appeal of Greco-Roman antiquity, and how did baroque artists transform it in their works?

How did artists incorporate the scientific developments of the 17th century within their artistic practice?

What were some of the social and political connotations of representations of the everyday, including in European colonies?

How does art from this period reflect the movement and transformation of global objects across the globe?

How was political authority conveyed in portraiture and architecture? How did artists transmit their own artistic identity during this period?

Jump down to Terms to Know

Terms to know and use

Absolute power, absolutism

Baroque

Biombo

Genre scene

Manila Galleon trade

Portrait

Pronkstilleven

Self-portrait

Still life

Learn more

Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, “The Global Lives of Things: Material Culture in the First Global Age.” In Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello eds., The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (Routledge, 2015), pp. 1–28.

Byron Hamman, “Interventions: The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay.” The Art Bulletin vol. 92, issues 1/2 (2010), pp. 6–35.

Helen Hills, “The Baroque: The Grit in the Oyster of Art History.” In Helen Hills, ed. Rethinking the Baroque (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 11–36.

Collaborators

Cite this page as: Dr. Carmen Ripollés, "Secular matters of the global baroque," in Smarthistory, August 22, 2022, accessed October 3, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/reframing-art-history/global-baroque-secular-matters/.