The Techniques of Five Baroque Painters
The Baroque era painters, different as they were in terms of personal style, approach, and technique, had in common the ability to imbue their works with a certain dramatic quality much in demand in the era. The Baroque had followed on the heels of the High Renaissance with its humanism and emerging scientifically revolutionary theses. The Protestant Reformation had begun and religious and political wars were raging through Europe. The Baroque style of painting has been linked with the Church's Counter-Reformation, an artistic expression of those mysteries taught by the Church regarding fallen human nature. The word "baroque" means "imperfect pearl" and was applied by later critics, who sought to criticize the artistic works of the period for their elaborate, or excessively detailed, or highly dramatic compositions. It was precisely for these reasons that the Church supported the Baroque painters -- they contrasted with the "rationalism" and "idealism" of the Renaissance that had contributed to the undermining of the Catholic culture that had dominated Europe for hundreds of years. This paper will discuss the works of five Baroque painters -- Rembrandt van Rijn, Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, and Gerrit van Honthorst -- and show how their specific techniques firmly embedded them in the Baroque era.
Herman Bauer notes that Rembrandt "has an illusionistic effect" as though the viewer were present within the scene that Rembrandt paints (29). This effect is particularly sensed in Rembrandt's Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (1662), a collective portrait of the Guild, which commissioned it. The work catches the inspectors in the middle of their task, each of them suddenly looking up at someone or something just past the viewer, almost causing the viewer to want to look over his shoulder to see what it is the inspectors are looking at. It is an example of the Rembrandt style in which the characters in the work become the audience and the audience becomes the subject of the characters' interest. Rembrandt puts the viewer at the center of the work by turning the eyes of the officials on him, thus eliminating the barrier between "real space" and "pictorial space" (Bauer 29).
It is evident in Rembrandt's works that he "received," as Seymour Slive states, "decisive impulses from the Caravaggesque style" (18). Caravaggio, who will be discussed next, was the Italian painter who emphasized the subject of his paintings by casting them in light and surrounding them in darkness. It was a dramatic effect of chiaroscuro at which Caravaggio excelled. Rembrandt's technique does not rely as heavily upon sharp contrasts of light and darkness, but the chiaroscuro effect is certainly discernible in many of Rembrandt's paintings. As Dutch art was influenced by the Italian masters, this is no surprise. However, the fact that the Dutch audience during the Golden Age was of a different temper than the Italian audiences, "necessitated alternative" styles, which might appeal to the new Dutch middle class (Zuffi 14). In Italy, on the other hand, patrons were typically Churchmen or members of the aristocracy -- their tastes much more inclined to embellishment. The Dutch style was characterized by a much more objective quality, which has been called realism, though earlier painters such as Bosch had certainly depicted religious narratives using fantastic imagery. But even his works contain a Dutch quality that is unmistakable.
Rembrandt's themes were diverse, though he has been characterized as a history painter (Johnson 372). He examined Jewish, Christian, and Dutch lives and stories, focusing on real people rather than idealistic beauty (Fuchs 136) as was common in the earlier Renaissance era. His subjects ranged from himself, whom he painted more frequently than any other artist, to locals, to historical persons, to landscapes, collectives, and more. He used the impasto technique with brilliant effect, as though he were sculpting with paint. By layering thick oil paint, which has weighty viscosity and takes longer to dry than acrylic or watercolor paints, on his canvas, Rembrandt could "etch" into the deposit of paint and mold and shape it to convey wrinkles of skin or fabrics or shadows. His impasto method gave body to his works, which allowed them to be more expressive in parts that the painter wanted emphasized. For example, in his Self-Portrait (1659), the artist's face is illuminated in an otherwise muted backdrop. It is as if he is using the relief technique of sculptors to make the face "pop" and stand out more effectively....
The face is certainly what captivated Rembrandt most and it is there that he excelled -- depicting with impasto and chiaroscuro qualities of flesh and fabric that would otherwise be difficult to depict so realistically.
In The Jewish Bride (1667), for instance, Rembrandt couples thick impasto with thin glazes, which make the sleeve of the male in the picture stand out with a particularly 3-D effect. The couple in the painting is brought forward from the backdrop which is again muted with its dark, earthy tones, to allow the contrast of the golden colors of the male and female clothing to appear richer and more vibrant. The action of the painting is localized in the placement of the hands of the couple and expressions of their faces -- a total attitude which is tender, affectionate, loving, and still. Much of this is accomplished with the impasto and glaze technique, while the flat background is only altered by the impasto technique used to create the illusion of depth in the dark green foliage of the houseplant which sits behind the couple.
Rembrandt also used chalk in his impastos to give them more body and to add to the translucency of the glazes. As David Bomford notes, Rembrandt's impastos were crafted out of particular materials which allowed for the heavy passages that he utilized in his paintings. For example, Rembrandt often used lead white or lead-tin yellow. Lead white was particularly useful for Rembrandt's purposes because as it dries, it does not lead to cracking with age, but rather keeps the paint firm but yielding (Bomford 36). This texture of and care for the paint that he used was essentially in the development of his method. Just as a sculptor works with clay and molds his subject from a base, so too did Rembrandt seemingly mold his subject by using denser materials and glazes to give body, volume, flexibility, and a glowing resiliency -- all for an illusory effect, which was like grabbing the audience and pulling them into the framework. The paint literally reaches out from the canvas, and the eyes of the lifelike faces look at the viewer or just past him with an inviting or inquisitive stare.
Rembrandt's technique commands the attention of the viewer because it creates a third-dimensional effect with a two-dimensional medium. Rembrandt borrows from the chiaroscuro method of the Italians but builds upon (quite literally) the way an architect builds upon a foundation. The play of shadow and light is there in a Rembrandt work but the usage of impasto adds a further dimension of reality to the painting by allowing the work to reach out to the audience as well as the artist to etch into the paint, to scratch, lift, sculpt and otherwise manage the oil pigments. The point of this technique is ultimately to catch some spirit in the human actions which he conveys, some aspect of humanity or of the age, the time and place, that speaks to the human soul. This is notable in the illuminated faces, features, dress and settings of Rembrandt's paintings, which illustrate sadness, awe, joy, melancholy and much more.
Caravaggio's technique of tenebrism, which is to seemingly throw a spot of light onto the area of the painting that the artist wants the viewer's eyes to especially notice, is used to great effect in his works. The naturalistic method of this style spread throughout all Europe as it exemplified the method of artwork that the Counter-Reformation supported during the Baroque era. Caravaggio's technique was exceptionally naturalistic -- but also dynamic and dramatic thanks to the chiaroscuro and tenebrism techniques that he adopted so well.
The style of Caravaggio was based partly on his ability to paint quickly using real life models which he recruited from the local streets. Rather than painting in an idealized manner, as other artists do, in order to create an effect of beauty and harmony, Caravaggio effected the Baroque manner by treating of his subjects with a realistic eye for detail. Caravaggio's "vigorous" method of painting in a realistic way, albeit with an eye for the dramatic effect, is what helped make the Baroque era so lifelike and animated (Slive 7). The emphasis was not so much on perfection of form but rather on the accurate representation of mood, of subject, of theme, of reality. The deep and penetrating questions of the time, whether religious, political, or social, were felt in the Baroque style and Caravaggio's technique is what helped lay the foundation for the Baroque…
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