The seventeenth-century ushered in the great age of Baroque. Artists turned away from the intellectual and abstract qualities of sixteenth-century Mannerist art, believing it restricted expression and removed art from the common experience. They wanted a more direct, simple, obvious, and dramatic means of artistic expression—one that involved the spectator and had direct reference to nature and feeling. Artistic masters such as Caravaggio
, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt
led the Baroque movement, and helped turn this era into one of the great periods of European culture.
During this period, the Roman Catholic Church encouraged the arts community to center their work around religious themes that invited the viewer to invest his or herself into the underlying message of the piece. Artists responded with powerful images and a loud presentation that intended to rope the viewer in and hold his attention. This formed the basis of the Baroque aesthetic, which boasted an exuberance and splendor of artistic production. All the devices—realism, the use of viewpoints on a level with the subjects, the concentration of the figures in the immediate foreground, the avoidance of background recession, the dramatic lighting—were all aimed at making the subjects appear physically present to the beholder. Baroque artists believed that such intense emotional expression would give place to a graceful idealism.
Baroque transitioned into Rococo in the eighteenth-century with no distinct break in continuity, but rather a change of emphasis from the grandiloquent and splendid to the light and delicate. Generally lacking the intense religious emotion and drama of the Baroque, the Rococo aimed above all to please. The Rococo itself had been a natural reaction against formality, blatantly ignoring the haughty principles and demands of Church and State. First emerging in France, this artistic movement reflected the very progress and status quo of the country. France had turned away from imperialistic pursuits and became a land of peace, economic recovery, and epicurean life. In art, the creation of a new style mirrored this change in politics and values.
Rococo characteristics appeared first in the decorative arts, but it was perhaps in painting that the new age expressed itself with the most clarity and richness. The imagery became lighter and more graceful in design, and the use of the rocaille motif, which referred to the use of rock-work, shells, plants and scrolls, helped create the fashionable style of the sensuous curve and the arabesque. Nearly everywhere there was a tendency for decorative painting to be less solemn, to prefer themes of love to those of glory. The Rococo era boasts such masterful artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Idyllic and heroic mythologies supplanted the traditional pictorial themes of religion and history. Artists experimented with a rich palette and brighter color scheme. They focused on the sensuality of images, and the elegance and grace of the subject matter. Voluptuous women, resplendent robes, and worldly pleasures were popular images for Rococo artists. Delicacy and fantasy begot light, carefree rhythms, and introduced a new virtuosity of brushwork in this age.
Baroque and Rococo merged together to form a style of exuberance, splendor, illusion, fantasy and technical brilliance. Some of the most sparkling, provocative, and amusing masterpieces were created out of these artistic movements, paving the way for future generations of artists. There is a technical virtuosity and aesthetic creativity that tie these movements together, allowing for a unique appreciation and perspective on opulence and splendor.