Monday, December 12, 2011

Baroque France, pt 2

Alas, Poussin.
(Poussin/The Shepherds of Arcadia/1638)
Poussin exemplifies the classical harmony of the French Baroque. In temperament, the Poussiniste taste was mild, even, predictable and calm. The figures are at rest-- compare this to the flamboyant dance movements of Rubens. Ruben's colors burn with passion, Poussin's are cool and subtle. (Can you see a connection between Poussin's aesthetic with the French garden?)

Poussin, French born, spent most of his life in Rome where he studied the work of Raphael. It is Raphael's influence that turned Poussin into a Classical painter. This means that Poussin's subject matter was taken from classical mythology or Christian heritage, not the secular or pedestrian. What governed Poussin's work was decorum and restraint. In The Shepherds of Arcadia, the shepherds trace the

inscription on the tomb: "I too once dwelled in Arcadia", a reminder of mortality and that we all too will die. The woman draped in gold to the right of the men is the Muse of History, affirming the inscription.

Notice the musculature of the figures, understated in comparison to Rubens as well as the understated colors-- the strong geometry: horizontals and verticals-- the even composition of he figures, arranged in a cube. Granted, the farmers are idealized, which is to be expected at the time. Prior to the 17th century, the Renaissance laid the aesthetic for the exagerrated human form. Somply, that was just the way the body was portrayed. But in comparison to the rippling backs and dynamic energy of Rubens, Poussin seems tame.

Of course, this is not to say that Poussin's paintings were never dynamic, never included motion. That is not the case. But the emphasis in Poussin's work is symmetry, balance and restraint anchored in the intellect, not the senses like Rubens. For Rubenistes, color was paramount to painting and for the Poussiniste, drawing. In a sense, Ruben's represented the Baroque expression while Poussin represented the Classical Baroque.

Remember that the 17th century marks the rise of Absolutism in France. Louis XIV erected Versailles, the most magnificent royal residence in the world, where he moved his court and government officials. Here, the Louis XIV's centralized monarchy exerted its royal power over its dominions on the ground of divine right. This divine rule has a long history, going back to the Middle Ages when popes crowned European kings and further to the man/god kings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Louis XIV used art to grandeurize himself, to glorify his rule. In England, the monarchy struggled against Puritan factions that denied absolutism. The Protestant Reformation had been spurring itself since Martin Luther and would soon bring about major changes in the Western landscape. The subject of the next post will be the promulgation of Protestantism in the West.
Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Baroque France, pt 1

Thus far, we have explored both sides of the Baroque coin. We have seen the emotionalism of Bernini in Baroque Italy, sculpting for the Catholic Church during their Counter Reformation. We have seen the product of the prior century's Reformation in the Protestant north in works like those of Pieter Claesz, Ruisdael, and Saenredam. We have also skimmed over the developments in science brought to us by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. Next we go to France where we will explore the the continuation of the historical advent if absolutism with Louis XIV, and an artistic synthesis particular to Baroque France. Let us start with Louis XIV.

Rigaud Hyacinthe's Louis XIV

France. 1661. Louis XIV began construction on Versailles 12 miles outside of Paris. He had grown tired of the Royal Palace in Paris, the seat of French government and residence of the French monarchy since the Middle Ages.
By the efforts of 36,000 workers, Versailles was completed and stood as the symbol of Louis' absolute power and authority. There, he moved his government offices and court. Versailles became the unofficial capital of France.

Prior to Louis' rule, French nobility rebelled strongly against centralized government. They preferred provincial government and local aristocratic autonomy. Louis' father, Louis III, died during his childhood and Cardinal Mazarin assumed control until Louis XIV was of age. After a mob pursued Louis as he slept in the Louvre, his distrust of nobility was solidified. Louis shared the same goal as Cardinal Mazarin: dominance, but once he assumed the thrown, his tactics proved far more effective than his predecessor's. He amassed a well paid army and was extremely mindful of the regional parliaments, consulting with them at court often.
Louis XIV beckoned the Age of Absolutism-- an age in which almost every European court modeled itself on Louis XIV's court. He essentially drew them in to conquer them (he banned them from holding high government positions). Louis wielded authority over the French plebeians, the aristocracy, and the church-- as Absolutism implies, he had absolute, divine right to ruler ship (think ancient Egypt).

Lets take a look at his art


              The Palace of Versailles in 1722
As we continue to witness, art of the past usually had utilitarian purposes, whether it be in the service of the Church or aristocracy (for art meant for pedestrians is seen only sparsely for most of history). The goal of the art Louis XIV commissioned was to declare his divine, absolute right, thus: Versailles had to be unequaled in ostentatious extravagance, scale and ornamentation. This was achieved.

Hall of Mirrors, Charles Le Brun and Jules Hardouin-Mansart

The Hall of Mirrors-- the tunnel that appears to never end. When bathed in light, its windows and mirrors extend the great space beyond its walls and your imagination. In a word: extravagant. Louis's accomplishments were displayed on the ceilings in paint (he was depicted as a Roman emperor). Talk about artisan ship-- talk about detail-- talk about ornamental lavishness-- talk about splendor.

 The room was originally filled with solid silver tables, lamp holders, and potted orange trees. The glass came from Paris glass factories, created to compete with Venetian glass (Venice was famous for its glass factories at this time). This place dripped with the grandeur of Louis XIV's baroque tongue. Later, the objects that littered the space were melted down to finance Louis' war efforts.It is important to note that outside of these sickeningly wealthy walls, the pedestrians of France were starving. Louis's government did not address the threats of his people, namely: drought, famine, plague, and pestilence.

THE FRENCH BAROQUE GARDEN: Versailles's grounds boasted what is now known as the French Garden. The park of Versaille was designed by Andre Le Notre who transformed an entire forest into a park. Here is what is important to know:
  • they are methodically planned/geometrical in design/they manifest the rationality sought by Louis XIV
  •  geometrical units were tightly arranged with focal points at their centers (like sculptures, pavilions, reflecting pools and fountains/ the design loosens the farther away you get from the palace/ trees frame or screen open views of the countryside
  •  apparently, one must walk through the garden to understand its dynamic design/ the park unfolds itself to its visitors

Essentially, Louis XIV's commissioned Classical architecture (harmony/balance) on a Baroque scale (grandiose/monumental). French baroque architecture is often called Classical Baroque.

These opposing forces were not solely embodied in the harmonious melodies of the (French)Classical Baroque, but also in a cacophonous clash between two of the greatest artists of the period: The Classicist Poussin and the Baroque Rubens.

But before we get to them:

 Thought Food:
  • Where do you think the peasants were and what were they doing while Versailles was occupied?
  • Living well?
  • With all his time spent erecting his monarchical penis, do you think his kingdom was well kept?
  • Does this effect the way you view his art and aesthetics? Might this effect the way you view French Baroque art?  
  • Philosophically, do you think Absolutism was an innate understanding in the people or was it forced upon them? Is more historical knowledge required to understand this? 
Is it a symbol  from a preferable or regrettable time in history?

 Rubens v.s. Poussin

Rubens was a charming breed-- an international superstar. He was Flemish by birth but this hardly is telling of his aesthetic. What is telling is that he visited Italy where he studied the predecessors of the Baroque invention and its right holding innovators: the Renaissance Michelangelo and Titian and the Italian Baroque Caravaggio and Carracci. In consequence, his excursion was a branch in art history that is absolutely nonnegotiable in importance. Rubens synthesized his own style that was Pan-European.

Rubens created this masterpiece after his return from Italy to Flanders. What is revealed in this triptych is his interest in Italian aesthetics.
Notice: the tension and counter forces of the muscularity-- the strain in their arms as they let down the dead Christ. The contortion and foreshortened anatomy reminiscent of  reminiscent of Michelangelo's paintings and sculptures. The energetic violence, physical and emotional distress, stressing sinew and anguished faces: parallel to Mannerism's transformation to Baroque. The colors of Titian. These bold colors and dramatic light would later give way to a subtler style. Baroque intimations: dynamic composition/diagonal sensuality.
The Mannerism of Bronzino and Michelangelo + the color and texture of the venetian school of Titian + the light and dark of Caravaggisiti = Rubens

Rubens consorted with and served the heavy weights. Among his clientelle: the court of Mantua, Charles I of England, and the Spanish government of Flanders-- not to mention, he was the grandson of Marie de' Medici. This relationship yielded a powerful series of 21 paintings in celebration of her life, including this famous doodle:
 Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseilles
Depicted is Marie's arrival in France from Italy. She is en route to her marriage to King Henry IV. Fame flies above her, trumpeting her arrival. Neptune and his son Triton, accompanied by 3 water nymphs, emerge from the sea to greet her. France (the helmeted man wearing a fleur-de-lis robe) bows before her. Marie is nestled in a flourish of rich textures and colors (she was not known for her beauty).

Notice:  The fleshy bodies of nymphs. These fleshy bodies are known as Rubenesque. Fleshy folds and drapes over their bodies with...freedom. They are sensual in a way that does not quite translate well into contemporary tastes. But you can tell that these ladies indulge in a sensual life-- in excess.
In the interest of length and attention span, Poussin and Baroque France will be picked up at a later date. Thank you for joining me. It appears that what is pretty is not often nice... Before we glorify the magnificent, maybe we should ask ourselves at who's expense it was created. More on this is on the way. Take care.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Things to consider:

The art we have been viewing is from the past, thus, we are interpreting these objects through our own context-- our own, contemporary lens.

We use historical information and empathy in an attempt to view the art through the eyes of the people contemporary to its creation (known as appreciation) and from different, sometimes critical, perspectives.

Ex: It is important to view Northern Baroque art through Calvinist eyes in order to appreciate (and understand) it. So on and so forth.

Appreciating art is different from liking it. I often give this demonstrative example:

Many people would want to go to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. But many people would actually want to have Van Gogh's Starry Night in their home.

When people say that they do not "know" about art, they are victims of ambiguous and assumptive language. There is nothing that one needs to know in order to like art. People instinctual know what they like. One needn't any historical knowledge, only a genuine aesthetic reaction, which we are biologically programmed with (i.e. bright colors are used in nature to attract attention, like flowers, etc). This is referred to as taste.
One must make a distinction between taste and educated taste. First, I must insist that in order to be empathetic of all people, I must understand that people's reasons for viewing art vary greatly-- some view art for catharsis, some for enjoyment, others view art for education. Thus, one's pursuit with art may only require taste, and not education (to educate their taste).

Lets us first disambiguate taste. Taste does not refer to appreciation, although, we erroneously treat them as synonyms in the colloquial. Appreciation requires education. Taste, or what I would called instinctual taste is serendipitously, subconsciously developed by your experiences, disposition, personality, etc. Taste is what you are moved by. Your taste, however, does not always serve you or your image well  (i.e.: your taste may lie in Sports Illustrated posters, Kitch, the simplistic, the obvious, the erotic). Taste has historically been used as a test of sophistication, morality, and character-- a way to show discipline in character, order, and intelligence.

English satirist, William Hogarth, jabs at the English aristocratic facade ( their taste and sophistication) in his series Marriage a la Mode. Below is a work from this series.

"Hogarth...portrayed grand interiors as fitting settings for his patrons, but here he shows splendid decor as a contrast to the trivial pursuits of the young aristocrats: paintings of martyred saints overlook card tables; the dignified bust of a Roman matron is surrounded by amusing oriental figures bought by a flighty young bride with her stays undone and hair falling over her brow." - The British Museum
"...the series of paintings, the marriage of the Viscount and the merchant's daughter is quickly proving a disaster. The tired wife, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple's expensive house which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady's cap in his pocket. Their steward, carrying bills and a receipt, leaves the room to the left, his hand raised in despair at the disorder." - National Gallery

[Notice the partially hidden painting of a nude woman in the back room next to the displayed portraits.]

Good taste as a projection of sophistication to the world/ instinctual taste is hidden beneath it

Because your good taste is often used to represent you or your morals, it is often embarrassing when your instinctual taste differs from good taste. For instance: I did not enjoy anything about Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes other than its impressive scale. I did not enjoy the Mona Lisa. I did not enjoy Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I appreciated them, but they were not my instinctual taste, they did not move me viscerally. I appreciated them, which required education. But: Appreciation, which requires thinking about what you know about the work, sometimes translates into enjoyment-- a visceral, experiential response! Sometimes, you have an instinctual, visceral reaction to a work and once you have education about it, your enjoyment of it increases! Having no reaction to a work and the education you receive transforming into visceral enjoyment beyond appreciation... <-- This is the goal! Education facilitates appreciation, which, when planted, can grow into aesthetic/emotional/visceral enjoyment!

[Thank you for bringing your mind on this journey to aesthetic pleasure. Stick with it because the rewards extend beyond the images we investigate in this blog-- your eyes and mind will speak to each other in a different  way and you will see differently.]

Next up: the opposing forces of Poussin and Rubens in the Baroque France, Velazquez and Ribera in Baroque Spain, and then onward toward the Enlightenment!

Stay well,

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Bit of Retrospective Housecleaning

                A Note from the Arbiter               

Arbiter has embarked on a descriptive survey of the humanities spanning from the Baroque period to the 21st century.

Thus far we have covered the emotionalism of Baroque Italy, the austere piety of the Baroque North, and the blossoming of scientific thought in the 17th and 18th centuries. Next, we move onward toward the Enlightenment!

The objective of this series to provide the contextual information one needs to interpret and empathize with the art forms of the past, as well as a description of those art forms-- to bring language to the intuition. Arbiter believes that all audiences have an intuitive, abstract understanding of art forms (as we are all humans, however separated by our experiences) and it is the job of historians, curators and the like to bring coherency and discernment to this intuition. Further, situating this intuition in a foundation of historical and cultural context helps better filter this intuition toward an astute, critical lense, enhancing the degree of empathy and translating this intuition into "knowledge". Art (and expression) is a language of knowledge.

Titian's Ascension


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Scientific Revolution

The authority of religion was supreme in the 17th century. Both Catholicism and Protestantism had firm grips on the way people were allowed to view the world. The relationship between science and religion has always been a tumultuous one though. There was only a small window of time in which the Greeks were able to dissect human bodies without dissent from religion. This accounted for the mistaken beliefs about human anatomy through antiquity from dissections that were done on animals, their findings being erroneously transposed onto human anatomy.

  In the Renaissance, crossover artists like Leonardo Da Vinci contributed greatly to knowledge of human anatomy, breaking the tradition of animal anatomical knowledge used in place of human anatomical study. This is largely due to the shift in the relationship between religion and science, although this was slight when considering that most astronomical endeavors were greatly limited by Christianity which was threatened by such endeavors.  Again, the in Renaissance, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) started the Copernican Revolution, shifting the world’s paradigm away from the Ptolemaic model. In essence, Copernicus postulated that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but it was the sun at the center. In what way does the Ptolemaic model make sense for the time period? In what ways do you think the Ptolemaic model effected the way people lived and understood the universe and themselves in it? It makes sense that people would want to believe themselves to be the center of the universe and the center of God's affection when the Church's controlled both spiritual knowledge and scientific.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) furthered Copericus’s theory of a heliocentric universe with his investigation of the movements of the planets of our solar system (at the time, only 5 were known) in the 17th century. He suspected that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical paths because of the magnetic pull of the sun and their respective distances from it. Using a camera obscura, he studied the diameter of the moon as a study in optics.  The camera obscura was used by many people interested in optics, including Baroque artists like Vermeer. Simultaneously, Galileo Galilei perfected the telescope, increasing its magnification and with it, he described the surface of the moon, sunspots, and the moons of Jupiter. He also established basic knowledge of light—that it may exist as particles or waves and both forms travel at both a measurable and uniform speed.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was another crusader of the Scientific Revolution and his work in astronomy have since earned him the title "Father of Modern Science". . He supported Copernicus and heliocentrism  and further, refuted Aristole's idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Thus, the theory of gravity was born! The refracting telescopes he constructed could produce magnified, upright images. Galileo's advocacy was not uncontroversial, however. The Church did not look favorably on the theory of heliocentrism for it contradicted many passages in the Bible. To take an example, the Bible tells the story of  a man by the name of Joshua who makes the sun stand still. The assertions of Galileo implied that it was impossible for Joshua to have performed this feat (although it seems odd that it took heliocentrism to challenge this story). The postulations of people like Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Johannes Kepler could lead to an infinite regression of reconsiderations of the inerrancy of the Bible (which history has shown us, has happened with modern reform movements). Galileo was required to defend his theories before Pope Paul V in 1615.  Galileo took Augustine of Hippo's position on scripture-- that scripture is not to be interpreted literally, especially when the scripture is from a book of songs or poetry. But, nonetheless, he failed to convince Pope Paul V which lead to the restriction of him publishing his findings and the spread of his ideas. Later, Pope Urban VIII demanded a full retraction of Galileo’s assertions from him and attempted to banish him to life in prison, although this was never carried out. In the same century, Giordano Bruno, another astronomer, was burned at the stake for claiming other solar systems exist in our universe that is infinite and without a center.

Further in history, mathematician Isaac Newton (1643-1727) brought the world the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy which told it that the universe is an intelligible system, ordered by guiding principles that dictate the way it operates. He postulated that every object exerts an attraction on everything else-- this means that the sun has a pull on the planets and the planets pull their respective moons and each other. These forces working with each other form a harmonious system, like a clock. It will not be until Albert Einstein that this idea is teased to a more detailed understanding of the universe. By Newton's time, despite complications with the and Church, Galileo and Kepler's theories were popularized (the history of this popularization may be explained in a future post), and experiments we actually a form of entertainment. This is the theme of Joseph Wright of Derby's famous An Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump, 1768.
It depicts the performance of a magician-scientist resurrecting a seemingly dead bird in front of an audience, demonstrating the power of science. Europe was galloping toward Enlightenment in Newton's time and on its cusp was the dubious Industrial Revolution which, as will be explored later, did not bring" progress" in the way that one might assume (or the way it was hoped for). But to put first things first,we must get through the rest of the 17th century to understand the coming Enlightenment.

Thought food:
From Wikipedia:
Near the beginning of his career, Einstein thought that Newtonian mechanics was no longer enough to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field. This led to the development of his special theory of relativity. He realized, however, that the principle of relativity could also be extended to gravitational fields, and with his subsequent theory of gravitation in 1916, he published a paper on the general theory of relativity. He continued to deal with problems of statistical mechanics and quantum theory, which led to his explanations of particle theory and the motion of molecules. He also investigated the thermal properties of light which laid the foundation of the photon theory of light. In 1917, Einstein applied the general theory of relativity to model the structure of the universe as a whole.[5]
  • What might Einstein's special theory of relativity say about the nature of science?
  • Is science colloquioally talked about as fact-- absolute and resolute?
  • In what ways are science and mythology similar? Do they answer similar questions? Do they both require faith to accept as FACT in the way that people often profess them?
  • How much of science do we take on faith? How well do you really understand science (something elementary, now, like gravity or heliocentricism)?
  • Why is science so convincing in some arenas like medicine (why do they religious trust in doctors when they are sick but God when they are dying? perhaps because of a clause built into the doctrine?) but challenged in existential arenas (like the afterlife and creation?)
  • Does science yield better Earthly results than religion?
  • Does religion yield better existential (or moralistic) results than science?
  • For those that profess to beileve in scientific creation explanations, how different is their belief from that in a Pantheon of Gods or Yaweh?
  • How many people actually understand the science of the Big Bang Theory?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Northern Baroque

It must be kept in mind that the 17th century gave more to European history than the Italian baroque. The North had a Baroque period of its own. When talking about the North, we are referring to such currently defined geographical areas as Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, but in this time period, primarily the low country of the Netherlands. And on opposing sides of the 17th century Christian geographical world is the evocative extravagances of Baroque Italy and the stark piety of Baroque Northern Europe. In the 17th century, the Netherlands went through a particular proliferation that is referred to as a Golden Age. Also of importance,  the reform movement led by Martin Luther in the previous century, Protestant Reformation, gave way to Calvinism, the dominate religion of the Netherlands. [A note for clarity: Dutch is a term that refers to something from or related to the Netherlands.] Because of a ban on overtly religious art in the Dutch Reformed Church (a Calvinist church) the Dutch embraced new subject matter which include landscapes, still lifes, moralized domestic and secular scenes and portraiture. [Note: The Dutch were a very tolerant people, however, and they did alow artists (often Catholics) to create religious artwork. But we will be focusing on the art which best reflects the dominant cultural force: Calvinism] As previously explored, the Italians embraced an emotive exuberance in their work that aimed to invoke a new sensuality in Catholic faith. On the other hand, because aesthetics reflect lifestyle, value, and dogma (among many other things), the work of the Dutch in the 17th century was appropriately dissimilar. We will now compare and contrast a few examples of 17th century art. 

Pieter Saenredam’s Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht, 1645

Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht  provides an illustrative example of Calvinist aesthetics as a reflection of their disposition. Of first emphasis in the interiors of the Dutch Reformed Church is their austerity. It is in the stripping of ornament that a symbol of their piety  is seen. The walls are literally whitewashed. A tiered chandelier hangs from the ceiling, but the its is otherwise devoid of ornamental elements. In comparison to the exuberance of the Italian Baroque, Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht appears humble, but intentionally so, as reflection of the piety of Calvinist devotion in contrast to the extravagance of the Catholic Church. In the interiors of the religious structures, the piety of the Reformation is scene in the religious imagery’s absence. The austerity is a symbol of discipline, humility, and in many ways, depravity; in this a difference in theological emphasis is found between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In Baroque Italy, the socio-religious climate was one of indulgence and sensuality and the evocative was emphasized by the Roman Catholic Church. To be moved emotionally by revelation or worship was the goal, as evidenced by Bernini’s Ectasy of Saint Teresa, which in permeated with sexual undertones. Emphasis on the papacy is evidenced in the scale of the Catholic structures and their exuberant ornaments and the theology was expressed through indulgence, not deprivation, as in the Reformation. In the Catholic interpretation of worshiping graven images there is an obvious difference—Roman Catholics used graven images to their advantage to advance their agenda of securing followers and proclaiming their dominance of the Counter Reformation. 

Continuing on the our exploration of the breadth of Dutch art, we look into the Dutch landscape and their pious efforts in portraying it.

Jacob van Ruisdael's View of Haarlem from the Dunes at Overveen
 The English commonly pejoratively referred to the United Provinces as the "united bogs" as their land was reclaimed from the sea (this is why the windmills was created,  to pump water out of the low lands, and its symbolism for the Netherlands was created). The Dutch saw this as analogous to God's restoration of the world after the Great Flood. In the painting lies a Gothic church, small and in the distance. It rises over the flatland  where small, infinitesimal figures toil in their fields, lit by ambient, pious light, falling over them through the clouds. Remember how Carravaggio used light to symbolism divinity? Notice how de-emphasized the figures and their homes are and how much space is given to the expansive sky above them. It is almost as if they are being watched over by the heavens-- the they are children beneath the benevolence of their God. The Dutch referred to themselves as Nederkindren, the children below, looked after by God in an eternal covenant. 
 [Continue to notice the scale of the sky and humanity beneath it]

Vanitas and Still lifes
The Dutch were particularly interested in the portraits of object arrangements (known as still life) and were particularly prolific producing theme of still life called vanitas. The goal of vanitas was to remind the viewer of the transience of life and the ultimate judgment they thought all man would incur by their God. It is meant to almost raise your heart up with pride in world riches (which is what the Dutch very much cultivated at this time) but then jarring but subtly hint at their imminent death. Symbols for death were used for this-- commonly used for this were: rotting fruit, skulls, smoke, watches,and  hourglasses. 

Abraham van Beijeren's"Pronkstilleven", c. 1655

The Dutch Republic was prosperous in the 17th century. Amsterdam had the highest per capita income in Europe! The Bank of Amsterdam was founded at the beginning of the century and the city was the financial capital of the continent. The Dutch were masters of the sea, thus, their trading efforts were impressive, extending beyond Europe into North and South America, Africa, China, Japan and Southeast Asia, and the material fruits of these relationships were a source of pride. So how do you show off and exalt these riches? By painting still lives or them, of course. But this is at odds with the Christian de-emphasis on materialism and worldly goods... right?

So these vanitas paintings were almost self-flagellating-- they allowed themselves to indulge in their material fancies but vehemently reminded themselves that their enjoyment was erroneous and against their God's will.
Genre Scenes
The Dutch were particularly fond of the genre scene:  
genre scenes or genre views, are pictorial representations in any of various media that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Such representations may be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Some variations of the term genre works specify the medium or type of visual work, as in genre painting, genre prints, genre photographs, and so on.
Gerrit Van Honthorst's Supper Party is an excellent example of a Dutch genre scene. Un-idealized figures, sitting in a tavern, serenaded by a musician, enjoying themselves. A young woman feeds a piece of chicken to a man who holds both his wine glass and bottle of wine. But remember, the Dutch were a moral and self-aware people, so might this painting be read moralistically? Might it be about glutton, lust and indulgence? Is the woman a prostitute and the older woman by her side her procurer? Also, notice its aesthetics. Notice the light, the shadows and the drama. Reminiscent of Caravaggio? Honthorst did spend time in Italy, studying his work.

Judith Leyster's The Proposition
Leyster, like many Baroque artists, was interested in dramatic lighting effects. In The Proposition (the the image above does not do it justice), she creates a shadowy encounter between a pious Calvinist woman and a sleazy lurker. The lusty man grins over her, resting his hand on her shoulder, presenting her with a handful of coins. The woman devotes her attention to her needlepoint, ignoring his proposition. But you can see in her face that she is not calm. The scene depicts a moment of moral conflict, between the man and the woman, but between the woman and herself as well. We do not know how this scene may have ended in the 17th century, but it mirrors the conflict present in the cross-section of religion and sexuality that is still debated over today.

Special Focus: Rembrandt
Of particular importance to this time and region, an artist that cannot be skipped in discussions of the 17th century  Dutch artistic landscape is Rembrandt.
  • Dutch/1606-1669/painter and engraver/generally known as one of the greatest painters and print makers in Dutch history.
  • Prolific self portraitist/ landscape painter, narrative history painter/ allegorical/biblical illustrator
Rembrandt is known for his rare and daring psychological sincerity.There is an emotional empathy and honesty that is captured in the expressions of his subjects in their portraits and emphatically in his self portraits.

Do you see it?
Further, wikipedia offers this: "In a letter to Huyghens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word "beweechgelickhijt" is also argued to mean "emotion" or "motive." Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise is open to interpretation; either way, Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual as has no other painter in Western art."
  • Stylistically, his paintings progressed from the early 'smooth' manner, characterized by fine technique in the portrayal of illusionistic form, to the late 'rough' treatment of richly variegated paint surfaces, which allowed for an illusionism of form suggested by the tactile quality of the paint itself.

Jan Pieterszoon & Johann Sebastian Bach

As follows with visual culture, the music of the Baroque period differed between regions. But, both areas sought to create a dramatic and arousing experience for the listener. The blossoming of the churches of the north and the south equaled a steady necessity for new music for services. During this time, new instruments were created, more so than in any other period. Traditional instruments were also transformed and the organ took on a new emphasis in both Catholic and Protestant services. But alongside the organ's popularity was the piano's emergence as an important instrument and the harpsichord was technically perfected. Also of note was the rising popularity of instrumental virtuosos, now competing with popular vocalists of the time. 
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was Amsterdam's official organist. Although during services he was required to play standard hymns at regular tempo, his virtuoustic prelude and postlude improvisations were popular.He helped draw large congregations and routinely gave public concerts. By his death in 62, he had transformed the use of the keyboard (not to be confused with the modern colloquial definition of keyboard). Heir to Sweelinck's innovations is Johan Sebastian Bach. Like Sweelinck, he was Protestant composer and conveyed his piety and devotion through his compositions. He wrote elaborate Lutheran church services which were allowed more exuberance than Calvinist services. Bach, for each Sunday service, composed what is called a canata. A canata is multimovement commentary on text of the service that was sung by a soloist and accompanied by a chorus and one or two instruments. One of the major advents found in Bach's canatas is his use of counterpoint.To secular music, Bach gave the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work that popularized equal temperament in musical tuning (this is a big deal). 

Thought Food:
  •  Isn't it weird that we didn't study Germany when talking about the North? What was going on there? 

  • Were the Dutch really so unique that they must be paid special, distinct attention to? What about them yielded this distinct visual culture?

  • What makes Germany so different at this time when Martin Luther (father of the first phase of the Protestant Revolution) was German himself? Couldn't one assume that something similar happened to German religious life and visual culture at this time?
  •  What did German Baroque art look like?
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 Stay tuned. Answers are on the way.