Oca Study Visit: Georgia O’Keeffe

Oca gathering
Bryan Eccleshall addresses the students before we enter

This saturday I took the opportunity to go on an OCA study visit to see the work of Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern. The tutor in charge, Bryan Eccleshall was very interesting, he wrote this blog post on WeAreOca before the visit (there’s another OCA review here too). I watched the this episode from the arts series ‘imagine…’ on the BBC iPlayer that coincides with the Tate’s O’Keeffe retrospective before the show and I was really glad I did. It allowed me to have a bit of context to her work and life as I went round.

There is so much information on the Tate website I won’t rehash it all here. I took a few photos of the ones I really liked or of those that I made notes on. I remember thinking as I went round that if ever there was an exhibition to make me give up photography and take up painting this might be it. Luckily there some gorgeous Ansel Adams prints near the end to restore my faith🙂 Stieglitz wasn’t very good photographer (in my humble opinion of course), unfortunately for him his work is shown with hers and looks extremely dull and very dated while hers remains fresh and amazing. It seems to me as though it was his interpretation on her images as sexual which stuck with the critics even to this day. It was interesting to see both their works thought because they clearly had such a profound effect on each others work.

Room 1 was curated much like her first show at Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’ gallery, alongside his photos of the show.

No. 15 Special. 1916-17. Charcoal on Paper. Georgia O'Keefe.
No. 15 Special. 1916-17. Charcoal on Paper. Georgia O’Keefe.

suzywalker20160910_114332 suzywalker20160910_115510

Paul Stand (1890-1976). Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Twin lakes, Connecticut. Abstraction, Bowls, Twin lakes, Connecticut. 1916, printed 1917. 2 Photographs , Heliogravure print on paper.
Paul Stand (1890-1976).
Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Twin lakes, Connecticut.
Abstraction, Bowls, Twin lakes, Connecticut.
1916, printed 1917. 2 Photographs , Heliogravure print on paper.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe with watercolor paint box. 1918, Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe with watercolor paint box.
1918, Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper.

The tutor had an interesting take,  he said that artists only ever paint one thing,  over and over, hers is the v shapes and curves . But mostly it’s her connection to, and absorption into, her surroundings,  most often nature (but not in the case of NYC). The important thing for artists is discover their one thing. I think my one thing might be macro/closeness,  according to some of the comments from my tutor in a previous module (which of course I denied at the time). I shall have to reflect upon this in a separate blogpost. The thing that struck me about the Stieglitz photo of her in the first room (above) was how close she was to the flowerbeds.


Red and Orange Streak. 1919. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe
Red and Orange Streak. 1919. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe


I really liked her use of contours. Her work really appeals to me. I like the simplicity of shape and I love the gradations of colour. Her art school education (which I imagine would have been quite strict) didn’t teach her style or subject matter but it did teach her complete mastery over her medium so she could concentrate on style and subject on her own.

No. 12 Special. 1916-17. Charcoal on Paper. Georgia O’Keeffe
No. 12 Special. 1916-17. Charcoal on Paper. Georgia O’Keeffe

I notice that quite a few of the paintings in room two had a split down the middle sort of composition:

Georgia O’Keeffe Georgia O’Keeffe

In room 5, Natural forms gaspe –  1932, was the first I saw visible paintly application, I mean the others were so smooth and perfect, one twist of cloud was not as smoothly as the others, it was interesting to see.

Room 6: flowers

Georgia O’Keeffe

Calla Lilies on Red, 1928. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe
Calla Lilies on Red, 1928. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe

When looking at her close-ups of flowers I couldn’t help recalling my day in Kew Gardens, taking colourful close up photographs of the flowers for a past assignment.

Photograph for Colour Assignment in OCA module Art of Photography. Whole assignment set here: https://theartofphotographybysuzy.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/assignment-3-colour/

The tutor said she abstracted them because no flowers are that perfect but I disagree in this case,  I think she just zoomed into the perfect bits. Also, critics say they’re meaning is sexual, which she’s always denied, personally I think she’s just painting the shapes that naturally exist and I agree that the critics see something that perhaps she did not intend.

Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, Another church, Hernandez, new Mexico, 1931

In Another church, Hernandez, new Mexico, 1931, you can really sense the desert light, not in this reproduction (or any I’ve seen) but the painting itself seemed to shine with it.


Room 10: the black place and the white place.

Black Place III, 1944. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe
Black Place III, 1944. Oil paint on canvas. Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’KeeffeThis has been a very exciting visit.  I’ve enjoyed writing about it here as a way of reflective recollection of the exhibition and I’m sure I could write tons more (perhaps I’ll revisit it again with some photos of the pamphlet they supplied). I’m looking forward to seeing is anyone else from the visit writes a post because I missed the chat afterwards (I hung around for a while but no one appeared so I went to the National Gallery to do some more research for my assignment). I did take a picture from the balcony of the shop while I waited though. If you are an oca student on the visit and have a blog post please leave me a comment below with the link.

View fro the 3rd floor balcony of the Tate modern
View fro the 3rd floor balcony of the Tate modern


Annotation techniques

“Making an annotation is about ‘purposeful looking’, which involves recording and expanding on key details” (tutor report)

I clearly need to work on my annotations and get more depth to them (re tutor feedback for A1 & A2). So here I wanted to note down what I found out about the Open University study diamond model (as recommended in the last feedback) and combine for my own reference the feedback on annotations in general.

“Try to illustrate your interpretative skills more using a range of sources (extrapolate further on your research – systematically appraise key creative ideas, theories and debates). Continue to show further evidence of a developing critically evaluative and self-reflexive learning narrative.” (tutor report)

So what is the OU study diamond model?

The Study Diamond

The Study Diamond represents an approach to analysing and interpreting texts such as poems, works of art, pieces of music and works of literature. When used methodically, the Study Diamond provides a reliable and reusable formula for arriving at well-argued conclusions when interpreting a particular work. (Open University, 2016)

It’s predicated on the theory that art is supposed to have an effect on you. The top point of the diamond is Effects. Artistic techniques, such as the use of colour, composition and medium are employed in the marking of a piece of art, these techniques have a relationship with way art the effects us. Art work often has a Meaning behind it and that can change depending on its Context.

so more details on those points:

Effects & Techniques:

  1. the way you feel when you look at an art work for the first time or the mood that it seems to convey
  2. the way you read the art work in a particular way, focusing on one aspect of it before others.

Perhaps the most important evidence is that which records your own reaction to these art works. When analysing any art work you should try to trust your own feelings and thoughts about what you see, and record these, rather than referring to other people’s reactions to find out what you should be feeling and thinking. (Open University, 2016)

The model encourages us to record our thoughts and feelings the very first time we see an artwork because the more we study and find out about it these initial thoughts will be changed. Unfortunately I’ve been looking at the Arnolfini portrait for a while now and cannot recall what my initial reactions were.

Next we ‘read’ the art work but recording the way our eyes travel across, into and around it.

  1. What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that?
  2. Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether?
  3. Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading?
  4. Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work?
  5. Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important?

(Open University, 2016)

Form is the overall shape of the art work and various techniques such as use of colour, medium and arrangement of composition are used to create this.


A useful grid of questions for comparing colour in two paintings:

Technique: painting one Effect: painting one Technique: painting two Effect: painting two
1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used?
2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other?
3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa?
4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)?
5. In what way is dark and light colour used?
      I.        How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work?
     II.        Are contrasting colour values present in the art work?
    III.        Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms?
   IV.        In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work?


For each of these questions we can identify what technique and effect they have. Basic colour theory comes into play when assessing the mood a combination of colours have in an artwork. Contrasting colours may suggest drama or tension in a particular part of  the work because they draw your eye. Tonal values (eg light and dark areas of colours, tints and shades) can be used in paintings to create visual contrast and to model three-dimensional forms.

The breadth of the value range in a painting can be effective in helping to convey mood. For example, a painting comprising mostly dark colour values can make a work appear gloomy and sombre; whereas one with middle range colours can convey softness and harmony; and a painting comprising mostly light colour values can suggest optimism and cheerfulness. Concentrating most of the light values in one area of the composition and most of the dark values in another can be effective in emphasising one area of an art work over the rest. When light and dark values are placed adjacent and are distributed evenly throughout the art work it can give the composition a sense of ‘movement’, causing the eye to move from place to place rather than focusing on one particular area. (Open University, 2016)


1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects?
2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work?
3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood?
4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way?

(Open University, 2016)


comprises of two important factors, the representation of depth and the use of line.

Representation of depth Technique: painting one Effect: painting one Technique: painting two Effect: painting two
(a) overlapping
(b) diminishing scale
(c) atmospheric perspective
(d) vertical placement
(e) linear perspective
(f) modelling


Diagonal lines produce the most energy or movement in terms of the way that they draw the spectator into the pictorial space and control their reading of a composition. Vertical lines can also add movement and energy to an image and can be particularly effective in stopping the spectator’s eye from leaving the pictorial space. (Open University, 2016)

Lines can be directional or contour: consider the impact of vanishing points and directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal). Contour lines can be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness.

Don’t forget to consider the relationships between techniques and effects in the art work in terms of the significance of line in conveying an emotional effect and the use of line to control the way that you read the work. (Open University, 2016)

The other two points on the diamond are pretty self-explanatory, Meaning & Context. For meaning we can take all our ‘evidence’ from our observations above and make an initial interpretation which can be revised in context once we’ve done some research investigation. Its important to keep an open mind about revising our meaning and not hang on to our first instincts when reviewing because in the context of the people of the time the art works were made might be very different from our own views.

Here is some more of the feedback from my tutor reports:

“As your annotation template shows, a good plan to follow when constructing your annotations is to record the materials used, the dimensions and date, and then describe elements in the order in which they draw your eye around the image (including background, light source, tonal values, rhythm etc). Always bear in mind questions of patronage and any interesting or unusual facts.”

“To help you develop your observations take a look at:

  • The rhythm and balance of masses
  • The proportions
  • The weight shift (enhancing the realism of the pieces and implying the concept of movement)

Your chosen images should be surrounded by detailed descriptions, explanatory notes, interpretations and comments about the features of the work, which refer to and evaluate the artist’s manipulation of shape, line etc.

What are the most significant lines in these works? What are the major geometric and human shapes, and how are they used? Look at the modelling of the flesh – is it vigorous? How is it deepened and varied? Are any other devices used to convey a sense of the shifts within the human body?

Try to add to your notes and observations to produce more substantive sections of visual analysis.

Eg: Make sure that your contextual material incorporates a few comments exploring what the pediment would have meant to the Athenian audience. (I.e. aim to enter into a conversation with the ‘moral aesthetic’ and ‘values’ of the city at the time.)” (tutor report)


This model seems quite an effective way to compare works consistently and fairly. It might be a bit late in the day for some initial thoughts on some of the works for Assignment 3 because I’ve already started doing the research and my thoughts and first reactions will have been tainted by ‘expert’ readings of the works.


Tutor reports from Assignment 1 & 2, see my private pdf logs parts 2 & 3.

Open University. (2016) Making sense of art history At: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/making-sense-art-history/content-section-0
(Accessed on 15 Aug 16)

Research & Painter Review – Caravaggio

This post started out being a painting review of The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio but ended out being a wider ranging research piece on Caravaggio which could be used as preparation for assignment 3.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 - 1610 The Supper at Emmaus 1601 Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839 NG172 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG172
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839

I saw this painting in my Gallery Visit (Room 32) and made very brief notes in that post (here). I didn’t really understand what I was looking at and although I’ve learnt a lot about 17th century art since then and seen references to Caravaggio (and this painting) in my reading, it could do with a closer look. Being so influential an artist I wanted to learn more about him specifically (and use him as one of the artists in the 500 word analysis in Assignment 3).

The first place to start in understanding this painting is the story behind is. Who is Emmaus and why do these guys with Jesus look so surprised?

On the day of the resurrection two of Christ’s disciples were going to a town called Emmaus.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” (Luke 24:15-24)

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 28-31)

So Caravaggio’s picture starts to make sense. This is the two disciples just discovering that they are sitting with a recently risen Christ as he blesses the bread. The man serving the table has not removed his hat, having no idea who this is (because he wasn’t at the last supper) but presumably would freak out when Chris just disappears (since he isn’t in the bible account he’s probably just been added as artifice to balance out the composition and the various expressions on the faces of the figures, “His impassiveness is a foil to the disciples’ bewilderment” (De Rynck, 2009)).

Caravaggio has broken with tradition here (as he did in many of his paintings) and represented the scene in a contemporary setting. The background is dark and vague on any details of the setting, the lighting is dramatic so the attention is focused on the scene. The disciple with his arms out (as though talking of the crucifixion) extends into the viewers space to draw us into the scene, hence the drastic foreshortening (I noted it as strange perspective on my gallery visit). Also, the shell on his coat is a scallop, a pilgrims emblem of Santiago de Compostela (named after St James). The fruit basket harkens back to Caravaggio’s still life painting days, critics have pointed out that pomegranates, grapes and figs are summery fruits so are out of place at Easter but apparently over ripened fruit (apples and decaying figs) stand for original sin, grapes (which make wine) and pomegranates are conventional symbols of the resurrection. This fruit hangs over the edge of the table also into our space begging to be pushed back on.

“The disciples look like country bumpkins on a pilgrimage.” (De Rynck, 2009)

Caravaggio painted another Christ resurrection story, one of Doubting Thomas, in 1603 called the Incredulity of Thomas. This one is smaller at only 107x146cm. Thomas is often depicted as a young man (Christ’s twin according to one of the legends but not one I heard in primary school), not so in this painting though. He has expressed doubt about Christ’s resurrection because he hasn’t seen it with his own eyes so Christ is building his finger into the spear wound he received on the Cross. The painting also includes Peter and John, also looking on with intense concentration and undisguised curiosity. Again, there is nothing extraneous to distract attention from the main scene. The figures heads are all clustered together in the centre of the composition but its the finger that gets your eyes attention making you want to lean into the space with them to see it.

He says “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25 which reflects the humanist mood of the times where empirical knowledge is the key to truth.

Incredulity of saint thomas,1603. Canvas 107x146 cm, Neues Palais, Potsdam.
Incredulity of saint thomas,1603. Canvas 107×146 cm, Neues Palais, Potsdam.

“Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29

As I noted in my gallery visit, all the reproductions of this painting seem a lot more gloomy than the original.

The Supper at Emmaus 1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, nAtional Gallery, London
The Supper at Emmaus
1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, National Gallery, London

You see it hangs next to another of Caravaggio’s works, Boy bitten by a Lizard (about 1594-5) which is an eariler work from when he’d just arrived in Rome as a nobody.


His short life story is extremely interesting and you can see how his art develops over the course of his career. The few primary sources about his life are mainly police/court reports and contemporary biographers writings. He is known to get into lots of trouble (hence the documented police reports) and sounds like a very volatile individual. His early training was a four year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano (in Milan). He was originally from a town called Caravaggio (hence his name, his given name was Michelangelo Merisi). When he arrived in Rome he had nothing and he painted still lives and heads of people to sell in the street which was good training for his later years where he painted from live models which was not the custom in those days. You can see that the figures in The Supper at Emmaus are much more naturally proportioned than the Boy (with the lizard). Some art critics have suggested there is homoerotic undertones in this work, some think it is just a study of drama, the reaction of the boy, some others think it is an allegory on the pain of love (because the still life includes symbols of love).

The Cardsharps - Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) Italian (1571–1610) 16th century c. 1595 Oil on canvas 37 1/16 x 51 9/16 in. (94.2 x 130.9 cm) AP 1987.06
The Cardsharps – Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)
Italian (1571–1610) 16th century
c. 1595, Oil on canvas
37 1/16 x 51 9/16 in. (94.2 x 130.9 cm), AP 1987.06

His work The Cardsharps, 1595, caught the eye of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte who offed him lodgings in his palazzo became his patron, and for whom he painted boy with lizard amongst others. This raised his profile in elite circles and he ended up having the opportunity to do his first public works for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Rome in those days was the artistic center of Italy, artists came from all over Europeto see Classical buildings and famous works of art. He caused a bit of a sensation with his new style and became very famous (his fame spread across Europe) but it seemed that it went to his head and he continued to get into trouble with the police.

According to one of his biographers: ”after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with his sword at his side and with a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or argument, with the result that it is most awkward to get along with him”. (The sword was illegal – as with guns today, one had to have licence to carry arms.) Caravaggio was arrested repeatedly for, among other things, slashing the cloak of an adversary, throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, scarring a guard, and abusing the police. (National Gallery, 2016a)

In 1606 it all came to a head and he killed a man in an argument, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and had to flee Rome. He spent a short time in Naples then moved to Malta to join the order of the Knights of Malta in return for painting Beheading of St John the Baptist. He was holding out for a Pulpal pardon so he could return to Rome and induction into the order secured him high social standing. Unfortunately he got into trouble again, fighting with another knight, and got arrested. He escaped prison and went to Sicily. Eventually he did get his pardon so could return to Rome.

He loaded his belongings onto a ship but, for some unknown reason, was then arrested and had to buy his way out of jail. By the time he was released, the ship and all his possessions had sailed without him. As he made his way along the coast he fell ill, perhaps with malaria, and a few days later, alone and feverish, he died. (National Gallery, 2016a)

Biographers and news reports seem to disagree about exactly what killed him at aged 39. This report from the BBC suggests that researchers think he died of sunstroke while weakened by syphilis. On the same day in 2010, this article from the Guardian reports that they think he died of lead posioning from the paints! However they do also mention sunstroke.

Style & Technique

He is famous for the naturalism in his paintings (which wasn’t usual at the time) and for his use of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His religious works are lit dramatically by divine light and his saints look like ordinary people in ordinary contemporary settings (complete with dirty fingernails), the naturalism completely replacing the usual religious symbolism to such an extent prompting one observer to suggest that his Conversion of St. Paul looked like an accident in a blacksmiths shop. He used live models of local people which was also a new way of doing things, to draw from nature.

In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna. (The Guardian, 2010)

As a technique he painted directly on the canvas and no preparation drawings or sketches were found. Some researchers even suggest that evidence points to him using camera obscura techniques and chemicals to burn an initial image onto his canvas and sketch directly onto it with white lead paint and luminous barium sulphate in the dark! Its actually quite amazing.

I found this video from the National Gallery really interesting:

A recording of the National Gallery Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings 1600-1800, Letizia Treves, speaking about Caravaggio at a lunchtime talk.



BBC news. (2010) Church bones ‘belong to Caravaggio’, researchers say At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10333158
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

BibleHub. (2016) Luke 24 At: http://biblehub.com/esv/luke/24.htm
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

De Rynck, P. (2009) Understanding Paintings: Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art. Thames & Hudson

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Jones, J. (2002) ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio (1595-1600)’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jan/05/art
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

Kimbell Art Museum. (2016) The Cardsharps At: https://www.kimbellart.org/collection/search/view/496?text=Michelangelo%20Merisi
(Accessed on 17 Aug 16)

National Gallery. (2016a) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio
(Accessed on 14 Aug 16)

National Gallery. (2016b) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – The Supper at Emmaus At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-the-supper-at-emmaus
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

National Gallery, YouTube. (2016) Caravaggio | You choose | The National Gallery, London At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KcdgFxmnb4
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Guardian. (2009) Was Caravaggio the first photographer? At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/mar/11/caravaggio-art-studio-photography-first
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Guardian. (2010) The mystery of Caravaggio’s death solved at last – painting killed him At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jun/16/caravaggio-italy-remains-ravenna-art
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. (2001) Luke 24. Good News Publishers.

Video: Art of the Western World – Baroque

For this post I thought I’d put the two Baroque videos together:

Art of the Western World – Ep 9: Episode 9: The Birth of Baroque

The 9th in the series:

Art of the Western World – Ep 10: Episode 10: Masters of Baroque

The 10th in the series:

Essential Reading: 17th Century in Europe

Notes from WHA in prep for assignment 3:

1 Political, economic or social factors

The most momentous event of 17th century history was the rise of Dutch republic (where freedom of speculation could be practiced), which coincided with the decline of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the end of 30 Years’ war which devastated Germany. Calvinism was overriding religion but others were tolerated. New prosperity was founded on free enterprise and worldwide maritime trade rather than agriculture. The aristocracy was replaced by upper classes consisting of bankers/merchants/manufacturers all with a desire to own art so easel painting contributed to Dutch economy. In England too, where the new parliamentary government was being accepted. The century heralded in great advances in science, philosophy and mathematics, techniques based on scepticism and trial and error (eg the time of Newton). Rome recovered from protestant reformation and was once again a centre for the arts. The first art academy was founded Florence in 1563 and in the 1580s. Carracci organised meetings of artists to free them from the craft guilds. Jean-Baptiste Colbert reformed the Parisian Academy of arts and crafts.

2 Changes to status or training of artists

The 17th Century saw art collecting & dealing grow with the growth of the academies, as did the popularity of easel painting as it was easily negotiable and transportable. Also, the subject of the paintings in demand from the various patrons differed, middle class households wanted landscapes and simple still lifes for example whereas Kings and Queens wanted portraits as propaganda pieces and the Counter Reformists wanted glorious Baroque epics. Artists under the patronage of the monarchy rose in prominence in society eg Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, and reflected this in their works eg Las Meninas by Velázquez. Both Dutch and Spanish artists worked towards getting their work to be elevated to the status of liberal art and away from the craft guilds for the status in society it provided, eg could be admitted to the ranks of nobility, they would be exempt from tax and military service etc. Rembrandt used 250 or more etchings to spread his fame across Europe, (including the famed hundred-guilder print).

3 Development of materials and processes

In the 17th C, the use of colour & light was heavily developed, the chiaroscuro technique was developed with expressions and contrapposto poses. Rubens made sketches from life but his final works were built from colour & light rather than line, allowing him to offload a lot of his commissions onto his assistants adding only the final touches. Claude Gellée/Lorraine spent many solitary hours with his sketchbooks observing different effects of natural light on the landscape. Jan Vermeer created extraordinary luminosity in his paintings by techniques based on optical experiments and meticulous observation of reflected colours, eg unique capture of sparkle light in minute pearl-like dots. In sculpture, Bernini’s use of colour in St Peter’s was unprecedented and he also developed a technique of carving portrait busts so the presence of the whole body was felt. Borromini’s innovative intersecting equilateral circles and triangles for S Ivo della Sapienza resulted in spatial unity without intervening elements or loss of variety or movement.

4 Styles and movements

Two artists breathed new life into Rome with their new styles in 17th C, Annibale Carracci (idealism), and Caravaggio (naturalism). Caravaggism spread to Italy, Spain, France, and Netherlands with illuminated figures against plain/dark backgrounds and naturalism that replaced symbolism. Only superficial differences define the distinction between Baroque and other 17th c styles such as those of the Naturalists, and the Classicists. High Baroque art usually has a set program that you can ‘read’, a dynamic and dramatic tension between naturalism & classicism, between light & dark, between illusion & reality and always movement. Some of the greatest European artists came from this period, Rubens, Poussin, Bernini, van Dyck, Velázquez and Rembrandt. The later, Louis XIV style, was Baroque style on steroids, flamboyant and rich to excess. The Classical landscape developed by Claude Gellée/Lorraine into one of highest art forms and an independent genre (outside of the netherlands) representing a pastoral world of a Classical Golden Age. In the Dutch republic, easel painting, driven by the demand for art dealing, promoted the development of many independent genres we know today, landscapes, seascapes, portraits, low-life scenes, still life etc. Rachel Ruysch was the first female artist to gain a major international reputation with her specialism in flower pieces.

5 Inside and outside influences

In the 17th Century artists continued to influence each other and finding inspiration from Antiquity, High renaissance artists and Venetian artists such a Titian. Flemish artists such as Rubans were influenced by Italian artists. Artists also took inspiration from Nature like never before. Caravaggio influenced artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi. The design of Versaille in France almost certainly influenced Sir Christopher Wren’s redesign for Hampton Court Palace. In France, the academy was very formally Classical but towards the end of the century voices raised in dissent admirers of Rubans contested the supremacy of Poussin, p606, and Dutch and Flemish work started to influence the path of french artists.

6 Critics, thinkers and historians

In the 17th Century there was a revolt against established thought and they were more experimental, starting with Francis Bacon (1561-1626). René Descartes, philosopher, mathematician and scientist wrote his Discourse on Method in 1637, “I think therefore I am”. Karel van Mander (1548-1606), painter and writer, wrote of Caravaggio works in Rome. Annibale Carracci’s work (1560-1609) provided basis for all academic teaching for next to centuries substituting for the Neoplatonic metaphysical ‘Idea’. Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-96) was an influential art theorist and biographer of Carracci, claimed he rescued art from the Mannerists and criticised Caravaggio. Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy (1611-68) , Charles Lebrun (1619-90) and André Félibien (1619-95) all supplemented Bellori’s lectures on ‘Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects’. Francisco Pacheco (1564-1654) was an inspector of art for the Inquisition of Seville the most important spanish art writer of the time (and father in law to Velázquez). Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) was a Dutch Calvinist and writer. Samuel van Hoogstraten was a Dutch painter and art theorist.


re my previous reflection on the chapter for the 15th & 16th century, I think I’ve done much better with this chapter, the notes are much more concise, I hope I haven’t missed out anything important.


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Video: 16th Century Renaissance

Art of the Western World – Ep 6: Episode 6: The Northern Renaissance

The 6th in the series:

Art of the Western World – Ep 7: Episode 7: Heroic Ambitions

The 7th in the series: the High Renaissance

Art of the Western World – Ep 8: Episode 8: The Play of Light

The 8th in the series: The Renaissance in Venice


I found these videos very helpful in setting the scene on the 16th century. The chapter in WHA is very long and I read it in tiny chunks. These videos I was able to watch a few times to consolidate what I’d been reading about.