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


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