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ArtSmart Roundtable – Spanish Baroque

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - "The Holy Family with a Bird",

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme.  This month we are focusing on Artistic Periods or Movements.  Check our the other periods we’ve picked by looking at the all the ArtSmart posts below. This month we welcome a new writer to the ArtSmart team – Alexandra of ArtTrav! Alexandra is based in Florence, Italy and is an art historian turned blogger.  We are super excited to have her in the group!

I definitely have my favorite and not so favorite periods of art (I’m looking at you French Rococo).   I like drama without being intense.  I like skilled painting but a step back from photographic realism.  I definitely like good use of light and dark space on a canvas.  And so I love the Spanish Baroque.

Francisco Ribalta - "Christ Embracing St Bernard"

Francisco Ribalta – “Christ Embracing St Bernard”, 1625-27, Museo del Prado, Madrid

It’s not quite clear to me if the Spanish Baroque painters were fully aware of what was being made in Italy at the start of the 17th century, but they appear to have been influenced by it.  Active from 1595 – 1610, Caravaggio was a major transitional figure in art moving from exaggerated Mannerism to a highly naturalistic style, illuminated with powerful light and shadow.  This dramatic use of light to intensify an image, also known as tenebrism, clearly influenced Spanish artists of the era.

Caravaggio - "St Francis in Meditation"

For comparison here is Caravaggio’s “St Francis in Meditation” 1606, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Francisco de Zurbaran - "St Francis"

Francisco de Zurbaran – “St Francis” 1660, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Take a look at the images above of St. Francis meditating with a scull by Caravaggio (top) and Zurbaran (bottom).  Both use a somber brown palette and lighting extremes while at the same time conveying emotion in the face and pose of the figure.  While Caravaggio’s work is expertly and hyper-realistically painted, it gives the impression of staged performance, perhaps like a human still-life.  I find Zurbaran’s Francis to be far more natural with his somber expression even if I can’t see every wrinkle on his face.  The loosening of the brushwork in his robe actually helps dissolve his body in a less defined shape which point our gaze right up to his eye.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - "The Holy Family with a Bird",

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – “The Holy Family with a Bird”, 1650, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The iconic members of the Spanish Baroque are Francisco Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera (who lived in Naples), Francisco de Zurbaran, Bartolomé Murillo, and of course Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez.  Working in the 17th century, these artists filled the Spanish court and religious building with powerful but softly natural divine portraits, noble portraits and even mythological images. Departing from Caravaggio’s extreme lighting and highly realistic painting style, the Spanish Baroque embraced softness in their brushwork and treatment of their figures while painting with a dark, Earthy palette.

Jusepe de Ribera - The Holy Family with St Catherine

Jusepe de Ribera – “The Holy Family with St Catherine” 1648, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Francisco de  Zurbaran - "St Casilda"

Francisco de Zurbaran – “St Casilda” 1630, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

While the other painters of the movement helped transition to the depiction of everyday characters, it was Velazquez who perfected this subject.  Painting nobles, jesters, street philosophers and the inbred Hapsburg royal family, Velazquez excelled at making poignant, natural portraits with an economy of brushwork.  He went on to specifically inspire Manet, and in general the French Impressionist.  However, that is another Art Movement for another day…

"The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra"

Diego Velazquez – “The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra”, 1645, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Diego Velázquez - "Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan"

Diego Velázquez – “Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan”, 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid

By far, the best collection of Spanish Baroque paintings is at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  With any luck I’ll be making that art pilgrimage soon!


For the rest of the December ArtSmart Roundtable, see:

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paintings from this period are incredible when seen in person. The last time I saw some was at the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil–not where one would expect, but they have some nice examples.


    December 2, 2013
    • Thanks! Sounds like another good reason to visit Brazil 😉 I definitely want to see out more Spanish art in 2014.


      December 3, 2013
  2. I don’t usually associate the word baroque with the word natural but these paintings/portraits are both natural and dramatic. Amazing stuff.


    December 2, 2013
  3. I had to laugh at French Rococo (blech) and the inbred Hapsburgs.

    I love tenebrism as well! The Spanish Baroque period was only briefly covered in my survey class, so I’ve gravitated towards the Dutch Masters (heart me some Rembrandt) but they both share the plays of light and dark, the loosening of the brush, and a more emotive depiction of subjects.


    December 2, 2013
    • Yes thank you, French Rococo is blech! Great comparison to the Dutch Masters. That periods always makes me think of Frans Hals’ group shots, but thanks for pointing out Rembrandt’s genius.


      December 4, 2013
  4. Oh Zurbaran, that guy could paint a still life! I once made the horrible mistake of writing a research paper on Spanish Baroque sculpture. A mistake not because it was Spanish Baroque – I loved the pieces – but a mistake because there wasn’t much of it, haha. And there was only a handful of books and articles for me to read (at least in English). I’ll just say I really felt awful making my professor read that paper!


    December 2, 2013
    • Hmm I’m trying to think of Spanish Baroque artists now and yeah there isn’t a lot. It was mostly religious statuary then probably? Did you hear about this National Gallery of Art show a few years ago? The making of a statue story is one of the best online art features I’ve ever seen!

      You’ll have to revisit Baroque sculpture on your site someday. I’m curious what you came up with! 🙂


      December 10, 2013
  5. What a wonderful post, Christina!

    I like Spanish Baroque very much (obviously: I’m Spanish and I’m Baroque 🙂 )

    The Spanish Baroque painters certainly were “fully aware of what was being made in Italy at the start of the 17th century”. Take for example Diego Velázquez. When he was very young he travelled to Italy in order to study as much as possible. He departed in 1629, and came back to Spain in 1631. In Italy he copied Tintoretto (in Venice), Michelangelo and Raffaello (in Vatican City). Then he asked for permission to spend the summer in Villa Medici (granted), for painting there some old statues. In the Prado Museum you have, among others, such a charming, natural and “modern” masterpiece as this little landscape of Villa Medici (painted in 1630):

    On the other hand, a big portion of Italy was part of the Spanish Crown during three centuries (including the Baroque period); hence there were strong influences in both directions.

    I hope you’ll enjoy your visit to the Prado Museum. It is certainly a paradise for art lovers (and thanks God it is strictly forbidden to take photos!)


    December 3, 2013
    • Thanks so much for the information! Very helpful! This is an amazing period of art. I will of course now need a full research trip to the Prado to investigate further 🙂


      December 21, 2013
  6. Really enjoyed this post Christina!
    I am more familiar with the Renaissance in Venice and how it differed from that in Florence where it began.
    I’m not at all familiar with these Spanish artists so it was interesting to see the comparison with Caravaggio.


    December 3, 2013
    • Thanks Murissa! While Italy has produced a lot of incredible art, these Spanish artists really were inspired and created something unique and wonderful.


      December 3, 2013

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