Baroque and Enlightenment

Portraits of power

Baroque art in Protestant regions of Europe appealed to the artistic aspirations of a new class of wealthy merchants and this was strongly reflected in contemporary portraiture. In the Netherlands, the Dutch East India Company (VOC: de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) was the financial powerhouse whose profits drove demand for work by artists such as Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer. Rembrandt’s famous civil guard portrait, popularly known as The Night Watch, marked a turning point in his career.

Eighteen people in the painting paid to be included and others were added by Rembrandt to enhance the composition. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rembrandt purchased a very expensive house at the time of this commission. To learn more about the fascinating Night Watch, listen to this discussion with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory.

Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, working at the Court of Philip IV, produced complex and revolutionary Baroque portraits. In the iconic group portrait Las Meninas, Velázquez reflects both on the Spanish monarchy and on his personal status as an artist. Several centuries after it was created, Las Meninas remains one of the most elusive and most discussed paintings in Western art. It has influenced and inspired a diverse range of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paula Rego and John Singer Sargent. To learn more about Las Meninas, visit its extensive Wikipedia page.

In 1701, Hyacinthe Rigaud, a French painter of Catalan origins, portrayed a vision of absolute monarchy in his portrait of Louis XIV. The work was commissioned as a gift for Philip V of Spain, Louis XIV’s grandson, but it was so popular at court that it was never sent to Spain.

Every detail of the work is aimed at producing the quintessential image of absolute power: the nobility of the antique setting, the crimson curtain, and the solemnity of the Sun King wearing his coronation robes, embroidered with the royal fleur de lys.

Pomarède Vincent, Musée du Louvre