Mar 13, 2019

The History of Painting (Part 3)


The climax of Renaissance painting came in the 16th century. At the same time, the center of art and culture shifted from Florence to Rome. Under Pope Sixtus IV and his successor, Julius II, the city of Rome was gloriously decorated by Renaissance artists. Some of the most ambitious projects of the period were begun during the papacy of Julius II. Julius commissioned the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo (1475-1564) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to carve sculpture for the Pope's tomb. Julius also invited the painter Raphael (1483-1520) to help with the decoration of the Vatican. With assistants, Raphael frescoed four rooms of the Pope's apartments in the Vatican Palace.

Michelangelo, a Florentine by birth, developed a monumental style of painting. The figures in his painting are so solid and three-dimensional that they look like sculpture. The Sistine ceiling, which took Michelangelo 4 years to complete, is composed of hundreds of human figures from the Old Testament. To paint this tremendous fresco Michelangelo had to lie on his back on scaffolding. The brooding face of Jeremiah among the prophets that surround the ceiling is thought by some people to be his self-portrait.

Raphael came to Florence from Urbino as a very young man. In Florence he absorbed the ideas of Leonardo and Michelangelo. By the time Raphael went to Rome to work in the Vatican, his style had become one of great beauty. He is especially beloved for his beautiful paintings of the Madonna and Child. These have been reproduced by the thousands and can be seen everywhere. His Madonna del Granduca is successful because of its complete simplicity. Timeless in its peacefulness and purity, it is just as appealing to us as it was to the Italians of Raphael's time.


Venice was the chief northern Italian city of the Renaissance. It was visited by artists from Flanders and other regions who knew of Flemish experiments with oil paint. This stimulated an early use of the oil technique in the Italian city. The Venetians also painted on tightly stretched canvas, rather than on the wooden panels commonly used in Florence.

Giovanni Bellini (1430?-1516) was the greatest Venetian painter of the 15th century. He was also one of the first Italian painters to use oil on canvas. Giorgione (1478?-1511) and Titian (1488?-1576), who is the most famous of all Venetian painters, were students in Bellini's workshop.

A master of the oil technique, Titian painted huge canvases in warm, rich colors. In his mature paintings he sacrificed details to the sweeping effect of the whole painting, as in the Pesaro Madonna. He used large brushes to make broad strokes. His colors are especially rich because he patiently built up glazes of contrasting colors. Usually the glazes were put on over a brown tempera ground, which gave the painting a unified tone.

Another great 16th-century Venetian painter was Tintoretto (1518-94). Unlike Titian, he usually worked directly on the canvas without making preliminary sketches or underpaintings. He often distorted his forms (twisted them out of shape) for the sake of the composition and drama of the scene. His technique, which includes broad brushstrokes and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, seems very modern.

The painter Kyriakos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was known as El Greco ("the Greek"). Born on the island of Crete, which was occupied by the Venetian army, El Greco was trained by Italian artists. As a young adult he went to Venice to study. The combined influence of Byzantine art--which he saw all around him in Crete--and of Italian Renaissance art made El Greco's work outstanding.

In his paintings he distorted natural forms and used even stranger, more unearthly colors than Tintoretto, whom he admired. Later El Greco moved to Spain, where the grimness of Spanish art influenced his work. In his dramatic View of Toledo a storm rages above the deathlike stillness of the city. Cold blues, greens, and blue-whites cast a chill over the landscape.

The Renaissance in Flanders and Germany

The golden age of painting in Flanders (now part of Belgium and northern France) was the 15th century, the time of van Eyck. In the 16th century many Flemish artists had taken up the discoveries of Italian Renaissance painters. Some Flemings, however, continued the Flemish tradition of realism. They painted genre--scenes from everyday life, which were often charming and sometimes fantastic. Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), who preceded the genre painters, had an unusually vivid imagination. He invented all sorts of weird, grotesque creatures for The Temptation of St. Anthony. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-69) also worked in the Flemish tradition but added perspective and other Renaissance characteristics to his genre scenes.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?-1543), and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) were the three most important German painters of the 16th century. They did much to soften the grim realism of earlier German painting. Dürer made at least one visit to Italy, where he was impressed with the paintings of Giovanni Bellini and other northern Italians. From this experience he brought to German painting a knowledge of perspective, a feeling for color and light, and a new understanding of composition. Holbein absorbed even more of the Italian achievements. His sensitive drawing and ability to select only the most important details made him a master portrait painter.

Baroque Painting

The 17th century is generally known as the baroque period in art. In Italy the painters Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) represented two contrasting viewpoints. Caravaggio (whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi) always painted directly from life. One of his main concerns was to copy nature as faithfully as possible without glorifying it in any way. Carracci, on the other hand, followed the Renaissance ideal of beauty. He studied ancient sculpture and the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. Caravaggio's style was admired by many painters, especially by the Spaniards Ribera and the young Velázquez. Carracci's painting inspired Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), a major French painter of the 17th century.


Diego Velázquez, (1599-1660), court painter to King Philip IV of Spain, was one of the greatest of all Spanish painters. An admirer of Titian's work, he was a master in the use of rich, harmonious color. No artist could better create the illusion of rich fabrics or human skin. The portrait of little Prince Phillip Prosper shows this skill to great advantage. His remarkable brushwork was much admired by the 19th-century French impressionists.


The paintings of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) are representative of the full-blown baroque style. They are bursting with energy, color, and light. Rubens broke with the Flemish tradition of painting small, detailed pictures. His were huge canvases filled with human figures. He was given many more commissions for large pictures than he could possibly handle. Therefore he often painted only a small, colored sketch. Then his assistants transferred the sketch to a large canvas and completed the painting under Ruben's supervision.


The accomplishments of the Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606-69) are among the most outstanding in history. He had a remarkable gift for capturing human emotions. Like Titian, he worked long at building up a painting in many layers. Earth colors--yellow ocher, brown, and brown-red--were his favorites. His paintings are basically dark in tone and have many very dark areas. The rich values of these dark areas, created with many layers of color, make his technique unusual. Important sections of his paintings are dramatically illuminated by brilliant light.

Jan Vermeer (1632-75) was one of a group of Dutch artists who painted the humble scenes of daily life. He was a master at painting textures of every kind--satin, Persian rugs, bread crusts, metal. The overall impression of a Vermeer interior is that of a sunny, cheerful room filled with cherished household objects.

18th-Century Painting

In the 18th century, Venice produced several fine painters. The most famous was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). He decorated the interiors of palaces and other buildings with tremendous, colorful frescoes representing scenes of wealth and pageantry Francesco Guardi (1712-93) and Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) painted scenic views, many of them recalling the past glories of Venice. Guardi was very skillful with a brush. With a few patches of color he could conjure up the idea of a tiny figure in a boat.

France: The Rococo Style

In France a taste for pastel colors and intricate decoration brought about the development of the rococo style in the early 18th century. Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), a court painter to King Louis XV, and, later, François Boucher (1703-70) and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), were associated with the rococo trend. Watteau painted visions of a dream life in which all is gaiety. There are picnics in the park or woodland parties where gallant gentlemen and elegant ladies amuse themselves.

Other 18th-century painters portrayed scenes of ordinary, middle-class life. Like the Dutch Vermeer, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) valued simple domestic scenes and still-life arrangements. His colors are sober and calm compared to Watteau's.