Chapter 13: Northern and French Baroque

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In the Protestant countries, and especially in the newly independent Dutch Republic (modern-day Holland), the artistic climate changed radically in the aftermath of the Reformation. Two of the wealthiest sources of patronage—the monarchy and the Church—were now gone. In their stead arose an increasingly prosperous middle class eager to express its status and a new sense of national pride through the purchase of art.

By the middle of the 17th century, a new market had emerged to meet the artistic tastes of this class. The demand was now for smaller-scale paintings suitable for display in private homes. These paintings included religious subjects for private contemplation, as seen in Rembrandt’s poignant paintings or even his prints of biblical narratives, as well as portraits documenting individual likenesses. But, the greatest change in the market was the dramatic increase in the popularity of landscapes, still-lifes, and scenes of everyday life (known as genre painting). Indeed, the proliferation of these subjects as independent artistic genres was one of the 17th century’s most significant contributions to the history of Western art.

In all of these genres, artists revealed a keen interest in replicating observed reality—whether it be the light on the Dutch landscape, the momentary expression on a face, or the varied textures and materials of the objects the Dutch collected as they reaped the benefits of their expanding mercantile empire. These works demonstrated as much artistic virtuosity and physical immediacy as the grand decorations of the palaces and churches of Catholic Europe.

French artists of this period combined elements of classicism (balance, order, and harmony) with ornate, Baroque characteristics, a style used to demonstrate the absolute power and glory of the reigning monarch. King Louis XIV commissioned a team of architects, painters, and sculptors to create his Palace of Versailles using classical structures to express his intellectual and cultural status and elaborate Baroque decoration to demonstrate his wealth and glory. The Palace contained 700 rooms, 2,153 windows, 67 staircases, floor space as large as 12 American football fields, and countless sculptures, paintings, and fountains, all created to emphasize the importance of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” 

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Northern Baroque Art

The Baroque era was a golden age for art in Northern Europe. The Dutch Republic (modern-day Netherlands) in particular had grown extremely wealthy through trade and colonization, and art was a part of everyday life, with the average middle-class home containing between 30 and 40 paintings. Flanders and the Spanish Netherlands remained Catholic under Spanish control but, as a result of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was no longer a major artistic presence in the Dutch Republic. Artists in this region focused on producing artworks popular with the middle class, including portraits, still life, landscape, genre (scenes of everyday life), and flower paintings. Northern Baroque art combines the attention to detail, rich colors, and use of symbolism associated with Northern painting with the illusionism, tenebrism, and theatricality of the Baroque style. 

French Baroque Art 

French Baroque art exhibits an uncharacteristic influence of the classical style not seen elsewhere in Europe during this period; as a result, this era is sometimes referred to as French Classicism. The arts in France were heavily impacted by Louis XIV, who founded the French Royal Academy of Art in 1648 and utilized art and architecture to shape his royal image. The French Baroque style is also called the Louis XIV style, due to his 
influence. French Baroque architecture exhibits the balance, order, and harmony associated with the classical style; all attributes that Louis XIV wished to have associated with his reign.


In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian Catholic priest in Germany, publicly proclaimed a collection of grievances in connection with certain practices within the Church that famously fanned the flames of religious reformation throughout Europe. Although he did not initially intend to splinter the religious monolith, Luther and his followers broke from the Catholic church. Other influential figures in other geographical regions were quick to follow. During this period, the Church was deeply intertwined with the political, social, and cultural powers of the day, and the break quickly resulted in military conflict in many areas of Europe. While much of Northern Europe embraced various protestant sects and attempted to separate themselves from Rome politically, Flanders did not. Much of the artwork produced in this period celebrates the continued Catholicism and the political strength of the region. 

Elevation of the Cross, Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most prolific and sought-after painters of the Baroque period, generally (although not always) defined in painting and sculpture by the representation of action and emotion in ways meant to inspire the Catholic faithful (this triptych was painted less than a century after Martin Luther’s challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church).

The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece is a masterpiece of Baroque painting by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The work was originally installed on the high altar of the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (since destroyed), and is now located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

This triptych is impressive in its size, measuring 15 feet in height and 21 feet wide when open. The original frame, unfortunately lost, would have made the painting even more impressive in size! Due to its size, Rubens actually painted it on-site behind a curtain. Four saints associated with the church of St. Walburga can be found on the exterior of the wings (visible when the altarpiece is closed): Saints Amandus and Walburga on the left and Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Eligius on the right.

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Figure 13.1 Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, Peter Paul Rubens, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches. Antwerp Cathedral.

In the central panel, we see the dramatic moment when the cross of Christ’s crucifixion is being raised to its upright position. Rubens created a strong diagonal emphasis by placing the base of the cross at the far lower right of the composition and the top of the cross in the upper left—making Christ’s body the focal point. This strong diagonal reinforces the notion that this is an event unfolding before the viewer as the men struggle to lift the weight of their burden. 

Figures raising the cross (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Figure 13.2 Figures raising the cross (detail), Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga,  Peter Paul Rubens, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches. Antwerp Cathedral.

Adding to this dynamic tension is the visual sensation that the two men in the lower right are about to burst into the viewer’s space as they work to pull the cross upward. The viewer is caught in a moment of anxiety, waiting for the action to be complete.

In the left panel (below, left) are St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who, standing in the shadow of the rocky outcrop above them, look to their left at what unfolds before their eyes. Shown in quiet resignation and grief over the fate of Christ, the group of women below is a stark contrast of overwrought emotion. Here too Rubens, uses a diagonal along the line of the women from the lower right to the mid-left, setting John and Mary apart, allowing the viewer to focus on their reaction. 

Side panels, Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Figure 13.3 Side panels, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, Peter Paul Rubens, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches. Antwerp Cathedral.
The right panel (above, right) continues the narrative as Roman soldiers prepare the two thieves for their fate as they will be crucified alongside Christ. One thief—already being nailed to the cross on the ground—is foreshortened back into space, while the other—just behind him with his hands bound—is being forcefully led away by his hair. The diagonal Rubens created here runs in the opposite direction of the left panel, moving from the lower left to the upper right along the line created by the leg and neck of the gray horse. These opposing diagonals further create tension across the composition, heightening the viewer’s sense of drama and chaotic action.

In addition to the powerful figural composition, the three panels are visually unified through the landscape and sky. The left and central panels share a rocky outcropping covered with oak trees and vines (both of which have Christological significance). Notice that St. John, the Virgin Mary, and the Roman soldiers just to the left of the cross are standing on the same ground-line. 

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Figure 13.4 Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, Peter Paul Rubens,

 center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches. Antwerp Cathedral

The unification of the central and right panels is accomplished through the sky, which begins to darken in the central panel, moving to the impending eclipse of the sun on the right, an event recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (27:45): “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land.” This attention to biblical accuracy is also seen in the text on the scroll at the top of the cross, which reads: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, as told in the Gospel of John (19:19–21). In both cases, Rubens was adhering to one of the primary mandates of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which called for historical accuracy in the representation of sacred events (at the Council of Trent, church authorities essentially decided theological questions raised by Martin Luther and the Protestants, the period following the Council is known as the Counter-Reformation—the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation). 

Tier 2: Context—Elevation of the Cross

Like all artwork, the context of this work helps us to know how to understand the work in its own time. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 2: Context.

The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was the first commission Rubens received after returning to Antwerp from his Italian sojourn from 1600 to 1608 or 1609 where he worked in the cities of Mantua, Genoa, and Rome. The work is an excellent example of aesthetics and logistics.

Given his extended time in Italy, it is not surprising that we see a number of Italian influences in this work. The richness of the coloration (notice the blues and reds throughout the composition) and Rubens’ painterly technique recall that of the Venetian master Titian, while the dramatic contrasts of light and dark bring to mind Caravaggio’s tenebrism (darkness) in his Roman compositions, such as the Crucifixion of St. Peter. Indeed, we can clearly see Rubens’ interest in his Italian counterpart in the sense of physical exertion, the use of foreshortening—where figures push past the boundaries of the picture plane into the space of the viewer, and the use of the diagonal.

In terms of the muscularity and physicality of Ruben’s male figures, a clear connection can be drawn to Michelangelo’s nude males (the ignudi) on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In addition to looking at the works of past and contemporary masters, we know Rubens was also interested in the study of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). In fact, the figure of Christ seems to have been based on one of the most famous works of antiquity, the Laocoön, which 

Rubens made drawings

 of during his time in Rome.
When the Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was placed on the high altar, there was a specific connection being forged between the subject of the painting and the function of the altar. The act of raising an object up is known in Latin as elevatio. During the Mass performed by the priest at the high altar, there is a moment when the Eucharistic wafer (miraculously transformed into the body of Christ) is elevated. Thus, when the congregation faced the high altar, they not only saw the elevatio of Christ’s cross, but the elevation of the wafer, and thus the altarpiece and the ritual of the mass performed in front of it visually reinforced the message of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of mankind.

Charles I at the Hunt, Van Dyck

In addition to its Catholicism, the artwork of the period highlighted the political power of Flanders. The seventh child of Frans van Dyck, a wealthy Antwerp silk merchant, Anthony van Dyck painted from an early age. He was successful as an independent painter in his late teens and became a master in the Antwerp guild in 1618. By this time, he was working in the studio of the leading northern painter of the day, Peter Paul Rubens, who became a major influence on his work. This influence is evident in his portrait of Charles I. 

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We're in The Louvre, in Paris, and we're looking at a large, vertical portrait of Charles I, King of England. Charles I was self-conscious about being short, but he seems anything but short here. He's towering over the landscape. Well, we really look up at him. In fact, his head is seen against the sky just below the high boughs of that tree, but the artist has very cleverly framed his face by his hat, so that the face isn't lost against the brightness of the sky. And his clothing is fabulous, the satin top, turned down leather boots. 

Well, he's incredibly fashionable. Throughout this entire painting, there is a sense of studied elegant nonchalance. It almost seems like he's even above posing as king. Here, he is shown during the hunt. He's come down from his horse. His horse is being taken care of by the groom. There's a page in the background who seems to be holding his hunting jacket. He's stepped out to face the horizon, but he turns to look out at us. Well, it seems as if he's on his way but he's taking only the most cursory glance, not even acknowledging us, just "Ah yes, of course you are there."

It's true and he was known for having this issue with authority, one could say. Well, he felt that he was the absolute authority, an absolute monarch whose right to rule came from God, and during his reign, there was several conflicts with parliament, who tried to check his power. And there were further problems because he was seen to be too "high church." He married a Catholic and he had very strict ideas about worship that got in the way of the Puritans and the Calvinists. And there were other issues that had to do with the expenditure of money because of wars on the continent. So eventually, things came to a head with parliament, two civil wars. Ultimately, he was arrested, tried, found guilty, and beheaded in London. And England was briefly ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who was on the opposing parliamentary side as a republic, but it's interesting to note that that brief period was followed by the restoration of the monarchy, and Charles' son, Charles II, would then rule England. 

What we're looking at though is this prototype of the ideal aristocratic portrait that we see in England for another almost 200 years. Well, this has enormous impact, especially on 18th-century painters like Gainsborough and Reynolds and it's important when we look at this painting, since we know the subsequent history of the beheading, etc., to understand that this painting was made well before. This king is so clearly confident of his power.

Van Dyck was a child prodigy. Before the age of 20, he was a master in the Painter's Guild, the Guild of St. Luke at Antwerp. He was the head assistant in Ruben's studio. Van Dyck became famous for painting portraits, although he also painted religious images. And Van Dyck, like his great teacher Rubens, had a large studio with lots of assistants, so that he could turn out those portraits. Van Dyck was clearly influenced by Tission, by later by Baroque painters. I'm thinking of Baroque art, especially with that elbow, that juts out into our space. He's come off his horse. This is, in a sense, an equestrian portrait, but dismounted. And if you think about equestrian portraits, their history goes back to the ancient Roman emperors, and there is an image by Van Dyck of Charles I on a horse, it's a symbol of power, but to show the king still powerful even off the horse is quite an achievement. He doesn't need any of the trappings. He doesn't need the crown. He doesn't need the scepter. He doesn't need to be mounted on the horse. He alone even in this informal hunting costume is enough to express his complete control of the State.

And he was smart enough to hire Van Dyck. Van Dyck had an official role in the court of Charles I, so Charles clearly also saw art as a way of proclaiming his powers of kind of propaganda for his rule. There is a corollary between the pose of the King as we see it here, and the artist's ability to make painting look easy. Van Dyck has an ability to run his paintbrush across the surface of the canvas, delineating forms with the kind of ease that makes it look certain and it is a perfect coupling with the self-assurance of the King.

Figure 13.5 Charles I at the Hunt, Anthony van Dyck ca. 1635, oil on canvas, 2.66 x 2.07m. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Dutch Republic

Like Flanders, the Dutch Republic (essentially modern-day Holland) was also embroiled in the conflict surrounding political and religious turmoil. In 1581, the once-independent small regions of the Low Countries united to declare independence from the Holy Roman Empire. This led to a period of incredible economic growth and fertile soil for the fledgling protestant sects to grow. Both of these factors were influential in the resulting visual style. 

The Night Watch, Rembrandt

Would it surprise you to find that the title that Rembrandt’s most famous painting is known by is incorrect? The so-called Night Watch is not a night scene at all; it actually takes place during the day. This title, which was not given by the artist, was first applied at the end of the eighteenth century. By that time, the painting had darkened considerably through the accumulation of many layers of dirt and varnish, giving the appearance that the event takes place at night. A more accurate title, one that is in keeping with the naming of other contemporary portraits of this type, is the Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh, known as the Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands). A more accurate title, one that is in keeping with the naming of other contemporary portraits of this type is the “Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh.”
Figure 13.6 Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh, known as The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is an example of a very specific type of painting that was exclusive to the Northern Netherlands, with the majority being commissioned in the city of Amsterdam. It is a group portrait of a company of civic guardsmen. The primary purpose of these guardsmen was to serve as defenders of their cities. As such, they were tasked with guarding gates, policing streets, putting out fires, and generally maintaining order throughout the city. Additionally, they were an important presence at parades held for visiting royalty and other festive occasions.

Each company had its own guild hall as well as a shooting range where they could practice with the specific weapon associated with their group, either a longbow, a crossbow, or a firearm. According to tradition, these assembly halls were decorated with group portraits of its most distinguished members, which served not only to record the likenesses of these citizens, but more importantly to assert the power and individuality of the city that they defended. In short, these images helped promote a sense of pride and civic duty.

Rembrandt was at the height of his career when he received the commission to paint The Night Watch for the Kloveniersdoelen, the guild hall that housed the Amsterdam civic guard company of arquebusiers, or musketeers.

Questions to Consider

  1. This painting depicts a specific group of people. What are the social implications of this depiction? 
  2. How do the features of this painting compare with the features of the Southern Baroque? 
Captain and Lieutenant (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Figure 13.7 Captain and Lieutenant (detail), The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 

This company was under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, who holds a prominent position in the center foreground of the image. He wears the formal black attire and white lace collar of the upper class, accented by a bold red sash across his chest. At his waist is a rapier, and in his hand is a baton, which identifies his military rank. Striding forward, he turns his head to the left and emphatically extends his free hand as he addresses his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, who turns to acknowledge his orders. He is also fancifully dressed, but in bright yellow, his military role referenced by the steel gorget he wears around his neck and the strongly foreshortened ceremonial partisan that he carries.

The portraits of 16 additional members of this company are also included, with the names of all inscribed on a framed shield in the archway. As was common practice at the time, sitters paid a fee that was based on their prominence within the painting.

Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Civic guards from the company of captain Jacob Backer and lieutenant Jacob Rogh, 1632, oil on canvas, 198 x 531 cm (Amsterdam Historical Museum)
Figure 13.8 Civic guards from the company of Captain Jacob Backer and Lieutenant Jacob Rogh, Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, 1632, oil on canvas, 198 x 531 cm. Amsterdam Historical Museum

Compared to other civic guard portraits, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch stands out significantly in terms of its originality. Rather than replicating the typical arrangement of rows of figures, Rembrandt animates his portrait. Sitters perform specific actions that define their roles as militiamen. A great deal of energy is generated as these citizens spring to action in response to their captain’s command. Indeed, the scene has the appearance of an actual historical event taking place, although what we are truly witnessing is the creative genius of Rembrandt at work.

Men wearing bits of armor and varied helmets arm themselves with an array of weapons before a massive, but imaginary archway that acts as a symbol of the city gate to be defended. On the left, the standard bearer raises the troop banne,r while on the far right a group of men hold their pikes high.

Details, left to right: Standard bearer, young boy with powder horn, and drummer with dog, Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Figure 13.9 Details, left to right: Standard bearer, young boy with powder horn, and drummer with dog, The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. 

In the left foreground, a young boy carrying a powder horn dashes off to collect more powder for the musketeers. Opposite him, a drummer taps out a cadence while a dog barks enthusiastically at his feet.

In addition to the eighteen paid portraits, Rembrandt introduced a number of extras to further animate the scene and allude to the much larger makeup of the company as a whole. Most of these figures are relegated to the background with their faces obscured or only partly visible. One, wearing a beret and peering up from behind the helmeted figure standing next to the standard bearer has even been identified as Rembrandt himself.

Rembrandt’s self-portrait—just one eye and a beret? (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Figure 13.10 Rembrandt’s self-portrait—just one eye and a beret? (detail), The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

While a number of different weapons are included in the painting, the most prominent weapon is the musket, the official weapon of the Kloveniers. Three of the five musketeers are given a place of significance just behind the captain and lieutenant, where they carry out in sequential order the basic steps involved in properly handling a musket. First, on the left, a musketeer dressed all in red charges his weapon by pouring powder into the muzzle. Next, a rather small figure wearing a helmet adorned with oak leaves fires his weapon to the right. Finally, the man behind the lieutenant clears the pan by blowing off the residual powder.

Details, left to right: musketeer in red, musketeer with oak leaves helmet, and musketeer blowing off powder, Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Figure 13.11 Details, left to right: musketeer in red, musketeer with oak leaves helmet, and musketeer blowing off powder, The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Probably the most unusual feature is the mysterious girl who emerges from the darkness just behind the musketeer in red. With flowing blond hair and a fanciful gold dress, the young girl in all her brilliance draws considerable attention. Her most curious attribute, however, is the large white chicken that hangs upside down from her waistband.

The significance of this bird, particularly its claws, lies in its direct reference to the Kloveniers. Each guild had its own emblem, and for the Kloveniers it was a golden claw on a blue field. The girl then is not a real person but acts as a personification of the company.

Golden girl (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Figure 13.12 Golden girl (detail), The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Still Life with a Silver Ewer, Kalf

Still lifes were a great opportunity for these painters to display skill in depicting textures and surfaces in great detail and with realistic light effects. Food of all kinds laid out on a table, silver cutlery, flowers, and intricate patterns and subtle folds in tablecloths all challenged painters. Virtually all still life paintings had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life—this is known as the vanitas theme—implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol, like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste). Flowers wilt, food decays, and silver is of no use to the soul.  

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Video Transcript

We're in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and we're looking at a still life by one of the 17th century's best-known still-life painters, a man whose name is Willem Kalf. And this painting is called Still Life with a Silver Ewer. And the silver ewer is pretty fabulous and ostentatious and luxurious, but then there's that gold goblet stand behind it and that glass goblet with a fabulously complicated stem, and then of course, that Chinese-style porcelain bowl, maybe from China, next to that.

And Kalf is actually known for including Chinese ceramics in his still lifes. These were fabulously precious objects, and it's an important reminder when looking at still lifes that what we're looking at are real treasures. These are things that really speak to the wealth and prosperity of Holland in the 17th century. Still life is an old subject matter in art history, but really comes into its own in the 17th century. But if we go back a little bit in the 15th century, we notice in paintings, for example by Robert Campin, beautiful still life objects included in paintings. But they are always within a religious context, often with symbolic religious meaning, but here not within that explicitly religious context.

It's subtler, but there is still very much a moral message. If you look at the lower right corner, you can see that there is the watch. You can see its glass case has been opened, and you can just make out the hands of that ornate gold clock, and that is a reminder of time, which in turn is a reminder of our mortality, our eventual death. So even though we might be enjoying, literally, the fruits of life, all of this will come to an end. 

We're also reminded about the passage of time in that lemon that's been peeled, which we see so often in Dutch still-life painting. Fruit that's been peeled begins to rot. So again that sense of the passage of time and the inevitability of death. But look at the surface of that lemon, look at the way that the artist is just in love with being able to use his extraordinary technique to define every bump of the surface of the rind, the cooler, almost spongy texture of the white just below the rind, and then the surface of the fruit itself, all of which is just spectacular. This is a lemon, but it's almost as if it was a gem. That attention to surface, that attention to the sparkling detail, can be seen in the glass and the silver, and of course the cooled quality of the surface of the porcelain. I love the bulges on the lemon that sits on the table, but also a little off the table and in our space. It's all so close, we could reach out and touch it and enjoy it ourselves. And so in that way, it reminds us about the pleasures of life very palpably.

 But there's also something inherently quiet and almost spiritual about the way that light is handled in this painting. You have light coming from the upper left, behind us slightly. It's entering into this architectural niche, which is very dark and allows for this beautiful highlighting, almost a stage for these objects. And you have the reflectivity, but then you also have places where one object reflects another object, for instance, the lower right of the silver vase is reflecting the yellow of the lemon. And then look at the way that light reflects off of and also passes through the glass at the center top, creating both shadow and illuminated shadow at the same time. And it looks like on the bottom foot of that silver pitcher, we can see the reflection of a window. In this description of texture in the reflectivity, we see a continuous tradition going back to artists like Campin and Van Eyck, a very specifically northern tradition that here we see several hundreds of years later in this beautiful still life painting by Willem Kalf.

Questions to Consider

  1. Still life painting offers a unique opportunity to a painter. What elements of this painting connect to the philosophical contexts of the time?
  2. How does this still life compare with Woman holding a balance?

Johannes Vermeer's famous work, Woman Holding a Balance, combines many of the features of all of these genres. The work is replete with symbolism surrounding delicate objects (still life) as well as the cultural and social commentary we expect from works at this time and place. 

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We're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and we're looking at one of their Vermeers. This is Woman Holding a Balance. It's so quiet. It is quiet, and like all Vermeers, it shows a scene of everyday life, but Vermeer imbues these scenes with greater meaning. And art historians have been arguing for years about what those meanings are. So let's just describe what it is that we see. 

Well we see a woman dressed up in very fine clothing. So we know that she's part of the upper merchant class in Holland in the 17th century. The class that was increasingly buying art, the scale and subject of which is very much like the painting we're looking at. She's wearing a typical cap, probably made of linen, that women would have worn when they were at home. She's also wearing a fur-trimmed jacket which was meant to keep people warm because remember, in Holland, it gets cold in the winter, and you can only have so many fires going in your house.

And she stands in front of a table. On the wall opposite her is a window, which is letting in just a tiny bit of light, and also a mirror. She's got in her right hand a very fine balance. Interestingly, there is nothing on either side. It's as if she's waiting for the balance to come to rest. And then, on the table before her, we see a number of boxes. One box is open, and that would have held the balance and the weights. In the other box are strings of pearls. And we see some coins, so we have an indication of material wealth and perhaps she's about to weigh the valuables that are in front of her.

However, we know that there's probably much more going on here, because in back of the woman's head, you can see that there's a painting with Christ in a brilliant mandorla towards the top functioning as judge over all the souls that have ever lived, and you can see those souls down at the bottom. The souls at Christ's right would have been the blessed. The souls on Christ's left would have been the damned, and so this is the Last Judgment. Having that kind of religious image in back of her is a strong indication that this painting is probably about a lot more than simply a woman who is weighing her valuables. Her head divides the blessed from the damned, the left side of the composition from the right side. 

The subject is very much the play of light coming into this room through that golden curtain casting a shadow on the wall behind and illuminating her face and the front of her body. That light is providing the ability for the artist to create a kind of motion, that is this woman is in the process of waiting for this balance to come into alignment, so this idea of time and change. But at the same time, the kind of complete static, frozen quality, that intense quiet that pervades the space.

 This painting seems to be something very real, very natural. But we also know that it's very carefully planned out by Vermeer. We know exactly where the vanishing point is, right at that pinky finger of the woman's right hand, and we also know that the exact center of the painting is where those balances meet. We can also see that kind of compositional control in the way that color is handled. Look at the subtle modulation from the deep shadow near the light. Look at the way that the gold of the curtain is picked up by the two bars of the frame on the right side and then picked up again by the gold quality of some of the pearls and of her dress. Naturally, art historians haven't agreed on what Vermeer is actually saying specifically, but I think we can clearly say that the painting more broadly is a reminder of the kinds of changes that are taking place in the 17th century. Here we have artists that are painting now for merchant class as opposed to for the church. This is an interior scene. There's a sense of intimacy here. What was the relationship between wealth and piety, between wealth and spirituality? And perhaps the need to balance those two and maybe the balance signifies that because she's got her worldly possessions on the table but behind her is this image of Christ at the Last Judgment. That idea of weighing, of judging.

These are educated guesses, we really don't know. Art historians have even tried to identify the particular painting of the Last Judgment that's behind the woman. We haven't been able to find it though. And then there's the question of if it's a mirror, what would it mean and why would it be there? Why did Vermeer put it there? Mirrors are often symbols of vanity, and so maybe that relates to the worldly possessions on the table in front of her. A concern for things of the world instead of a concern for the spiritual. Well that's one of the older readings of this painting, that she is not attending to the spiritual world behind her. She's attending instead to the world of the physical, to the world of wealth that's before her. And so this has been seen as kind of a cautionary vanitas. But mirrors can also signify self knowledge and truth. The painting could mean all of these things; it could mean something that we haven't yet determined. Art historians think about the context of 17th-century Holland when trying to interpret this painting.


When the King of France, Louis XIV, first decided to build a new palace and move his court out of Paris, there was nothing on his chosen site at Versailles but a smallish hunting lodge. Today, the palace stands as a prime example of the over-the-top excesses of the French nobility that led to the French Revolution. Thanks to the team of Louis le Vau (architect to the aristocracy), André le Nôtre (landscape designer extraordinaire), and Charles le Brun (uber-fashionable interior decorator and painter), Louis XIV’s enormous and stylish palace was completed 21 years after it was begun in 1661, allowing Louis (and his closest friends, family, courtiers, servants, and soldiers—all 20,000 of them) to officially set up court. It is enormous. The place has 700 rooms and 2,153 windows and takes up 67,000 square meters of floor space. 

Over and above anything else, Versailles was meant to emphasize Louis’s importance. After all, this is the guy who called himself The Sun King; as in, everything revolves around me. “L’état, c’est moi” (I am the state), he said, famously. By building Versailles, Louis shifted the seat of the French government away from the feuding, gossiping, trouble-making noble families in Paris. He had the whole palace and its massive gardens built along an east-west axis so the sun would rise and set in alignment with his home. He filled both the palace and its gardens with sculptures, paintings, and fountains that all focused on himself.

In light of the larger European conflict, it is this indulgence and decadence that characterizes much of the artistic style of the French Baroque.

Vue du château de Versailles depuis le par, 1664-1710 (photo: Marc Vassal, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Figure 13.13: Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre, and Charles le Brun, Palace of Versailles, 1664–1710 (photo: Marc Vassal, CC BY-SA 2.0).
Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles, 1664-1710 (photo: ToucanWings, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Figure 13.14: Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles, 1664–1710 (photo: ToucanWings, CC BY-SA 3.0)

When you walk through the palace at Versailles, you’re bombarded with room after room of marble and gold and paintings: ceilings painted to place Louis in the company of the Greek gods, busts of him in a huge formal curly wig staring at you wherever you go, and gold everywhere, so you never lose sight of how wealthy the King of France was. To give you just a hint, we’re talking about a man who spent the equivalent of $5,000,000 on buttons over the 54 years of his reign. That’s an average of almost $100,000 a year, on buttons.

Of the 700 rooms inside the palace, there are a few notable ones that served very particular functions. The king’s official state bedroom is one, where the incredibly detailed lever (rising) and coucher (going to sleep) rituals would be performed each day. Both involved a whole host of courtiers waiting on the king while he got up or went to bed, following strict rules of position and rank to determine who got to perform which parts of the ceremony.

Queen's bed chamber, Versailles (photo: Scott SM, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Figure 13.15: Queen’s bed chamber, Versailles (photo: Scott SM, CC BY-NC 2.0).

The queens of France who lived at Versailles were the focus of a similar ritual (the toilette) in the queen’s main bedchamber, a room where they also gave birth in public. The symmetrical Salon of War and Salon of Peace are decorated with paintings highlighting, unsurprisingly, France’s military might and the benefits of living calmly under a tranquil ruling government. The Cabinet des Chiens (literally, the Study for Dogs) was a room that Louis XV’s valets shared with his dogs, who also got to sleep in a room full of gilding and painted decoration.

Antoine Coysevox, Equestrian Relief of King Louis XIV as a Roman Emperor, Salon de la guerre, 1715 (photo: Mario Sánchez Prada, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Figure 13.16 Antoine Coysevox, Equestrian Relief of King Louis XIV as a Roman Emperor, Salon de la Guerre, 1715 (photo: Mario Sánchez Prada, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors, which runs along the entire length of the central building. One wall contains a row of giant windows looking out over the gardens (almost 2,000 acres of manicured lawns, fountains, and paths arranged in the formal garden style that André le Nôtre was known for), and the other wall is covered with 357 mirrors that catch the setting sun’s rays inside the palace and remind us yet again (as if we could forget) of Louis XIV’s power.

Though the room is over-the-top in its grandeur, it was mainly used as a passageway. After the king got up for the day, he proceeded through this mirrored hall to his private chapel, and as many courtiers as could fit would squeeze in, waiting for their chance to beg a favor of the king as he passed by them. Since Louis XIV’s day, the room has also been used for parties (the masked ball for the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) and military agreements (the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I was signed here in 1919).

Versailles, 1664-1710 (photo: Susan Ware, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Figure 13.17: Versailles, 1664–1710 (photo: Susan Ware, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The palace’s outside isn’t as ornate as its inside. Sure, it’s still huge, and sure, it’s still got plenty of gold and statues and embellishments, but the basic structure is classical; it’s symmetrical, repetitive, and based on simple elements that are directly borrowed from ancient Greek temples. The façade that faces the gardens looks remarkably similar to the White House in Washington, DC, albeit much bigger and not so white.

This is not a sign of Louis XIV’s hidden modesty; classical architecture was intended to remind people of the greatness of the antique Greek and Roman past (Greek and Roman civilization were often lumped together and called classical). When Versailles was being built, this ancient past was seen as the root of the intellectual and aesthetic superiority they believed had descended to the French nation. Classical architecture was the name of the game at Versailles, and although it wasn’t as complicated as some of Louis XIV’s other choices, he was making a direct link from himself all the way back to the great thinkers and builders of the ancient, classical, past.

Jean-Baptiste Tuby after a drawing by Charles Le Brun, Apollo Fountain, Palace of Versailles, installed 1671 (photo: sharkgraphic)
Figure 13.18: Jean-Baptiste Tuby after a drawing by Charles Le Brun, Apollo Fountain, Palace of Versailles, installed 1671

Louis, ever modest, especially liked linking himself directly to the Greek god Apollo (Sun King = Sun God). The Apollo Fountain and Apollo Salon remain two of the major highlights of a visit to Versailles. Not content with the restraint of pure classical design, he had his team create a palace that used classical structures to contain the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque style that was all the rage in the mid-seventeenth century. He wanted to make the biggest possible statement and what he ended up with was Versailles: a palace designed to glorify the French monarch by incorporating both ornate Baroque decoration that amply demonstrates his wealth and glory and the stricter rules of classicism that express his intellectual and cultural stature.

Previous Citation(s)
On the Baroque: Dr. Esperança Camara, "Baroque art, an introduction," in Smarthistory, June 9, 2015, accessed July 19, 2023, On Rubens: Dr. Shannon Pritchard, "Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross," in Smarthistory, November 19, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, On Van Dyck: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed July 19, 2023, On Rembrandt: Dr. Wendy Schaller, "Rembrandt, The Night Watch," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed July 19, 2023, On Kalf: Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, "Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer," in Smarthistory, March 14, 2016, accessed June 7, 2023, and Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, "Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer," in Smarthistory, March 14, 2016, accessed June 7, 2023, On Versailles: Rachel Ropeik, "Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre, and Charles le Brun, Château de Versailles," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed July 19, 2023,

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