Spanish Baroque Art
History, Characteristics of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art in Spain.

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Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650)
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome
By Diego Velazquez.

Spanish Baroque Art (1600-1700)


The Golden Age of Spanish Painting: Characteristics
Early Spanish Baroque
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez
Francisco de Zurbaran
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
Juan de Valdes Leal

Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-27)
Prado Museum, Madrid.
By Francisco Ribalta.

The Golden Age of Spanish Painting - Characteristics

As in the Netherlands, the 17th century era of Baroque art was the Golden Age of Spanish painting. Freed of most Italian elements, and sponsored by an uncompromising Catholic Church - strongly supported by devout Hapsburg Emperors - Spanish Baroque artists adopted a severe and noble style of Catholic Counter-Reformation art, which combined line and colour as well as the graphic and the pictorial, and involved such an acute sense of observation that no other age or style of Christian art has been able to exceed it in truthfulness. It was the Spanish school, in concert with masters of the Dutch Baroque in Holland, that effectively guided European painting along the path of naturalistic realism.

For more details about this
movement, see these resources:
Baroque Sculpture (1600-1700)
Baroque Sculptors (1600-1700)
Baroque Architecture (1600-1750)
Baroque Architects.

For a guide to easel art, see:
Fine Art Painting.
For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.

For a guide to the meaning,
of the visual arts, see:
Definition of Art.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a chronological guide to
key events in the development
of visual arts around the globe
see: History of Art Timeline.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Like Flemish and Dutch artists Spanish Baroque painters - especially Ribera - were also strongly influenced by Caravaggio's use of light, and employed copious tenebrism and chiaroscuro, though not for the sake of a theatrical aestheticism, but rather to create a more urgent sense of drama. Among their ranks they included several masters of genre painting, of portraiture, of religious scenes, for example Murillo, and they included such outstanding interpreters of the asceticism and spirituality of Spanish culture as Zurbaran. And of course there was the incomparable Velazquez.

In terms of subject, Biblical art continued to predominate, but Catholic Hapsburg patronage also financed numerous royal portraits, as well as paintings of historical events and genre scenes. The main schools of Baroque painting in Spain were those of Madrid and Seville, the former enjoying the patronage of the court. Other schools operated in Valencia and Toledo.

Early Spanish Baroque

An early representative of the new Spanish realism was the important Catalan tenebroso and caravaggist Francisco Ribalta (1555-1628), who was active in Madrid and Valencia. Noted for his bold, loose brushwork, his tenebrism and chiaroscuro, he emphasized the sculptural modeling of his forms by contrasting light and shade. Zurbaran was among the artists who was influenced by him.


Based in far-flung Naples, Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) was the first major Spanish painter to adopt the new naturalist style of religious art championed by Caravaggio. He became noted for religious paintings characterized by highly realistic modeling, notably the flesh tints of his saints, as well as a strong preference for dramatic themes, as illustrated in his St Andrew (1630-32, Prado, Madrid), and his Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, Prado). His style progressed from an early emphasis on caravaggism, through a period of experiment with a silvery light, to a mature stage marked by warm, golden tones. One of his most beautiful paintings is The Holy Family with St Catherine (1648, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Note: At the beginning of the 17th century, the Spanish-ruled city of Naples was the second biggest metropolis after Paris, with an estimated population of 450,000 - far in excess of Rome, Milan or Florence. With more than 3,000 churches and monasteries, it was an important centre of religious art. The Neapolitan School of painting was founded (and largely controlled) by Ribera and his henchmen. For more, see: Painting in Naples (1600-1700). For Ribera's debt to Caravaggism, see: Caravaggio in Naples (1607, 1609-1610).

El Greco

In Seville, painting evolved rapidly from Renaissance classicism to the naturalism of the Baroque, as exemplified in works by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), Juan de las Roelas (1560-1625), and Francisco de Herrera the Elder (1595-1656). In Toledo, at the turn of the century, the dominant influence was El Greco (1541-1614). His closest follower was the eminent painter Luis Tristan (1585-1624), who stressed the Tenebrist aspects of El Greco's work. Other Toledan painters included Pedro Orrente (1570-1645), a follower of Ribalta, Fray Juan Bautista Maino (1578-1649), who became the drawing master of Philip IV, and Fray Juan Sanchez-Cotan (1560-1627).


The summit of Baroque painting in Spain was attained in the person of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). For Velazquez the manner of Caravaggio was only a starting-point. In his paintings light is manipulated to reconstruct an 'optical realism' by means of the effects of different tonalities: in other words, the reproduction of reality which is not faithful to the hairs of a beard or the texture of a fabric in the manner sought by the painters of the Renaissance, but to what the eye actually sees, the general impression we receive when looking at something. In Velazquez's paintings light is used as painters of two centuries earlier had used perspective, to make space tangible. Areas of light and shadow are alternated to create the illusion of a place in which the figures are not painted but actually 'are'. These figures are painted with broad, supple strokes of the brush to delineate them clearly without entering upon realistic detail. It was the same technique that was to be used in the nineteenth century by the French Impressionists - a similarity that is not fortuitous: Velazquez too seemed indifferent to the content of what he was painting, to the great religious themes, for example, which had such importance for his contemporaries. Instead, his whole attention was concentrated on painting, on his craft.

Noted for his drawing from life, even his earliest works are characterized by their dense impasto, restrained colour, usually ochres and browns, and their simple natural composition. His first great masterpiece executed in this style is The Waterseller of Seville (1618-22, Apsley House, London), while others include Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1620, National Gallery, London), and The Supper at Emmaus (1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), all belong to his early period, as do a number of portraits, mostly executed in a limited Tenebrist manner, without conceding exaggerated importance to contrasts between dark and light.

In 1623, Velazquez became official portraitist to Philip IV and the higher nobility. Between 1623 and 1629 he completed a number of works with grey backgrounds, revealing his liberation from the Tenebrist formula. The Triumph of Bacchus (Los Borrachos, The Topers) (1629, Prado) dates from this period. In 1632, he produced Christ Crucified (Christ on the Cross) (1632, Prado) a work of particular serenity and simplicity.

As his art improved even further, he revealed greater precision of outline, along with an even more subtle blending of tones and colour. One of his best Baroque paintings at this time is The Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas) (1634-35, Prado) for the Hall of the Kings in the palace of Buen Retiro, Madrid. During the next few years Velazquez focused largely on portrait art - see his Philip IV on Horseback (1634-35, Prado) and Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback (1635-36, Prado) - and subject paintings such as The Dwarf Francisco Lezcano ("El Nino de Vallecas") (1643-45, Prado). He also executed several religious works including the magnificent Coronation of the Virgin (1645, Prado). On a trip to Italy, in 1649, he painted his masterpiece Portrait of Innocent X (1650, Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome), while during his final period (1651-1660), he painted Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus) (1649-51, National Gallery, London) and Las Meninas or The Family of Philip IV (1656-57, Prado).

If we briefly compare Velazquez' Rokeby Venus with similar paintings of the High Renaissance, we see how much the artistic perception of reality had changed in the course of century. In the "Rokeby Venus" Beauty nonchalantly turns her back upon the observer, while Cupid holds up a mirror before her. The mirror was already a familiar trick, often used in Roman Baroque villas and palaces to give an impression of spaciousness. Its ambiguous lighting and refraction increase the picturesque effect of the device. Instead of the marble calm of (say) Giorgione's classic Sleeping Venus (c.1510), or Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), the Rokeby Venus presents us with a charming, but entirely human and un-divine, study of the nude. To this extent Velasquez was the child of his period, the Baroque

Not surprisingly, Velazquez proved a difficult act to follow. Aside from followers like Juan de Pareja (1610-70), Francisco de Palacios (1617-76), and Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo (1615-67), the painters of the Madrid school opted for the easier Rubens-style Baroque.


Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), an amalgam of Estremaduran asceticism and Andalusian elegance, employed a naturalism and extreme chiaroscuro that made him the most restrained and purest of the artists of the Spanish Baroque. During his 20s and 30s he painted a series of compositions for several of the monastic orders such as the Mercedarians and the Jeronymites, as exemplified by The House of Nazareth (1630, Museum of Art, Cleveland). In the process he became a master-drawer of solitary figures, including saints with their eyes raised to heaven. No doubt his art must have benefited enormously from his personal piety and religious devotion, as perhaps illustrated by Saint Luke as a Painter before Christ on the Cross (1660, Prado) for which perhaps he himself was the model.


Within the Seville school, Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) represents the height of elegance and delicacy, and, it must be said, the greatest surrender to popular sentiment. Heavily influenced initially by Old Masters such as Ribera and Zurbaran, he later borrowed from Van Dyck, Rubens and Raphael. He developed his own light and filmy style - the estilo vaporiso - featuring soft contours, delicately toned colours, and a golden-to-silver veil of light: a style which inspired a host of imitators and followers. As well as religious works he specialized in genre-painting of street urchins and beggars, as exemplified by The Young Beggar (1645, Louvre Museum, Paris), and Boys Eating Grapes and Melon (1645-46, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Another important early work is Angels' Kitchen (1646, Louvre, Paris). From 1660, when he co-founded the Seville Academy of Fine Art, he was active as a teacher. An example of his late work is The Immaculate Conception (1678, Prado).

Juan de Valdes Leal

After the death of Murillo, the foremost painter in Seville was Juan de Valdes Leal (1622-1690). Although, like Murillo, he was largely a religious painter, Valdes Leal was more dramatic, more theatrical, more macabre, and more excitable: his works show a vivid sense of movement and brilliant colouring. In many ways he was a forerunner of Romanticism. His most famous works are the two allegories of death in the Hospital de la Caridad, in Seville - In the Twinkling of An Eye (1671), and The End of Worldly Glory (1672). Other major works include Assumption of the Virgin (1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington) and Christ Bearing the Cross (1660, Hispanic Society, New York). In his final years, Valdes Leal completed numerous cycles of paintings for churches, monasteries, and philanthropic institutions - including a series of scenes illustrating the life of St. Ignatius (1674-1676), for the Jesuits.

During the 17th century, the Spanish Baroque in Madrid was driven by Velazquez and by the versatile sculptor, painter and architect Alonso Cano (1601-67) - nicknamed "the Spanish Michelangelo". (See also the sculptor Juan Martines Montanes (1568-1649)) Other interesting exponents of the Baroque idiom in Madrid include: the monumentalist Fray Juan Ricci (1600-1681), son of a painter from the Bolognese school, who came to Spain to work on the decoration of the Escorial, and Antonio Pereda (1608-1678), creator of several elegant religious paintings and allegorical compositions. Of a higher quality is the work of the portraitist Juan Carreno de Miranda (1614-1685), official painter to Charles II, who succeeded Philip IV. His pupil Mateo Cerezo (1626-1666), was a particularly talented colourist, as was Jose Antolinez (1635-1675).

Works of the Spanish Baroque can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world. For details of European collections containing significant holdings of 17th century Spanish paintings, see: Art Museums in Europe. For collections of modern and contemporary Spanish art, see Reina Sofia Madrid.

• For information about 17th-century painting and sculpture in Spain, see: Homepage.

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