Baroque Painting: The Golden Age

Tenebrism Velázquez
School of Seville School of Madrid


The seventeenth century is in all respects the golden age of Spanish painting. Italian influence was largely rejected in favour of Mannerist formulas and a severe and noble style which used chiaroscuro not for the sake of a theatrical aestheticism, but to create a more urgent sense of drama. Though undoubtedly Baroque, this was a profoundly realistic art, preferring a broad visual synthesis, with a predominance of pictorial over tactile values, to the analytical approach of the sixteenth-century primitivists. Interest in the faithful reproduction of materials encouraged virtuosity. Artists grew more fastidious in their choice of colours and more intimately concerned with tonal values. Light served not only to lend brightness to external forms but acquired a transcendental function. Spatial values became more subtle and more numerous; tonal gradation gained in importance and the conventional mode of observation gradually gave way to one so penetrating that no other age or style has been able to equal it in truthfulness. It was, in fact, the great Spanish masters who guided European painting along the paths of naturalistic realism.

The new art remained faithful to the themes of the preceding century: pictures of religious subjects continued to predominate, but the patronage extended by the Hapsburgs to the more famous artists resulted in the execution of numerous royal portraits, as well as paintings of historical events and scenes from private and court life. In the best work of this period a superb elegance of gesture and a psychological profundity are combined with a splendid harmony of tones and colours. It is a style that strikes a perfect balance between the graphic and the pictorial, between the representation of detail and a suggestion of the imperfections of human vision. The principal schools of this period were those of Seville and Madrid, the latter enjoying the patronage of the court. Initially, there were other important schools at Valencia, which maintained contact with Italy, and at Toledo, a training center for painters who later worked elsewhere.


Bookmarks for major artists
Francisco Ribalta José de Ribera
Juan Bautista Maino Juan Sánchez Cotán

In the transition between the 16th and 17th centuries there was a spate of tenebrism that produced some of the most characteristic works of the golden age of Spanish painting. (Tenebrism is a term describing predominantly dark tonality in a painting. It derives from the Italian 'tenebroso', meaning obscure, and is applied mainly to the 17th century followers of Caravaggio in Italy and elsewhere.)

The first painter to abandon Mannerism for the new realistic style was Francisco Ribalta (1555-1628), a Catalan who, after receiving his early training in Toledo, spent the years of his maturity in Valencia. It is not known whether Ribalta was acquainted with the work of Caravaggio or whether he arrived independently at results parallel to those achieved by the Italian Tenebrists. At all events, his style is remarkable for its virile naturalism. The brushwork is increasingly bold and free, so different from the polished smoothness of the previous age. Ribalta sought expressiveness as well as beauty and accentuated the sculptural modeling of his forms by contrasting light and shade. Among his better known works are the Last Supper in the Valencia Museum, the Christ Embracing St Bernard in the Prado and the panels of the great altarpiece of Algemesí, painted in 1603; one of these, that depicting the martyrdom of St. James, suggests a connection between Ribalta and Navarrete. Juan Ribalta, Francisco's son, collaborated with his father, but died young, before his talents had fully bloomed.

It is with José de Ribera, however, that Tenebrism really triumphs. Ribera (1591-1652) was trained in Valencia, but in about 1616 he moved to Italy, settling in Naples. A clever draftsman and a master of composition, his numerous paintings are more varied than the legends concerning him might lead one to suppose. In his better work the dominant colours, browns and reds, contrast with cruel lighting, which sometimes appears to do violence to the forms. In Ribera highly refined execution and realistic modeling, particularly the marvelous flesh tints of his saints, are combined with a marked preference for dramatic themes, as may be seen in his St. Andrew, in the Prado Museum, or better in the painting of the martyrdom of the same saint, now in Budapest. His Crucifixion, in the collegiate church of Osuna, and his Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630), in the Prado, are similar in intention and technique. A preference does not imply total exclusion, and there is evidence that Ribera was also a sumptuous colourist. His style evolved from an early preoccupation with "tenebrist" techniques, through a period of experiment with a silvery light, to a final stage characterized by warm and golden tones. One of his most beautiful paintings is the Holy Family, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Ribera also practiced engraving and his influence was considerable, both in Italy, where he lived in Naples when it was ruled by Spanish viceroys, and in Spain. Much of his work was intended for Spanish patrons and was an object of admiration as well as a stimulus to Spanish painters.

The school of Seville progressed rapidly from Renaissance classicism to the naturalism of the Baroque. Pacheco, to whom we have already referred in connection with the art of the late sixteenth century, was joined by other important masters, in particular Juan de las Roelas (c. 1560-1625), one of whose monumental creations is the painting of St. James during the battle of Clavijo (Seville cathedral), dating from 1609, though even this is surpassed by the magnificent Martyrdom of St. Andrew, in the Seville Museum, a composition in which the painter's interest in naturalism and his rejection of formalistic representation are revealed in the vitality of the details. The figures in the lower part of the picture are especially fine. The spatial values are rendered with visual fidelity.

Another important member of the school of Seville was Francisco de Herrera the Elder (1596?-1656), whose violent technique was more daring than anything achieved by his colleagues. He excelled in depicting character. Typical of Herrera's work are the series of scenes from the life of St. Bonaventure (now owned by the Prado Museum and Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina) painted in 1628, and the Apotheosis of St. Hermengild, in the Seville Museum.

The Toledan school followed a course parallel to the one we have just described. It is easy to understand that around 1600 the dominant influence in Toledo should have been that of El Greco. The link with the master was strongest in the distinguished painter Luis Tristán ( 1586?-1624), who stressed the Tenebrist aspects of some of El Greco's work. Tristán's development was interrupted by his premature death, but not before he had completed work of such merit as the altarpiece in Yepes (1616) and that of Santa Clara de Toledo which was finished in 1623.

Another artist to receive his training in Toledo was the Murcian Pedro Orrente (c. 1570-1645), who, in his youth, was a friend of El Greco's son, but whose art holds closely to the course set by Bassano and Ribalta. Chiaroscuro is the principal element of his style, particularly in the paintings of his maturity. For the greater part of his life Orrente lived in Valencia and, in fact, became a member of the Valencian school. He painted numerous Biblical scenes in which the landscapes have a certain importance. These are dominated by the brownish and reddish tones popularized by Ribalta.

Fray Juan Bautista Maino (1578-1649), who was trained in the studios of Toledo, became the drawing master of Philip IV. He stands apart from his colleagues in resisting the general predilection for dark settings with the light coming from a single or one principal source. The transparency of his colours and the brightness of his tones are combined with a very individual sense of space in which something of the late sixteenth century goes hand in hand with a love of realistic detail typical of the new age. Two of Maino's works that claim attention are the Adoration of the Shepherds, in the Prado Museum, and the Pentecost, in the Toledo Museum.

Fray Juan Sánchez-Cotán (1560-1627), a native of La Mancha, also studied at Toledo. In his "bodegones", or still-lifes of food, remarkable for their purity of form and subtle balance, the light has a diaphanous quality similar to that achieved by Maino. His best-known still-life is that in the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, California.

An interesting part in the transition from classicism to naturalism was also played by the so-called second-generation Italians, descendants of the artists summoned by Philip II to work on the Escorial. One of the foremost of these was Eugenio Cajes (c. 1577-1634), a native of Madrid. Though his early work still reflects the Italianizing tendencies of his father, his painting of the Virgin and St. John before Christ in the church of Don Juan de Alarcón, Madrid, is thoroughly Spanish in character. Another artist with a similar background was Vicente Carducho (c. 1576-1638), court favourite until the arrival of Velázquez. His work includes a great series of canvases, illustrating the history of the Carthusian Order, begun in 1626 and destined for the church of Paular. Carducho, well known for his book Dialogues on Painting, had numerous pupils, the most noteworthy being Francisco Collantes and Francisco Rizi.


Bookmarks for major Velázquez paintings
Christ at Emmaus Topers
Baltasar Carlos Surrender of Breda
Coronation of the Virgin Juan de Pareja
Rokeby Venus Spinners
Las Meninas

The culmination of Spanish seventeenth-century painting, and one of the climaxes of world art in general, is reached in the work of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), an artist whose mastery of space and light was admirably served by an impeccable technique. Born in Seville, he received his first lessons from the daring Francisco de Herrera the Elder, but soon became apprenticed to Pacheco, with whom he worked for five years, eventually marrying his daughter. In his writings Pacheco recalls how Velázquez was always extremely exacting in his technique and eager to work directly from life, preferring figure studies and genre scenes. Even the earliest works of the master are characterized by relatively dense impasto, objectivity of vision, restraint in the use of colour, mainly ochers and browns, and simplicity and naturalness of conception. The Old Woman Frying Eggs (Edinburgh) and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, in the National Gallery, London, and Christ at Emmaus, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, all belong to this early period. Among the portraits which Velázquez painted about this time are the admirable, vigourous, and thoroughly typical studies of Sor Francisca Jerónima de la Fuente. Almost all these paintings are executed in a Tenebrist manner which utilizes only the tonal organization characteristic of that style without conceding unwarranted importance to contrasts of light and dark.

In 1623, at the instigation of his father-in-law Pacheco and profiting from the fact that the king's minister, the powerful Count-Duke of Olivares, was a native of Seville and protector of his fellow townsmen, Velázquez went to Madrid and was presented at court. There he painted a portrait of Philip IV which so pleased the monarch that he enlisted Velázquez in his own service, granting him an official position in the palace. In this way the artist was able to familiarize himself with the magnificent royal collection. Thenceforth Velázquez became official portraitist to the royal family and the higher nobility. Between 1623 and 1629 he painted a number of portraits in which gray backgrounds of extreme sensitivity mark his liberation from the Tenebrist formula. The Topers (Prado), in which the artist burlesques the hallowed classical theme of the triumph of Bacchus, also dates from this period. In 1629 he went to Italy, where he remained for a year and a half, painting, among other things, the magnificent Forge of Vulcan, now in the Prado. He also painted the delicate views of the Villa Medici which have been described, somewhat mistakenly, as impressionistic, though their splendid luminosity, freedom of execution, and unfaltering technical strength, which must have aroused the enthusiasm of the masters of the second half of the nineteenth century, undoubtedly point in the general direction of the Impressionist style. On his return to the court of Madrid, he completed a Crucifixion of unparalleled serenity and simplicity.

The art of Velázquez developed irresistibly in the direction of ever greater synthesis. He painted the reflection of light in forms and colours rather than the forms and colours themselves; his drawing, such is its perfection, appears to illuminate his figures and details from within. This precision of outline, this subtle blending of tones and colours, this intervention of atmosphere between the eye and its object do as much to define the style of the artist as his simple and profound respect for everything in nature. A free and comprehensive vision of all the elements of reality, men, things, landscape, and, not least, the spirit, blazes forth in one of the masterpieces of his middle period, the Surrender of Breda, which he painted to adorn the Hall of the Kings in the palace of Buen Retiro, Madrid. His portraits of the grandees of Philip IV and the Prince Baltasar Carlos, now in the Prado, were intended for the same purpose. During the years that followed Velázquez concentrated on portraits and scenes of the chase; around 1645 he made most of his famous studies of madmen and buffoons one of the most striking being Boy of Vallecas (Prado) with its marvelous distant landscape. In the work of this period browns and golden ochers and the blacks, pinks, and reds of the costumes stand out against silvery or lead-blue backgrounds. The magnificent Coronation of the Virgin (Prado) is one of the several religious paintings he also produced at about this time.

In 1649 Velázquez returned to Italy with instructions to purchase paintings for the royal collection. While there he executed the famous portrait of Pope Innocent X and another of his own servant and pupil, Juan de Pareja.

During his final period, between 165l, the date of his return to Madrid, and 1660, the year of his death, Velázquez, with a resilience rare even among men of genius, produced work surpassing all he had done before. A series of portraits of princes and infantas, mostly conceived as harmonies of pink, white, red, and black, was followed (1656-1658) by the marvelous Rokeby Venus, in the National Gallery, London. To these same years belong two of the artist's greatest works: Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor) and The Fable of Arachne. While the former reaches out toward the metaphysical, transforming its human subjects into transcendental aspects of a moment eternalized by art, the latter captures the essence of movement by revolutionary means, with "sketchy" drawing and blurred forms. The cold light of the foreground, which bathes the actual spinners, is contrasted with the warmer and brighter atmosphere of the tapestry, in which their labor is reflected. Both paintings, however, are characterized by superb compositional balance, by the static beauty that Velázquez was able momentarily to impose on every form of reality that escapes and flows. On the other hand, the painter's interest in portraying light was not the result of a preoccupation with technique, an attitude foreign to the aesthetics and even the optics of the seventeenth century, but developed out of a profound, inner religiosity, which had always been part of the Spanish tradition and was now to find new and vigourous expression.

These works were followed by further admirable portraits, like that of Prince Felipe Próspero, that of the Infanta Margarita, and several of the old king. The artist's superhuman virtuosity, however, did have one negative reault: a lack of true followers. In fact, apart from Pareja (died 1670), Francisco de Palacios (died 1676), and, above all, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (died 1667), now credited with a number of works formerly attributed to his master, the painters of the Madrid school turned aside from the difficult path trodden by Velázquez, preferring the lower ground of the Baroque, a style of painting brought to Spain by Rubens.

School of Seville

Bookmarks for major artists
Francisco de Zurbarán
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Juan de Valdés Leal

Born in 1598 in Estremadura, Francisco de Zurbarán received his training in Seville with the painter Diaz de Villanueva. In spite of his wholehearted adherence to the Andalusian school, he remained Estremaduran by temperament, superimposing a natural asceticism and a certain rustic simplicity on southern grace and elegance. Although completely faithful to his own emotions, in his naturalism and intense chiaroscuro Zurbarán clung to a certain archaism that made him the most restrained and purest of the artists of the Spanish Baroque. In 1616, only two years after entering Villanueva's studio, he produced work as important as the Immaculate Conception now in the Valdés collection at Bilbao. Shortly afterward he signed a contract to paint series of compositions for several of the monastic orders of Seville who were his most important patrons. The Mercedarians possesses a magnificent series of scenes from the life of San Pedro Nolasco (1629), in which the qualities of the artist are fully displayed. His White Friars, a favourite theme, reveal his skill in the handling of ivory tones and broad parallel folds, like the fluting on a column, where gold and yellow reflections gleam even in the shadows.

Another important series was painted for the Jeronymites of the monastery of Guadalupe (1638-1639). Here the mood varies from a vein of realism to visions of miracles and scenes of contemplation in which the mysticism of the great Estremaduran artist has mingled with his colours. Perhaps the finest of these scenes is the mystical House of Nazareth, in the Cleveland Museum.

Zurbarán was also a master of simple themes, solitary figures, static and somewhat tense, saints with their eyes raised to heaven, and genre paintings in which everyday objects are clothed in mystery, as in the still life of 1633. His appreciation of earthly beauty was no less strong than his feeling for the ascetic, and he painted figures of saints, like the St Apolonia, in which the gracefulness of his Andalusian models is lovingly portrayed. The religious and artistic strands of Zurbarán's nature are impressively interwoven in a picture known as The Painter before Christ Crucified, in the Prado Museum. Here, without loss of unity, he idealizes Christ on the Cross while intensifying the realism of the portrait, for which perhaps he himself was the model.

After 1640, Zurbarán apparently experienced an inner crisis. The twenty-year struggle to maintain his artistic primacy in an alien city must have proved too great a strain. New painters, like Murillo, were catching the public eye, and, to some extent, the painter of the White Friars sought to soften his mood, turning toward a more human, but at the same time more ordinary mode of expression, which eventually took possession of his art. Zurbarán's last known works date from 1661 and 1662, shortly before his death in Madrid.

In Spanish painting, and within the Andalusian school to which he also belonged, Murillo represents the height of elegance and delicacy, and, it must be added, the greatest surrender to popular sentiment. His art was always at the service of his theme, and the theme, in turn, was relived with fervour. In the fervour, however, profundity was often ignored in favour of more brilliant, but aesthetically less satisfying qualities. Murillo was as sensitive to feminine beauty and the beauty of children as to the subtleties of colour and tonal gradation made possible by the advanced technique of the Baroque. Lyrical rather than dramatic, Murillo was by no means unaware of the prevalence of social unrest, reflected in literature in the picaresque novel, and his whole approach to religious painting was based on a realistic point of view.

A journey to Madrid in about 1643 enabled Murillo to study the Venetian and Flemish paintings forming part of the royal collections. Otherwise, he remained permanently in Seville, his native city, and his life was a simple one, free of serious problems. By 1645 his style had hardened in its final mold, as may be seen in the paintings executed about this time for the Franciscans, with the first of those figures of rascals and beggars in which he was to specialize. This is the spirit, for example, of the Boys Eating Melon, in Munich, and the Beggar, in the Louvre, which is a study in yellowish ochers and browns.

In 1646 he began an extensive series of paintings of sacred personages and saints, executed with ever-increasing fluency. In 1656 he painted the Vision of St Anthony, in Seville cathedral, in which a leading role is played by a golden light. A certain tendency to sketchiness in some of the details foreshadows the art of Goya. Between 1665 and 1680 he executed the twenty paintings of the Capuchin series. Another important series was painted for the church of the Hospital of Charity in 1670-1674. The delicacy of the lighting and colour effects and the ability to create distinctly human types are the primary qualities of Murillo's art, which inspired a host of imitators and followers.

The more dramatic side of seventeenth-century Spanish painting is well represented by Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690). He tended to give expression to the pessimism of the Baroque, which, for all his religious idealism, he was sometimes unable to suppress and which inspired visions as theatrical as the two famous pictures in the church of the Hospital of Charity in Seville. Painted in 1672, these reflect all the macabre aspects of death, in compositions that reveal the influence of the allegorical engravers. Magnificent as they are, these two works have detracted from the artist's reputation, since they have attracted too much attention to the themes of his art and away from his qualities as a painter. Impetuous, dynamic, a bold colourist who experimented with the principles of defocusing, Valdés Leal was a forerunner of Romanticism. Trained in Cordova, he revealed a propensity for violence even in his earliest paintings. Between 1653 and 1654 he painted a cycle of compositions for the church of the Order of St. Clare at Carmona, including the Attack of the Saracens on the Convent (Seville Museum), in which his qualities are displayed to the full. Shortly afterward, he painted an altarpiece for the Carmelites of Cordova, with figures of the prophets remarkable for their grandeur. In 1656 he settled in Seville. He painted his Assumption of the Virgin now in the National Gallery, Washington, in 1659, and in the following year the version of Christ Bearing the Cross, now in the Hispanic Society in New York, both among his more decidedly Baroque works.

In Valdés Leal we begin to detect the freedom of treatment that marks the approach of modern painting. Asymmetry is often encountered in these compositions, which also succeed in creating an appropriate "atmosphere." In the final years of his life, Valdés Leal continued to produce cycles of paintings for monasteries, churches, and philanthropic institutions, among them a series of scenes from the life of St. Ignatius (1674-1676) for the Jesuits. After his death the leadership of the school of Seville passed more and more into the hands of the followers of Murillo, who were unable to stave off the decadence resulting from the exhaustion of the energies of the Baroque.

School of Madrid

Bookmarks for major artists
Alonso Cano Juan Carreño
Claudio Coello Luca Giordano

An Andalusian by birth and training, Alonso Cano did most of his painting between 1638 and 1652, in Madrid and later in Granada. This part of his career was divided between the execution of altarpieces and the portrayal of religious scenes revealing the highest qualities of an artist in love with beauty. In his conception of painting, Cano, a great creator of types, stands somewhere between Zurbarán and Murillo. His frequently rounded forms are softened by lively and harmonious, but never strident colours. Strong lighting and vigourous composition give his figures, almost always religious, their distinctive plasticity.

The most noteworthy of Cano's altarpieces are those in the church at Getafe (near Madrid), dating from 1645. From that time on, Cano's technique became increasingly pictorial, that is to say, increasingly Baroque, acquiring some of the subtleties he had previously ignored. Perhaps his most important painting is the Descent into Limbo (in the Country Museum, Los Angeles), a strange, rather illustrative composition, anecdotal in the movement imparted to the figures, but including one of the rare, and one of the most beautiful female nudes in Spanish art. His sense of drama finds its most intense expression in his Dead Christ Supported by the Angel, in the Prado. Cano's gifts as a landscape painter are apparent in a number of pictures with Biblical themes, for example, in his Christ and the Woman of Samaria, in which the lights and darks have a strongly naturalistic effect.

During his later years in Granada, Cano painted a number of other important works, like the Seven Mysteries of the Virgin, brilliantly coloured canvases of monumental proportions painted between 1652 and 1664 for the main chapel of the cathedral. Cano's foremost achievement is undoubtedly the series of Immaculate Conceptions painted at various times in his career, including a particularly fine one in the Provincial Museum at Vitoria, and another in the oratory of Granada cathedral. Fate has not been kind to Cano's paintings; several of the best have been destroyed in revolutions and wars, notably the admirable St. Agnes from the State Museums, Berlin, the Immaculate Conception from the church of San Isidro, Madrid, and that formerly in the Magdeburg Museum.

During the seventeenth century, the school of Madrid, lead by the inspired Velázquez and Cano, developed a number of other lesser, but still interesting painters. Fray Juan Rizi (1600-1681), son of a painter from Bologna, arrived in Spain to work on the decoration of the Escorial. His painting is remarkable for its monumentality, a quality apparent in his seated portrait of Fray Alonso de San Vítores (Burgos Museum). Another is Antonio Pereda (1608-1678), author of a number of noble religious paintings, such as the Immaculate Conception, in the Ponce Museum, Puerto Rico. Especially noteworthy are his allegorical compositions.

More important is the work of Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614 to 1685), born in Avilés and trained in Valladolid, who painted in Toledo and Madrid. Charles II, successor to Philip IV, viewed him with favour, and in 1669 he was made painter to the king. Although his religious paintings are of unusual quality, Carreño's main interest was painting portraits, the finest being that of the Duke of Pastrana now in the Prado and those which he made of the Queen Mother, Mariana of Austria, and of Charles II.

Another gifted painter of this period was Francisco Rizi (Ricci), brother of Fray Juan, who excelled both as a church decorator and as a theatrical designer. A spirited colourist, Ricci has affinities with Valdés Leal, so much so, in fact, that his Immaculate Conception, in the Cádiz Museum, was long attributed to Valdés Leal, the painter of macabre allegorics.

Mateo Cerezo (1637-1666), a pupil of Carreño, was a gifted painter and a good colourist, qualities which also appear in the work of José Antolinez (1635-1675), a pupil of Francisco Rizi. In addition to these artists, we should mention Juan Antonio Escalante (1630 to 1670), a thoroughly Baroque painter, with an eye for the subtleties of colour and light, and a daring draftsman. In 1667-1668 he executed a series of paintings for the Merced Calzada of Madrid, some of which are preserved in the Prado Museum.

This phase of Spanish painting ends with Claudio Coello, a pupil of Rizi and an artist with an extraordinary gift for veristic representation. Coello's Baroque complexity, however, is combined with a naturalistic interest in detail that sometimes detracts from the formal hierarchy of his composition, as in his painting of Charles II and his courtiers worshipping at the Sagrada Forma in the Escorial, now preserved in the sacristy of the monastery. A remarkable portraitist, he has bequeathed a number of pictures of Charles II in which the degeneracy of the last of the Habsburgs is reflected without the least attempt at mitigation.

In addition to religious painting and portraiture, the Madrid school of the seventeenth century practiced the art of the bodegón, or still life, in all its forms. Landscape painting was relatively neglected, in spite of the advances made by Velázquez in this direction. Toward the end of the century there was a diminution in the creative vigour that had continued to keep Spanish painting at such a high level, even while the nation's political reverses and economic crises were making themselves felt with full force. There then began a period during which praise was reserved exclusively for foreign art. This attitude persisted for a good part of the eighteenth century.

The same Charles II brought to Madrid the Neapolitan artist Luca Giordano (1632-1705), who lived in Spain for ten years, between 1692 and 1702, his virtuosity earning him the nickname "Fa Presto." His more important works include the painted ceiling of the stairway in the monastery of the Escorial and that of the sacristy in Toledo cathedral, as well as Biblical stories.