Taking Western Europe by storm
‘Baroque’ was the prevailing style in Western European art from the last years of the 1500s through to the early 1700s. It embraced an approach to art that was florid, elaborate and visceral: art became more operatic and less ashamed. This was a particularly glorious century of artistic achievement: the age of Bernini, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer. In England, it witnessed the dramatic architecture of Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, the triumphant grandiose wall paintings of Antonio Verrio, and the sexy provocative portraits of the Court artist Peter Lely…
A sexier style of painting
Like the Mannerist painters of the late Italian Renaissance, Lely (1618-80) explicitly flouted the classical rulebooks on proportion, better to emphasise the tactile curve of a breast or the suggestive tilt of a head. He took the Court style of his predecessor Anthony Van Dyck and added his generation’s more avowedly sensual sympathies to create languorous evocations of beauty. Lely’s portraits are more than just portraits: they are idealisations of what beauty meant in the 1660s.
A 'nobler' beauty
Later in the century, Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) developed a more refined, ‘nobler’ statement of beauty. His men and women stand upright, refined and aristocratic. They are active and graceful, perhaps caught in the act of entering a room, rather than decadently draped across a chair. Kneller’s portraiture is an important stepping stone toward the development of a distinctively British portrait style and tradition, the world of Gainsborough and Reynolds.