Baroque is one of those glibly used words that describe an elusive reality. ... here never was one Baroque style. The qualifier was first used of art in a derogatory sense, meaning bizarre or fanciful as Mr. Snodin points out. Here, Baroque serves as a fit-all label covering unrelated works of art of every description and place, from Europe to Goa and Brazil. Out of this mass, which at times is disorientating, a fascinating message eventually emerges. For the first time in European history, a deep rift appeared in art, opposing those who clung to the classical heritage as interpreted by the Renaissance, and others who fled into unbridled fantasy in reaction against the established aesthetic order.
In parts of Europe, the classical order inherited from Greek and Roman antiquity reigned with greater clarity than ever. The French sense of balance and proportion reached an apex in the 17th century, inspiring some of the greatest masterpieces of European monumental art. Such is the east facade of the Louvre palace conceived under Louis XIV by the king’s physician, Claude Perrault, and erected between 1667 and 1674.
The word has a long, complex and controversial history (it possibly derived from a Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and until the late 19th century it was used mainly as a synonym for `absurd' or `grotesque'), but in English it is now current with three principal meanings.
The older meaning of the word, as a synonym for `capricious', `overwrought' or `florid', still has some currency, but not in serious criticism.
- Primarily, it designates the dominant style of European art between Mannerism and Rococo. This style originated in Rome and is associated with the Catholic Counter-Reformation, its salient characteristics--overt rhetoric and dynamic movement--being well suited to expressing the self-confidence and proselytizing spirit of the reinvigorated Catholic Church. It is by no means exclusively associated with religious art, however, and aspects of the Baroque can be seen even in works that have nothing to do with emotional display--for example in the dynamic lines of certain Dutch still-life paintings.
- Secondly, it is used as a general label for the period when this style flourished, broadly speaking, the 17th century and in certain areas much of the 18th century. Hence thus phrases as `the age of Baroque', `Baroque politics', `Baroque science', and so on.
- Thirdly, the term `Baroque' (often written without the initial capital) is applied to art of any time or place that shows the qualities of vigorous movement and emotional intensity associated with Baroque art in its primary meaning. Much Hellenistic sculpture could therefore be described as `baroque'.