The 17th Century: Glory, Warfare, & Crisis


Trevi Fountain, Rome

The 17th century marks a change in European society and politics as well as a change in art. Much of the art, especially in Italy and France, evolved into a lavish, ornate, and overly embellished style, as seen in the fountain above. This was a time when great monarchs, with absolute power, emerged in Europe and used art, and architecture especially, to show off their glory. The 17th century was also a time of deep religious schisms, warfare and power. During the century, some countries, like Spain, went into economic crisis, partly as a result of the bloody warfare, while others, like the Dutch, flourished. 

Looking at the paintings below, think about how the artists' use of color, light, and perspective changed. Do you these paintings are more or less relatable than the paintings from the Renaissance?


Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas) by Valazquez

This painting records the surrender of the town of Breda by Dutch soldiers to the Spanish (1625). In the center is a Dutch commander who is giving the key to the town to the Spanish, who accepts them with some amount of grace. The painting was meant to evoke Spanish national sentiment even though the age of Conquest in the "New World" for them was coming to an end.


Old Woman frying Eggs by Diego Velazquez

This painting is also by Velazquez, but is a vey different style. Instead of showing off Spanish military might, it show ordinary poor people in Spain. The artist wanted to honestly portray the poverty that afflicted the lower classes as a result of the decline of Spain as a world power.


The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

This painting tells the opposite story of the one above. In contrast to Spain, the Dutch economy flourished during the 17th century. Because of their upper hand in trade, an urban merchant class emerged that could afford comfortable and sometimes decadent lifestyles. In this painting you can find rugs, paintings, and expensive musical instruments that signify wealth. 


Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemnisia Gentilsechi

The Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century, was taking root in Europe much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church. One of the Catholic Church's responses was to sponsor elaborate, emotional religious art to bolster the Church's power and influence. The painting is by Gentileschi, one of the few women artists from her day. She was a part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement, which explains the bloody scene she painted. The story of Judith slaying Holofernes comes from the Apocrypha (books not included in the Bible) and she depicts the story emotionally and graphically in order to stir audiences.