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New Exhibition Surveys Drawings from One of the Most Creative Periods in Western Art

Featuring Works by Rubens, Poussin, Bernini, Lorrain, Da Cortona, and Other Artists of the Baroque Age

Visions of Grandeur: Drawing in the Baroque Age

At the Getty Center, June 1-September 12, 2004

April 20, 2004

Los Angeles—The 17th century, commonly known as the Baroque age, was one of the most brilliant and creative periods in Western art. Artists of immense talent emerged across Europe, developing an array of distinct styles and opening up new possibilities in the art of drawing.  The new exhibition Visions of Grandeur: Drawing in the Baroque Age, at the Getty Center from June 1–September 12, 2004, offers a rich survey of works that exemplify this dynamic era.

Drawn from the Getty’s permanent collections, the exhibition features artists from the Italian, French, Netherlandish, and Flemish schools, including Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Peter Paul Rubens. While they developed distinctive national styles, Baroque artists also explored common trends often marked by extravagant forms, dynamic opposition, and powerful tensions. By employing strong contrasts of light and shadow, these artists added drama to figural compositions and imbued landscapes with vibrant sunlight. Inspired by classical sculpture and a deeper knowledge of anatomy, 17th-century artists carefully depicted human figures, endowing them with robust physicality. Baroque artists also developed a range of new subjects that celebrated everyday life, the fervent religious ideals of the Counter-Reformation, and high levels of learning, shown through frequent use of allegories and symbols. 

A key stylistic feature of 17th-century art is chiaroscuro, from the Italian words chiaro (light) and scuro (dark). Baroque artists employed strong light and dark contrasts to create a sense of energy, heightening the viewer’s emotional response to the subject. Nikolaus Knüpfer used this technique to great effect in his monumental drawing Pilate Washing His Hands. He draws attention to the Christ figure, separating him from the crowd by using white gouache on Christ’s chest, providing a deep contrast to the darkened backs of the figures in the foreground. The viewer is made to feel like part of the crowd, standing in the shadows watching.

Baroque artists also enlivened their compositions by imparting a sense of movement. They excelled at producing twisting poses, bold gestures, and dramatic foreshortening (a method of representing objects so they appear to recede or project sharply into space). The hyper-muscularity and lunging pose of the figure in Peter Paul Rubens’ Anatomical Studies indicates the artist’s profound understanding of anatomy and classical sculpture. By drawing the same figure from three vantage points as though it were rotating in space, Rubens was able to convey a sense of dramatic movement. 

The devotion of Baroque artists to naturalism was expressed not only in their detailed attention to the human form but also to the world around them. Unlike their predecessors, who idealized the landscape and often depicted it in the studio from memory, 17th-century artists increasingly ventured outside to sketch from nature. No longer a mere backdrop for religious and mythological scenes, landscape became a subject in its own right. Throughout Europe, artists honed their observational skills by taking sketching trips and many incorporated elements of rustic life that they saw around them.

Baroque artists applied naturalistic details to their figural drawings as well, studying studio models to make abstract concepts more human. They portrayed extreme states of feeling, including pain and suffering, by emphasizing facial expressions and gestures. Their use of vibrant color also enhanced naturalism in their drawings, by creating a spatial continuity between the world of the image and that of the viewer.

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