A new show at the Tate Britain showcases the power of British Baroque art.
The giants of Baroque art aren’t British. Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Poussin, and Vermeer cast the period’s longest shadows, and none of them hail from the British Isles. Perhaps that’s why Tate Britain hasn’t once since its inception in 1897 staged an exhibition about the late 17th century. With its current show “British Baroque: Power and Illusion,” which runs through April 19, the London museum sticks a flag in fresh soil.
The show chronicles the period 1660–1714, a historic time of upheaval and its aftermath in Britain. It’s safe to say that where history is tumultuous, art is interesting. This is clearly attested by “British Baroque.” Though no towering masters emerged from the region onto the global stage, the period is still marked by work of rich meaning. The use of foreign-born painters in the British courts adds layers to the political aspects of Baroque painting and to the notion of Baroque painting as a pan-European phenomenon. A multitude of the pieces in the show are on view publicly for the first time—many on loan from the noble homes for which they were made, and there’s a great deal to marvel at.
The 17th century was a particularly harrowing time for the British crown. Though the exhibition begins with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, it’s important to note that just 11 years earlier, Parliament had abolished the monarchy, Charles I was executed, and his son was exiled. This act was the culmination of the British Civil Wars, which dovetailed with the War of the Three Kingdoms that raged between England, Scotland, and Ireland between 1639 and 1651.
Following the Interregnum, the people welcomed back the crown, initially at least, with open arms. Writers and poets like Edmund Waller and John Dryden evoked the classics, elevating the King to the status of a Caesar or divinity. Images of the royal family, similarly, needed to exude majesty and communicate power, and did. Charles II, a 1684 marble bust of the King by Honoré Pelle, oozes dynamism. The monarch is portrayed with his head flamboyantly turned to the left—a position that takes conventions of Roman baroque sculpture to the extreme. In a move that is classic baroque—capturing a moment at the height of its dramatic action—the French-born, Genoa-based Pelle renders drapery and neckwear so that it appears to flutter with the jolt of the king’s swift authoritative movements. John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter, likely commissioned the bust, which is on loan to the Tate from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Antonio Verrio’s The Sea Triumph of Charles II (circa 1674, oil paint on canvas) comes to the show from the Royal Collection. The work is thought to represent the 1674 Treaty of Westminster, the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, but its imagery is ripped from Virgil’s Aeneid. The epic propagates Augustan rule as the bringer of a new golden age to Rome. Here Charles II is Neptune-cum-Augustus riding a shell-shaped seafaring chariot to British prosperity, while surrounding putti carry symbols of peace. Fame holds an inscription from the Aeneid reading, “who bounds his empire by the Ocean, his fame by the stars.”
The exhibition features several works portraying the women in Charles II’s sphere. A painting by Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer Duchess of Cleveland with her son (circa 1685), comes to the show from the National Gallery of London and portrays the King’s mistress and mother of five of his children, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and later 1st Duchess of Cleveland (she is often called by her maiden name Valliers). The Dutch Lely was Charles II’s official painter, and the King’s primary courtiers frequently served as his subjects and patrons. The Queen consort, Catherine of Braganza, chose the Flemish Catholic painter Jacob Huysmans as her unofficial painter (Huysmans’ Catherine of Braganza, circa 1662–64, is a highlight of the show). The Queen was Catholic and, while the Protestant Charles II tried to bring religious freedom to Catholics through the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, he did not become Catholic himself until he was on his deathbed in 1685.
Religious paintings in the exhibition underscore the ongoing struggle between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. This is exemplified through the Italian painter Benedetto Gennari, who spent 14 years in England as court painter to Charles II and painted more than 100 pictures for the King. Though he was not limited to religious commissions (he painted portraits, erotic works for the King, and scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), he painted several altarpieces and devotional pictures for the Queen. Gennari produced some 35 paintings for James II, Charles II’s successor, who was Catholic. Gennari was given the grand commission of James II’s new Catholic chapel at Whitehall Palace. The lavish space was to communicate the King’s Catholic vision for the nation. Featured in the exhibition is The Annunciation (1686), Gennari’s large-scale altarpiece—a spectacle in contrasting dark and yellow light.
During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was forcibly replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband, William III of Orange after the birth of his son—a Catholic heir. Gennari was also forced to leave England when James II was dethroned. The painter followed the Catholic court of the ousted king to France and painted 30 more pictures for him.
Though Charles dissolved Parliament in 1681, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights of 1689 affirmed Parliament’s primacy over the crown. While Parliament’s power increased, the two-party political system, in the form of the Tories and Whigs, also grew stronger. Queen Anne began her reign in 1702. While she ruled, Scotland joined England under the name “Great Britain” through the Acts of Union 1707. Anne became pregnant 17 times but did not produce a surviving heir. She was the last monarch of the House of Stuart and was succeeded by George I of the House of Hanover after her death in 1714. This year marks the show’s terminus.
Willem Wissing’s opulent and stately Queen Anne, when Princess in Denmark (circa 1685) is one of the show’s highlights. The Dutch Wissing had worked in Lely’s studio. After Lely’s death in 1680, Wissing quickly rose to become one of the court’s leading portrait painters. In fact, his work was in such demand when he died in 1687, some thought he might have been poisoned on account of jealousy. That’s as dramatic as painting gets.
By Sarah E. Fensom