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One of the most startling and salutary shocks ever administered to fashionable art is the work of Caravaggio in the last few years of the 16th century. In about 1593 he arrives, at the age of twenty, in a Rome which is still attracted to the esoteric niceties of mannerism.

The young man soon introduces two invigorating new elements in his paintings: a use of composition and light which gives the viewer an immediate sense of drama; and an intense realism, endowing the characters in a scene with the believable attributes of ordinary people.

These qualities are evident in the Supper at Emmaus in London's National Gallery. A single raking light, characteristic of Caravaggio, causes a strong contrast between bright details and dark shadows - as in any interior lit by a lantern. The two disciples are very ordinary travellers sitting down to a meal. As one of them recognizes Jesus, he flings his arms wide in a gesture which almost bursts out of the canvas towards us.

This degree of ordinary reality is not to everyone's taste in a religious subject. When Caravaggio delivers a commissioned painting in 1602, showing St Matthew writing his gospel, it is rejected by the outraged priests in charge of the church of San Luigi in Rome.

The painting is a masterpiece (destroyed alas in Berlin in 1945), but it is easy to understand why the priests dislike it. St Matthew has bare feet (with a big toe jutting disturbingly towards us) and he is clearly a simple man, struggling with the difficult gospel words as a youthful angel stands beside him to guide his hand across the page.

It is a profoundly touching image, and one which brings a religious moment very close to us. But priests prefer something more respectful. Caravaggio duly obliges with the painting now to be seen in the church. The composition remains intensely dramatic, but the angel is now flying in the air as angels do (even if he does cheekily count off the generations of Christ's ancestors on his fingers).

In a turbulent life (he has to flee from Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a brawl after a tennis match), Caravaggio continues to bring religion close to home in this direct way. In more than one great painting the pilgrims kneeling to the Virgin thrust the dirty soles of their bare feet right in the viewer's face.

In the long run the church prefers the drama of Caravaggio's compositions, and his powerful use of light and dark, to the peasant realism of his detail. The preferred style of the 17th century becomes the Baroque. This more full-blown exaltation of religious sentiment borrows much from Caravaggio - but not the gritty detail.

Rome and Bologna: 1595-1639

While Rome remains the centre of Italian art during the 17th century, there is a strong influence from the school of Bologna headed by the Carracci family of painters. In 1595 Annibale Carracci is invited to Rome by a cardinal in the powerful Farnese family. He is given the task of painting the ceiling of the banqueting hall in the Farnese palace. The magnificent result is completed by 1604. Carracci's theme is classical (the loves of the gods, from Ovid's Metamorphoses), and so is his style - with echoes of both Raphael and Michelangelo.

This link between Bologna and Rome introduces a creative balance between classical and Baroque tendencies in 17th century Italian art.

The Bolognese artists (in particular Guido Reni, who inherits the mantle of Annibale Carracci as the leading painter of the school) tend to retain a classical purity of line and composition. The artists of Rome incline more towards the theatricality of a fully Baroque style.

The most spectacular expression of Roman baroque is the great ceiling painted for the Barberini palace in 1633-9 by Pietro da Cortona. In earlier Roman ceilings, such as Michelangelo's for the Sistine chapel or Carracci's for the Farnese palace, the figures remain obediently within their allotted architectural compartments. In the Barberini ceiling they are less restrained.

Cortona's figures seem to soar upwards, from the trompe-l'oeil continuation of the walls, like a flock of startled birds. The sense of profusion and energy in this triumphal celebration is overwhelming. Officially the triumph is that of Divine Providence, but by a fortunate coincidence both divine providence and the Barberini family (one of whom is now pope as Urban VIII) have bees as their emblem. The design makes it evident that the real triumph is that of the Barberini.

But this is a private palace. In public this ecstatic Roman style is more appropriately put to the service of the Catholic Reformation - and nowhere more so than in the sculptures of Bernini.

Moghul miniatures: 16th - 17th century

When Humayun wins his way back into India, in 1555, he brings with him two Persian artists from the school of Bihzad. Humayun and the young Akbar take lessons in drawing. Professional Indian artists learn too from these Persian masters.

From this blend of traditions there emerges the very distinctive Moghul school of painting. Full-bodied and realistic compared to the more fanciful and decorative Persian school, it develops in the workshops which Akbar establishes in the 1570s at Fatehpur Sikri.

Akbar puts his artists to work illustrating the manuscripts written out by scribes for his library. New work is brought to the emperor at the end of each week. He makes his criticisms, and distributes rewards to those who meet with his approval.

Detailed scenes are what Akbar likes, showing court celebrations, gardens being laid out, cheetahs released for the hunt, forts being stormed and endless battles. The resulting images are a treasure trove of historical detail. But as paintings they are slightly busy.

Akbar's son Jahangir takes a special interest in painting, and his requirements differ from his father's. He is more likely to want an accurate depiction of a bird which has caught his interest, or a political portrait showing himself with a rival potentate. In either case the image requires clarity and conviction as well as finely detailed realism.

The artists rise superbly to this challenge. In Jahangir's reign, and that of his son Shah Jahan, the Moghul imperial studio produces work of exceptional beauty. In Shah Jahan's time even the crowded narrative scenes, so popular with Akbar, are peopled by finely observed and convincing characters.

Velazquez: 1623-1660

Spain, in the first half of the 17th century, has an artist of exceptional interest. Because of his long career as court painter to a single king, and his utter confidence in his own individual style, Velazquez produces a body of work of unusual consistency and distinction.

In his early years, working from about 1617 in his home town of Seville, he is influenced by the dramatic chiarascuro and realism of Caravaggio. And he proves that he can match anyone for realistic detail in his paintings of street vendors, such as the woman with her dish of fried eggs (now in the National Gallery of Scotland) or the water seller in Apsley House in London.

The turning point in Velazquez's career is his appointment in 1623 as court painter to Philip IV in Madrid. Philip has become king just two years previously at the age of sixteen. He will outlive Velazquez by five years, dying in 1665.

So for nearly four decades the painter works, with complete security, in a context where his talents are enormously appreciated. He has a studio within the palace. The king frequently drops in ('nearly every day', according to Velazquez's father-in-law) to sit for a while and watch the genius at work.

Velazquez's main subject matter is one which suits him well - the members of the royal family and their court servants. And on the walls of the royal palaces there hang the paintings which from now on profoundly influence his style, in the collection of Titians made by Charles V and Philip II.

The result is a body of work which can be seen as a one-man climax to the Italian High Renaissance. With a fluency of brushwork to match Titian's, and a magic touch which can make a few flecks of paint look like detailed lace or the rich texture of fur, Velazquez records the king and his family posing in their best clothes in the studio, prancing on a favourite horse, or out in the landscape shooting - and inevitably, with the passage of time, growing older.

The Habsburgs are far from handsome. Philip IV has their notorious jutting jaw to an almost disfiguring extent. Velazquez does nothing to disguise this feature, except that he paints his employer with a warm and disarming honesty - a quality which he extends also to the court dwarfs and buffoons who sit for him.

Some artists might feel stifled by this environment, but clearly Velazquez finds it stimulating. He records it with affection in his masterpiece Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), painted in 1656 and now in the Prado. It is an intimate glimpse of the private side of the Spanish court.

The viewer stands in the position of the unseen king and queen of Spain, who are being painted by Velazquez in his studio. On the left, behind a huge canvas, is the artist himself, about to dab on one of his subtle flicks of paint. In the foreground members of the court have gathered to watch. In the very centre, at the focal point of the picture, is a young princess. Fussing around her on either side are the ladies-in-waiting. On the right stand two dwarfs, one of them trying to stir a sleepy mastiff. In a mirror on the far wall we see a faint reflection of the sitters, Philip IV and his second wife, Maria Anna of Austria.

Here, in an inspired ensemble, is the world of Velazquez.

Rubens: 1600-1640

Rome is the cradle of the Baroque, seen already in certain aspects of Caravaggio. But it is a northern artist who provides in this city the first fully realized paintings in the new style.

Leaving his home in Antwerp in 1600, at the age of twenty-three, Rubens finds employment at the court of Mantua and travels on to Rome towards the end of 1601. He begins an assiduous study of antique sculpture and of the masters of the Italian High Renaissance. His own talent is soon so evident that in 1606 he is given a most prestigious commission. In preference to all the artists of Rome, Rubens is invited to paint an altarpiece for Santa Maria in Vallicella, recently built for the Oratorians.

The painting, completed in 1608, can be seen as the first Baroque masterpiece. St Gregory, wrapped in gorgeous swirling robes (and with a hand thrust out at the viewer as dramatically as in Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus), stares ecstatically up towards a holy image of the Virgin and Child around which plump cherubs disport themselves. Sumptously robed saints to either side of Gregory share his pleasure. The entire painting, in its warm hues and harmonious lines, invites us to do the same.

This luxuriant ease of composition and of colour becomes Rubens' hallmark, whether he is dealing with biblical themes or classical mythology (Greek goddesses, in his hands, become the most comfortable of nudes).

Rubens returns to Antwerp in 1608 and rapidly establishes Europe's most successful studio. He works very fast, as is evident in the brilliantly free oil sketches which he produces in preparation for any major painting. With an army of assistants filling in the unimportant parts of a canvas, he is able to fulfil an unprecedented number of commissions.

Prominent among his patrons are some of the leading rulers of Europe, often known personally to Rubens from the diplomatic missions entrusted to him by the regents of the Spanish Netherlands.

In 1622 Rubens receives a major commission from Marie de Médicis, until recently the queen regent of France. He is to transform her somewhat controversial life into a triumphal sequence of narrative paintings. He achieves this task with magnificent skill, completing by 1625 the great series of twenty-one canvases now in the Louvre.

Three years later Rubens goes on a diplomatic mission to Madrid, where he becomes friends with Velazquez - and so impresses Philip IV that as many as 100 paintings from Rubens' studio subsequently enter the Spanish royal collection. In 1629, after helping to negotiate a peace between Spain and England, Rubens travels to London.

Charles I knights the painter for his diplomatic achievements and commissions him to paint the ceiling in the Banqueting House, recently built by Inigo Jones. The great canvas panels are designed to celebrate the achievements of the Stuart dynasty. They are shipped from Antwerp to London and are installed in 1636. (Just thirteen years later Charles I steps out, from beneath this triumphal ceiling, on to a scaffold in Whitehall for his execution).

By that time another painter from the Spanish Netherlands has made a stir in London - providing the superb portraits by which Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria, are familiar to the world. Also from Antwerp, and also knighted by Charles I, he is Anthony van Dyck.

Van Dyck: 1618-1641

Van Dyck works in Rubens' studio in Antwerp between 1618 and 1620 and then spends most of the 1620s in Italy. In Genoa he makes an extremely successful career as a portrait painter, providing elegant and darkly dramatic full-length portraits of the city's aristocracy.

It is this same elegance, in a slightly gentler vein and with a lighter palette, which later makes van Dyck the favourite portrait painter in English court circles. He moves to London in 1632 and is immediately encouraged by Charles I, a most enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of paintings. Within weeks of Van Dyck's arrival the king and queen are sitting for him. That same summer he is knighted.

There are to be many more such portraits of the royal pair. The charming but weak face of Charles I, with the delicately trimmed beard, and the fragile beauty of Henrietta Maria are the most familiar images of British monarchs, in the entire long span between the queens Elizabeth and Victoria, entirely thanks to the skill of van Dyck.

Other members of the aristocracy are as eager to use his services. They glow in his canvases, handsome and arrogant Cavaliers in fine fabrics (John and Bernard Stuart in London's National Gallery are a perfect example). Nemesis awaits them when civil war breaks out in 1642. But the painter who gives them immortality has died in the previous year.

French classicism: 17th century

Three painters, born in France within a span of seven years from 1593, are profoundly influenced by the traditions of ancient and modern Rome. They transform them into a classicism which is unmistakably French.

The oldest of the three is Georges de la Tour, who uses as his main stylistic device the strong contrast between light and shade pioneered by Caravaggio. He takes this to far greater lengths than his predecessor, often limiting the source of light in his paintings to a single candle. The result is a startlingly beautiful severity, with simple outlines of light picking out the contours of flesh or fabric. Where the Italians transform the example of Caravaggio into baroque, a French artist takes it towards classicism.

It is not known whether La Tour visits Italy, but the style of Caravaggio is anyway familiar through the master's northern followers in the Netherlands. The other two French classical painters spend nearly all their working lives in Rome.

Nicolas Poussin moves to Italy in his twenties, in 1624. He makes an intense study of classical sculpture and finds himself increasingly out of sympathy with the baroque style prevailing in Rome. His response is to devise his own alternative. Where baroque painters engage in flamboyant visual gestures, carried along on a flood of emotion, Poussin develops a rational pictorial grammar to express the inner meaning of a scene and the attitudes of the participants.

His belief that the intellect can be a prime force in shaping pictorial art acquires immense influence as his own fame grows among the connoisseurs of his day. His theories become the cornerstone of the academies of art founded in the 17th and 18th centuries.

His own paintings divide viewers more decisively than those of any other great master. Enthusiasts rate them among the highest achievements of European painting. Others see only stilted exercises, revealing the effect of the wax figures which Poussin poses and groups on a miniature stage to help in perfecting his compositions.

The third French classicist of the 17th century is altogether more gentle in his appeal. Like Poussin, Claude Lorrain moves to Rome in his twenties and hardly ever leaves the region. Like Poussin, he is much taken with the evocative traces of the classical world in the city and the surrounding countryside. But what entrances Claude most of all is the Roman landscape itself, and the light which suffuses it.

Claude invents his own very original form of landscape painting. His countryside is beautifully calm and composed (no wind shakes a leaf in a Claude painting). Classical buildings frame striking vistas. Small figures, often mythological, move discreetly among them.

But what makes Claude's landscapes unmistakable is the light spreading through them from the large expanse of sky. Often it comes from a sun shining from the centre of the canvas, straight towards the viewer. The rays bounce off the surface of stone facades or permeate the leaves of graceful trees, infiltrating every corner of the scene.

Claude's seductive images appeal greatly to English aristocrats on the Grand Tour (there are more of his paintings in Britain than in any other country). English landscape gardening of the 18th century is much influenced by these idealized French views of a classical Italian scene.

The great Dutch century: 17th century

While Rubens and van Dyck are international ambassadors for the painting skills of the southern Netherlands, the newly independent northern provinces are also entering an extraordinarily prolific period in the visual arts.

Holland and its neighbouring provinces have a new prosperity in the 17th century, and the Dutch burghers are determined to enjoy in pictorial form the fascinating world in which they live. For the first time there is a thriving middle-class market for art. The painters respond eagerly to the available opportunities, producing a flood of work across a very wide range.

There is no subject with which the Dutch painters of the 17th century do not busy themelves. Portraits, landscapes and seascapes, biblical and historical scenes, subtly lit interiors containing just a few characters in enigmatic relationships, riotous taverns, winter festivities, still lifes, and sinister allegories pointing up the vanity of human existence (even though all the other paintings seem to state just the opposite) - all these are produced in abundance, to standards ranging from brilliant to less than middling, in the studios of Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem, the Hague, Delft and many other smaller towns.

John Evelyn, visiting the Rotterdam fair in 1641, is astonished at the Trade in paintings.

From the many practising in each field there emerge a handful of outstanding masters. In landscape Aelbert Cuyp achieves, from the 1640s, exceptionally beautiful effects of warm and gentle light in broad tranquil vistas.

Jacob van Ruisdael, a few years younger, is the greatest of the Dutch landscape painters. He works a more dramatic vein than Cuyp, finding romance in wooded landscapes among which streams tumble or half-hidden roads wind their way. Ruisdael's theme is followed by his pupil Hobbema - though Hobbema's most famous image, The Avenue at Middelharnis, is untypical in its boldly formal design.

There are two outstanding names among the Dutch portrait painters of the period. The elder by more than twenty years is Frans Hals, whose brush strokes seem to exult in their speed and facility - giving a breezy informality to his sitters. His most original achievement is his group portraits, beginning in the 1620s and 1630s with several magnificent paintings of the civic guards of Haarlem. Each is the equivalent of an officers' mess photograph, potentially lifeless and dull. But Hals presents these jovial amateur soldiers as completely convincing individuals, interacting naturally within the group.

Rembrandt, a generation younger, is an artist of such broad and diverse talents that he needs a section to himself.

Of all the many subjects being treated in Holland at this time, that of the Dutch interior is the most distinctive. Again there is one master so exceptional that he must be treated on his own - Vermeer. But others achieve almost as much within the limited setting of ordinary rooms.

Pieter de Hooch opens the window most fully on to the austerely comfortable houses in which Dutch merchants and their families now live. With him one catches glimpses from one room to the next, down passages, through the hall, along the garden path. The viewer, in the world of de Hooch, seems to know his way around.

Other painters tend to concentrate on a single corner of a room, framed by two walls. Here Gabriel Metsu is likely to show everyday events of household leisure, such as a man writing a letter or a woman drawing. Gerard Terborch more often presents two or three figures caught in a teasingly mysterious relationship. In either case the silks and furs will be painted with a rich brilliance, sufficient to make any envious viewer dream of a trip to market.

Gerrit Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, also paints people in tight corners. He does so with an exquisite precision of detail which has caused his followers to be known as the fijnschilders (fine painters). Even Vermeer paints in corners. But his brilliance is more than in the detail.

Rembrandt: 1625-1669

The life and work of Rembrandt fulfil in many ways the modern romantic notion of an artist. He shows an easy brilliance in three fields of art (oil painting, drawing, etching), yet his prolific output seems to be as much for his own pleasure - in capturing life in all its fascination - as to meet specific commissions or the demands of the market. He makes a great deal of money but is hopeless at keeping it. He paints obsessively the people closest to him - his women, his son, himself - and thus allows us, through his art, into his private world.

Others have done this, but few so extensively. We have almost 100 self-portraits of Rembrandt, at all stages of his life.

Like Dürer, who begins the theme of the artist as his own central character, Rembrandt is incorrigibly histrionic. He depicts himself in exotic hats, costumes and poses. His early works, while he is still in his home town of Leiden, are of a kind unfashionable in the practical Dutch world. They are history paintings, for which a sense of drama is essential.

This is a field in which Rembrandt in his maturity will produce powerfully dramatic masterpieces, such as the Blinding of Samson in Frankfurt or Belshazzar's Feast in the National Gallery in London. Both feature Rembandt's wife Saskia in the only female role (as also does The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum). Once again we are close to the artist's own world.

Rembrandt moves from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631 and in the following year paints The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Like the group portraits of Frans Hals of this same decade, the picture binds together several figures who are nevertheless treated as individual portraits. In this case they have an unusually strong focal point, in the corpse with his arm flayed for inspection.

The painting makes Rembrandt's reputation in Amsterdam, and ensures his a steady stream of commissions for portraits during the 1630s. At the end of the decade the Amsterdam militia, headed by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, select him for the large group portrait which is by now an essential attribute of any such company of guards.

Rembrandt goes one stage further than Hals in the originality of his response to this challenge. He presents the proud part-time soldiers at their best moment - not enjoying a social occasion, but marching off to the beat of a drum.

Saskia, painted so often and so dramatically by her husband and now seen incongruously amid the military turmoil of The Night Watch, dies at the age of thirty in the very year of the painting's completion, 1642. Three years later another companion, Hendrijke Stoffels, enters Rembrandt's life and becomes in her turn his favourite model. She and his son Titus together manage his affairs for a while from 1656, to help him through the financial crisis of his later years.

Rembrandt is a superb draughtsman in pen and ink (equally sure with landscape and the human figure) and he is one of the three greatest etchers in the history of the art - along with Goya and Picasso.

His etchings survive in numerous states, revealing the process of their creation, and they are treasured in their own time as much as today. The title of Rembrandt's best-known print reflects the value put on them. His etching of Christ surrounded by the sick, done in about 1649, acquires its popular name half a century later because of the extraordinary price paid for one impression - the Hundred Guilder Print.

Vermeer: 1653-1675

The artist now most highly prized, among all painters of Dutch interiors, rises from obscurity to the pinnacle of fame in a few decades at the start of 20th century.

At his death in 1675 Jan Vermeer is an unknown artist outside his home town of Delft. He becomes a member of the painters' guild in Delft in 1653 but apparently sells very little of his own work during his lifetime, living instead as a dealer. At his death he is bankrupt; his wife gives two of his canvases to settle a bill with the baker. For the next two centuries Vermeer's paintings, if appreciated at all, are usually attributed to others. In the early 1880s his exquisite Girl with a pearl earring goes for the equivalent of five shillings in an auction in the Hague.

By that time scholars are beginning to recognize his genius (there is the first glimmer of interest when his superb View of Delft is put on public show in the Mauritshuis when the gallery opens in 1822). Gradually his works become correctly attributed. There are few of them, not many more than thirty in all - a small output even for a life which ends relatively early, at the age of forty-three.

A measure of the esteem which these works acquire during the early years of the 20th century is that Vermeer, of all other Dutch artists, is the one whom van Meegeren chooses to forge when he hopes to sell expensive fakes to the Germans during World War II. But the forger could hardly have chosen a master more impossible to imitate.

The magic which Vermeer somehow works with space and light, within the simple confines of his scenes, is easy to appreciate when standing in front of a painting but is very hard to analyze or to describe in words.

In Vermeer women read letters, play harpsichords, pluck lutes or sip wine in quiet corners of everyday rooms just as they do in so many other Dutch paintings of the period. But an extra dimension is miraculously added in the way he captures the effects of light, filtering through latticed windows, casting gentle shadows on walls or floor, bringing up warm bright patches in fabrics and gently rounding out the flesh of face or hands.

This transformation of the everyday world into art is celebrated in one of Vermeer's most famous works, The Art of Painting. A tapestry curtain is pulled back to reveal, as ever, a quiet corner of a room. Light streams in from a hidden window to fall on a woman posing as Clio, the muse of History (she holds a book and a trumpet to reveal her identity). In the foreground a painter sits at his easel. He is just beginning to sketch her on the canvas.

Art is being created before our eyes. Yet in a more real sense it already exists, also before our eyes, in the enticing tones of Vermeer's finished painting. We can dwell at our ease within one beautifully achieved trick of reality, while observing the creation of another.

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