Philosophy during the Baroque period

Baroque art during the seventeenth and eighteenth century was meant to depict the religious tensions during the time (www.visual-arts-cork.com), the same could be said of the philosophy of the time. Three of the great philosophers of the time; Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz would have as many similarities and differences as we find in the ideas of Baroque art during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. By first reviewing the ideas of these thinkers we will be able to than compare and contrast their ideas with each other and exam how they do or do not relate to each other and Baroque art of the period.

As the earliest of these thinkers being Descartes we will start with him. Descartes notion starts with the idea of questioning everything in order to give him a better understanding of the world; he refers to this as a methodological skepticism. He questions knowledge and if there is knowledge how it is different from opinion. To do this he employed a mathematical method to his questions in order to find real knowledge; he does this by using intuition and deduction. Descartes like Plato believes that the sense can deceive us, and so he suspends all beliefs to find what is certain. In trying to find out if life is a dream or real, Descartes comes to the idea that by simply thinking about if this is a dream or real give way to the idea that he is something. The idea of him transcends the physical because the idea is enough to suggest that there is an existence. Therefore his ability to think becomes a reality of his life, so long as Cogito (I think) is going on, than I have to be. He goes on to bring about the idea of God into his method, and tries to prove the existence of God. Since he exists and something cannot come from nothing, and he is imperfect and something more perfect cannot come from something less perfect. God is perfect and exists and for him to be able to prove that God exists and as such be accepting that he is imperfect and can think therefore he also exists.

Spinoza follows in some of the ideas of Descartes as he uses a mathematical and scientific approach to his method and follows the ideas of levels. These levels to build upon one another, but even more interwoven than we find in Descartes making Spinoza’s work more of a Gesamptkunstwerk. Unlike Descartes Spinoza looks at his philosophy as a guide in human conduct. Spinoza relates God in some of the same manner that he relates the universe, but not on the same level. He uses it in terms of everything manifests from God, kind of like God is in us all. Since everything comes from God everything is a part of God. Spinoza states that there are actually infinite numbers of attributes, but says that it is two-fold because we can only understand two of them as mind and matter. With the mind we can think, feel, desire, imagine, perceive, and with matter we can see the expression of power of motion in bodies. He explains that it is not that they are interchangeable, but that they depend on each other. In other words we cannot have mind and matter or nature or the universe without God.

Like both Descartes and Spinoza Leibniz builds his ideas on mathematical and scientific approach, but Leibniz would hold closer to the ideas of the scholastic as he believed that the ideas of Descartes and Spinoza would lead to atheism. His work would be closer to that of Spinoza in some ways as he builds it on a mathematical maze of Baroque architecture. He builds this idea on what he calls monads. Leibniz’s monads are the energy that gives us life. He is talking about the life force in which all matter exists, which is the energy behind the matter, something that we are not able to see. He states that each monad cannot grasp the inner life of another, but rather they work unconsciously together in a pre-established harmony. Basically he is talking about how they function in their space without colliding. In other words their energy keeps other forces at even distance as to move around each other and drive the matter (http://en.chateauversailles.fr).

Each of these philosophers tries to explain the existence of life and God, and while there are differences in some of their approaches they basically build these ideas on a rational concept and use levels built on mathematical and sceintific rations to explain their ideas. Because of this the philosophy of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz would coincide more with the ideas of Baroque to the North than the emotional ideas of Italian and Spanish Baroque in the South. This building of ideas on levels will relate greatly to Baroque art as we will see in works of St. Peters, and Versailles as well as other Baroque architecture and some other works of art which uses many levels and different aspects working together sometimes in concert with each other and other times unknown to each other but in harmony to create a gesampkunstwerk. The best example of this would be Versailles built during the reign of Louis XIV. Louis’s idea was to create a gesampkunstwerk which would talk to the greatness of France. The various artists, architects and designers would work together and sometimes separate adding their own part to the total work of the structure. At times they would work together at other times they would, depending on their role work on a section all to their own, but the whole time working to bring the piece together as a complete work of life and art.

We can relate the ideas of Descartes to beauty in the eye of the beholder in Baroque art by examining it in the same way that we examine our understanding of self. It is not as simple as stating that I think something is beautiful and therefore it is we have to look at our understanding of what beauty means to us. The lesson on Descartes refers to the idea of looking at wax. We cannot rely on our senses to understand what wax is, because of its ability to change based on circumstances, therefore we have to depend on our intellect to understand the properties and how they may change. Only by doing so can we grasp the concept of wax. Being that our intellect and understanding of things varies from person to person, so does our understanding of beauty. While we can see many examples of this in Baroque art probably the best examples would be Holland. During the Baroque Dutch period we see the introduction of the art market. While many artists could submit their works for sale on the market only those that found favor in the viewers would be able to make a living off their work. We see a good example of this in Rembrandt’s work as it would sell well not just in commissions but also in the market allowing him to have a good income for a while, this would later change as the taste for art would move to a more classical appeal and Rembrandt would not sell so much to the market later in his life (www.theotherside.co.uk).

Like Descartes the concepts of Leibniz and Spinoza are not restricted to the creation of art, but also refer to the idea of the forces behind art during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. While art is often visual during the Baroque period there were many forces driving the arts and artists, it was at times the counter reform, the political leaders and governments, the market or the education of the artists themselves. These are forces that the viewer is not always able to see but is there moving and controlling the art. Though we can find similarities in the philosophies and Baroque art of the period there are also differences.

Just as we find some of the differences in the philosophies we also find some of these differences in the idea of Baroque art as well. As each of the philosophers try to examin the idea of existence or God in their own way so does Baroque art examin the differences in its existence and the various beliefs in God through its works. We can see examples of this in the very strong religious themes and noble works of artists like Velazquez and Bernini to the more subtle approaches to religion in art by artists like Vermeer. (Shiner, 57-129)

We can see that while there are differences and similarities of the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz during the Baroque period that their concepts and logic go with the art of the time. While Baroque art was an overall idea of art during the seventeenth and eighteenth century it varied much like the philosophy of the time in that there was no total agreement in what constituted existence or even art for that matter.

Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. University Of Chicago Press, 2003. 57-129. Print.
Bazin, Germain. Baroque and Rococo. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Print.
Invicta Media, . “17th century Dutch & Flemish Art and regional art galleries.” (2000): n. pag. Web. 6 Mar 2011. .
Janson, Jonathan. “essential vermeer .” Brief Overview of the Dutch Art Market in the 17th century (2001): n. pag. Web. 10 Mar 2011. .
“Baroque Art.” Definition, History, Architecture, 17th Century Painting & Sculpture.. ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IRISH AND WORLD ART, Web. .
History of Versailles.” Chateau de Versailles (2002): n. pag. Web. 20 Mar 2011. .

2 comments

  1. THANK YOU for being the only person to explain this in a form of English that makes sense!!! Multiple thumbs up my friend!!

    1. You are very welcome. One of the hardest things I found of large art historical books and text was that they are often times hard to follow, I am glad to be able to write about topics which people can follow more clearly.

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