A Baroque Composition

-By Howard Lyon

I love the Baroque. From Rubens and Caravaggio to Bernini and Bach. I love the passion and the movement.  I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was taking with my wife about composition in paintings and explained how the baroque movement took spaces that were normally very solid and stationary and put them on a diagonal, giving them dynamic movement. We went into one room full of great pieces from the era and every single painting in the room had the same basic composition.

I made a simple diagram to show the primary lines of this composition.  It was basically a strong diagonal (blue line) going from one corner to the opposite diagonal corner.  From that, extending out, often at 90 degrees from that main diagonal, were lines to the other corners (red lines).  It creates a series of triangles that don’t ever appear at rest.   It is used flipped or rotated and sometimes with only one distinct secondary diagonal, but you will see this used again and again.

Of course there is a lot going on outside of these lines in any great work of art, but think of composition lines like coat hangers.  They are the form upon which the painting hangs.

In this image, there are two paintings depicting similar scenes.  The one of the left, by Raphael, is from the Renaissance, and uses a time tested triangle for its composition.  It conveys stability and strength, as well as some religious symbolism.  The image on the right, by Rubens, uses two diagonals and a more dynamic composition.  Notice how the shapes create a triangular frame for the child.  The main diagonal is often reinforced by lines running parallel to it.  Look at all the lines made by the legs, the arms and the cloth that all echo the main diagonal.

This painting, of Mars and Rhea by Rubens, is a great example.  Look at how obvious the volumetric light coming in from the upper left is in establishing the secondary diagonal.  The darker area of Mars’ cloak against the lighter portion continues the line under the armpit, over the cupid’s head and down to Rhea’s hand.  Rhea’s arm, the statue in the upper right, Cupid’s arm and Mars’ leg in the back all follow the same line, driving in the main diagonal of the composition.  Around these shapes are place beautiful curves and accents that play against diagonals.  Great stuff.

Guido Reni is another of my absolute favorites.  I love this painting of St. Sebastian.  I love the movement of the shapes.  Here, the diagonals are implied, your eye continues them out to the edges of the painting, following his gaze to the upper left, and the leg to the lower right.  Those lines both branch out from the main diagonal.

Another Guido Reni.  Powerful!  Here are some more quick examples:

Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, St. Matthew

Anthony van Dyck varies the composition a little here, creating less regular triangles, but still using the same basic approach.

We’ll finish by jumping forward a couple hundred years to a great romantic baroque piece.  Solomon J. Solomon’s painting of Samson.  Look how Solomon has twisted and bent the bodies to fit into his composition.  Delilah on the right is compressed into her space as she taunts Samson.  Even the axis of the overturned table in the lower right lines up perfectly with the main diagonal.  The cowering figure in the lower left helps to start the diagonal the runs up the spine of the balled up figure on the left.  There are no happy accidents here.  All of these shapes and lines are clearly planned. 

This is also interesting.  I dropped in a Fibonacci spiral on top of this painting and I think Solomon must have paid some heed to the concept of designing around it.  There are many elements that are bent around the spiral, or echo it.  I love how the characters shape in the bottom left reenforces the spiral shape, as does the rug.  Samson's tormented face falls right on the primary vertical dividing the painting by the golden ratio.  

So why did I focus on one composition with all of these paintings?  Well, for one, it is a great one.  But also to raise awareness in general of how simple the underpinnings of a successful painting can be.  There are endless solutions to how you can compose your work, but you might want to give this particular one a try sometime and see if you have a little more insight to the great painters that came before us.  I know it has for me.  I will sometimes take the opportunity to really study an old Master when doing a commission.

I love the beautiful painting by Caravaggio.  I was given a commission that called for a group of figures to be seated at a table and decided to turn in into an unlikely homage.

You can see from the lines I overlaid that I used the same composition as the in the Caravaggio, and the other paintings in this post.  It helped me to gain a little more appreciation and understanding.  If you decide to give it a try, I hope you will let me know.  I would love to see it!

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