Wölfflin’s Polarities Regarding Renaissance and Baroque Art

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Heinrich Wölfflin was a famous art historian who played a crucial role in examining the stylistic differences between different periods of art. Wölfflin’s book, Principles of Art History, showed the difference between the Baroque style of art and its classical predecessor the Renaissance style characterized by Florentine and Venetian paintings. Wölfflin posited that there were ten characteristics, five for each style, that he grouped into polarities to distinguish Baroque style art from Renaissance art.  There will be an analysis of the Renaissance painting The Money-Changer and His Wife (Kleiner 681) and the Baroque painting Woman Holding a Balance (Kleiner 711) in the context of two of Wölfflin’s polarities; “linear and painterly” and “closed form and open form.”

The first polarity that Wölfflin discusses in Principles of Art History, is the difference between linear and painterly compositions. The former was attributed to the Renaissance style of art and the latter to Baroque art. Renaissance art, as Wölfflin’s categorization implies, placed an emphasis on lines. Renaissance art was concerned with drawing the elements of a composition so that each element was contained in its outline and produced a clear shape. Wölfflin noted that “linear style sees in lines, painterly in masses” (18). This meant that the Baroque style eschewed the rigid boundaries set in place by the strict outlines that characterized Renaissance art. The Baroque, or “painterly” style was distinguished by blurring boundaries and the loose, colorist use of oil paint to create movement.

Wöfflin’s concept of linear art, and its importance to the Renaissance period, is clearly shown in Quinten Massys’ painting The Money-Changer and His Wife. All elements of the composition are completely contained within their outlines. The prominent figures of a man and woman, various small details such as coins on the table and books on a shelf, and even a small glimpse of the outside world seen through a cracked door are all presented as their own entity. No color or form from any single element transgresses the strict boundary imposed by its outline into another element of the painting. The painting utilizes a flat and even distribution of light to ensure that no forms are blurred. The result is a balanced and orderly composition in which all forms are related clearly to the viewer.

Inversely, Wölfflin’s concept of painterly art is shown in the Baroque painting, Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer. Unlike Massys’ Renaissance painting, Vermeer uses color, specifically bright light and dark shadows to blur the outlines of elements in his painting. Color creates the details of this work rather than outlines. The integrity of each element is weakened as shadows obscure elements in the background and light illuminates the young woman holding the balance. This “painterly” style gives the impression of movement to the co-mingling elements of the composition. The implied movement in this painting style follows the path of a beam of sun that enters through a raised window to illuminate the woman as she holds an empty balance.

Another polarity that Wölfflin noted as a main difference between Renaissance and Baroque styles was the “closed form” of the Renaissance and the “open form” of Baroque art. The closed form of Renaissance art involves grouping the individual elements of a painting around a central axis to draw attention to the focal point of the work. Unlike Renaissance art, Baroque style art’s open form did not chain the elements of a composition to a focal point at the center of the work and, instead, pulled the viewer’s attention away from the center of a painting in many different directions.

The Renaissance trait of using closed form can be readily seen in The Money-Changer and His Wife. All of the distinct elements in the painting serve to draw the viewers attention to the central axis and focal point of the composition. No matter what element the viewer chooses to look at, their gaze is inevitably drawn back to the busts of the moneylender and his wife at the center of the painting. However, Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, and its use of open form, has the opposite effect on the viewer. The movement and blurred lines attributed to its painterly quality also serve to draw the viewers attention away from the center of the painting. The viewer’s eyes travel around the entirety of the composition and do not linger in one place for long. New revelations and previously unseen elements are brought to light as the viewer’s gaze is whisked around the composition. 

In conclusion, Wölfflin’s polarities of “linear and painterly” and “closed form and open form” can be readily seen in the works of Massys and Vermeer. Massys’ The Money-Changer and His Wife evinces the stylistic traits of being linear and in closed form which were ascribed to Renaissance art by Wölfflin. Massys’ painting is marked by an intense effort to keep individual elements separated and the viewer’s gaze is inexorably drawn to the focal point of the couple at the center of the painting. Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance utilizes the polar opposite of the Renaissance techniques in what Wolff in describes as a painterly style and a closed form. This style serves to blend elements of the composition to create movement and also draw the viewers eye away from the center of the painting in many different directions.

Works Cited

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art through the Ages. 14th ed., Wadsworth, 2011. 

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History; The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. 6th ed., Dover, 1950.