Both Baroque and Rococo Art are linked quite closely with jewelry and – definitely with the pearl. “Pérola* Barroca” means irregular pearl in Portuguese. The root of both “Baroque” and “Rococo” can be seen in this word and today an irregular pearl is called a “Baroque pearl.”
While the painters during their day did not refer to themselves as painters in the Baroque and Rococo styles, they did paint with the popular motifs of the day. Drama, grandeur, bright colors, didactic themes, romanticism, and love dominated the Baroque period. Towards the end of the Baroque Period, what is now referred to as Rococo Art took these themes to the extravagant.
During the 1700s, King Louis XIV demanded that royalty display their power openly. He coerced his court to wear their wealth in the form of gold and jewels. Diamonds and gemstones were sewn onto rich brocaded fabrics and silks. Hair pieces called aigrettes mimicked beautiful flowers with petals of topaz, emerald, sapphires and rubies. Mens’ shoes were fitted with gold embellishments and ladies wore strings of pearls through their hair. Rings were stacked one upon the other and he or she who wore the most was deemed the wealthiest.
Jewelry was once worn for more personal reasons. It was worn as talisman against poor health, as protectors from harm, as a symbol of faith or as a way to celebrate the beauty of the natural world. The king’s demand would change the way gold, gemstones and diamonds were viewed by all for several hundred years.
The overzealous fashions of the Baroque Period spilled over into both architecture and art. Baroque architecture is rife with gilded leaves, cherubic statues and flowery detail. The artists painted the world around them.
One of the most revered artists during the time, Caravaggio, may have had a part in connecting both pearl terminology with the art movement he helped create. Look at Carravaggio’s “Judithe Beheading Holfernes.”
Notice the irregular shaped pearl earring the young girl wears as she bravely kills the drunken general Holfernes. She is wearing a “Perla Barroca.” Created in 1599, this may be one of the first true Baroque paintings as the movement is generally considered to last from 1600-1750.
While Carvaggio excelled with allegorical, biblical and everyman pieces, another, Ruben, excelled with depicting the opulence of the era. His pieces are full of the detailed fashions worn by the more indulgent side of the populace.
In “Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma”, we see not only man, but beast adorned in all of nature’s glory. Embellished armor, draping jewels and an air of sophistication and elegance contrast sharply with a battlefield in the distance. While common man may have fought with little protection, the aristocracy looked on from afar – safe in their wealth and standing. Other pieces, like the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia” and his self portrait, “Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower” equally demonstrate the artist’s adept ability to immortalize those who embodied the over the top nature that defined the Baroque Period.
One of the most famous paintings, “The Girl with the Pearl Earrings” (1665) by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Jan Vermeer) clearly depicts the style of the day with bright colors, the subject’s piercing eyes and a sense of drama to the piece in that there seems to be a story that goes along with the painting. Another of Vermeer’s paintings, “The Girl in the Red Hat” is very similar.
While Vermeer may have had a penchant for pearls (they were popular in Rome and Greece during
the time), most fashionable men and women of the day preferred diamonds and vibrantly colored gemstones. Since art imitates life and vice versa, there is no surprise that the baroque was dominated by superfluous extravagance and overflowed with opulence.
Perhaps Vermeer’s paintings were so poignant because they strayed from the norm. His ladies were conventional and common. They did not mimic the courtly styles of the day but embraced quite the opposite. By focusing on the beauty of a single pearl worn by a girl in simple clothes, Vermeer seems to be commenting on the wanton embellishment seen elsewhere during the times.
Regardless, jewelry played an immense role throughout the Baroque Period. Its influence can be seen in paintings that depict the common day peoples to those that immortalize the wealthy. While King Louis XIV may have been making a statement about power when he ordained that wealth be worn by his court, he undoubtedly changed the way artists viewed the world and gave jewelry an entirely new purpose. He elevated jewels to a physical representation of one’s station in life. They no longer simply represented the beauty of nature, but instead represented an era enraptured with the beauty of wealth.
* Special thanks to @nathstam who corrected my poor Portuguese.