The fame of Caravaggio paintings is particularly astonishing given the brevity of his life, a mere 38 years (1571-1610). Equally awe-inspiring are the accomplishments of this pioneer of Baroque paintings:
- Caravaggio revolutionized contemporary Roman painting by
rejecting classicism and portraying ordinary people rather than models;
- He perfected chiaroscuro (the modelling of volume by strongly contrasting light and shadow), a technique long used but never so skillfully;
- His innovative, naturalistic depictions of anguish, guilt and lust spawned a school of followers, the Caravaggisti, in France, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. The Cardsharps, 1595-96. Oil on canvas, 37 1/8" x 51 5/8". Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Born Michelangelo Merisi in the Lombard town called Caravaggio, he traveled in 1592 to Rome - the artistic hub of Italy - during the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church was attempting to win back Protestant converts by re-building and renovating Rome's churches and institutions; there were plentiful opportunities for Italian Baroque painters, especially those skilled in the naturalistic art the Church sought.
Naturalistic paintings, the Church supposed, would stress the human-ness in Biblical events and the lives of the saints. This Counter Reformation theology, for instance, rendered Peter's repentance after his denial a more compelling subject than the denial itself. With its emphasis on naturalism, the Church sanctioned depiction of emotional distress or physical violence.
Although Caravaggio's early years in Rome were difficult, he arrived as the numbers of wealthy collectors were on the uptick. Also, his luck changed when he befriended a prominent Cardinal, Francesco del Monte, who recognized Caravaggio's talents and took him into his household.
Some art historians contend that Cardinal del Monte resembles the saint in one of the earliest Caravaggio paintings, St. Francis
of Assisi in Ecstasy. Here, the saint's body has recoiled from divine intervention, with one hand limp and the other clenched while one eye peers half-open and the other is closed.
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, ca. 1594. Oil on canvas, 36 3/8" by 50 1/4". Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.
Critics were shocked by the portrayal of an unshaven saint with dirty feet.
Caravaggio shows only St. Francis' heart wound. He is cradled by a rosy-cheeked angel, (whose face, or a similar one, appears in other Caravaggio paintings including Boy Peeling Fruit of 1592-93, below, the earliest known Caravaggio painting, and the youth being cheated in The Cardsharps, 1595-1596, above).
Through del Monte's circles, Caravaggio received a breakthrough commission at age 24, a triptych of St. Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel in the Rome church of San Luigi del Francesci. These three Caravaggio paintings revealled his skill with scenes of confrontation and heightened drama. Their exacting naturalism and intense chiaroscuro made the Caravaggio paintings controversial... while cementing his reputation for brilliance.
Caravaggio not only painted scenes of confrontation but lived them. Known as tempetous and volatile, he had in 1606 an argument with a young man - variously reported as over a tennis match, a woman or a bet - that led to a swordfight and the man's subsequent death. Caravaggio fled Rome.
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Boy Peeling Fruit, 1592-1593. Oil on canvas, approximately 30" by 25". Longhi Collection, Rome.
The remainder of Caravaggio's life consisted primarily of painting and brawling. He died in 1610 at the age of 36, en route to Rome to receive a Papal pardon.
Despite his short life, the legacy of Caravaggio is enduring, as expressed by the art critic Roberto Longhi:
Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him [Caravaggio]. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different".
What an astonishing legacy given that there are 34 recognized Caravaggio paintings!
Question: Look at all three of these Caravaggio paintings. Do you believe the young boy - whose name isn't known, to the best of my knowledge - is the same in each? Do chime in!