Trained in Milan and active in Rome (1592–1606), Naples (1606–7; 1609–10), Malta (1607–8), and Sicily (1608–9), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was one of the most revolutionary figures of European art. His practice of painting directly from posed models violated the idealizing premise of Renaissance theory and promoted a new relationship between painting and viewer by breaking down the conventions that maintained painting as a plausible fiction rather than an extension of everyday experience.
In early work such as The Cardsharps (ca. 1594; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, AP 1987.06), Caravaggio appropriated a scene of street life—a gullible, well-dressed youth being taken in by professional cheats—and, by abstracting it against a plain background and focusing on the expressions and actions of the various figures, gave it an artistic as well as moral interest. The analogy is with contemporary popular theater. This much-copied picture was purchased by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who gave Caravaggio quarters in his palace and promoted the artist, securing for him his first ecclesiastical commission—the crucial step to fame.
Caravaggio’s two canvases, the Calling of Saint Matthew (Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome) and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome), were unveiled in 1600, and established his reputation. The combination of figures in contemporary dress inhabiting a religious scene was not new, but the impression the picture made of an event from the distant past unfolding before the viewer’s own eyes was unmatched. Caravaggio pushed the figures up against the picture plane and used light to enhance the dramatic impact and give the figures a quality of immediacy. These devices were much imitated. As a contemporary critic noted, “a characteristic of this school [of painting] is to use a focused light source from high up, without reflections, as though in a room with a [single] window and the walls painted black. In this fashion the lit and shadowed areas are very light and very dark and give enormous three-dimensionality to the painting, but in an unnatural fashion neither done or even conceived before by such artists as Raphael, Titian, Correggio, or others.” What was at issue was not a descriptive naturalism, but a provocative insistence on the physical reality of the scene portrayed.
This new approach to painting was sometimes at odds with the function of the altarpieces as the focus of devotional practice. Should a depiction of the death of the Virgin emphasize the theological importance of the event and show the Madonna as the ageless mother of Christ, as worshippers had come to expect, or should it emphasize the physical reality of death—as Caravaggio’s painting seemed to do (Death of the Virgin, Musée du Louvre, Paris, INV.54)? Should Christ’s burial be depicted as a tragic drama or as a sacred event? Much of Caravaggio’s work, such as his spellbinding Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, reveals the artist dealing with these crucial issues. In his last paintings, such as The Denial of Saint Peter (1997.167), he revealed the psychological rather than merely physical dimension of the narrative.
Caravaggio’s key Italian propagator was Bartolomeo Manfredi, whose gambling and drinking scenes (Bacchus and the Drinker, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome), and gypsy fortune tellers were widely imitated. Caravaggio’s art was particularly popular among foreign painters in Rome—the Dutchmen Hendrick ter Brugghen (56.228) and Gerrit van Honthorst, the French painters Valentin de Boulogne (Fortune Teller with Drinkers, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 1981.53; and The Luteplayer, [2008.459]) and Nicholas Tournier, and the Spaniards Juan Bautista Maino and Jusepe de Ribera (copies of his work may have been known by Velázquez [14.40.631]) and Zurbarán. Through them, Caravaggism became an international movement and one of the keystones of Baroque painting.
Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Caravaggio's first known paintings date from his arrival in Rome in 1592. During these first years, he was completely destitute and painted small genre scenes, self-portraits and still-lifes to earn money on the open market. The main characteristics of paintings from this period include neutral backgrounds, emphasis on still-life subjects and mistakes in proportion.
From 1595 onwards, Caravaggio's career was boosted when the influential Cardinal del Monte welcomed him into his court. The young artist executed paintings for the Cardinal and took advantage of his connections to garner prime commissions from Rome's wealthiest patrons and collectors.
His works focused on effeminate young men and religious scenes. The artist's compositions became more complex and contained various characters. Additionally Caravaggio's pictures became darker during this time.
In 1599, Cardinal del Monte used his influence to secure Caravaggio his first major commission: the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel. These three paintings showing scenes from the life of St. Matthew constituted Caravaggio's triumphant (and controversial) bursting onto the Roman art scene.
The commissions came pouring in after 1600, despite Caravaggio's difficult temper, problems with the law and soaring prices. This stage in his career saw the artist creating many religious works with larger and more complex arrangements. The artist had clearly solved his early compositional problems.
In 1606, Caravaggio had to flee Rome with a price on his head after committing a murder. From 1606-10, he was constantly on the run, from Naples, to Malta, to Sicily, painting all the way. During this time of intense fear and personal trauma, Caravaggio's paintings reached the ultimate in darkness and despair. Focusing on religious subjects and portraits his works were grim, somber and unsettling.
Caravaggio's intense level of realism was hardly appreciated by his peers. The thinkers behind the Council of Trent wanted art to be more natural than the Mannerist fantasies that had been in style, but Caravaggio went above and beyond this call.
This artist shows everything, from dirty fingernails, to the dirty bottoms of feet, to the bruises and worm holes on apples and the holes in pierced ears.
Such details were not befitting a decorous representation of sacred personages. A Cardinal's secretary described one Caravaggio painting, the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, thusly: "In this painting there are but vulgarity, sacrilege, impiousness and disgust... one would say it is a work made by a painter that can paint well, but of a dark spirit, and who has been for a lot of time far from God, from His adoration, and from any good thought..."
Art historians have long speculated as to the source of Caravaggio's realism. Art historian Helen Langdon suggests that the unprecedented naturalism that marked Caravaggio's mature style most likely had its roots in his training as a young artist: there was a markedly naturalist trend in the art of the Lombardy region and Peterzano may have encouraged the young Caravaggio to study from nature.