About the Exhibition

One of the most influential figures in the history of art, Caravaggio (1571–1610) overturned the artistic conventions of the day and created stunningly dramatic paintings, both sacred and secular. This ambitious exhibition explores the profound impact of his work on the wide range of painters of Italian, French, Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish origin who resided in Rome. Arranged by theme, it includes over 50 paintings, with Caravaggio’s compelling images juxtaposed with those he inspired. This is the second largest display of his paintings in North America and only the third Caravaggio exhibition to be held in the United States.

 

Music & Youth     See more images 
Many of Caravaggio’s early paintings feature handsome youths, whether singly or in groups. He seems to have used the same favorite models repeatedly—and sometimes his own features, which a contemporary tells us he studied in a mirror. The origins of these novel paintings lay in the types of pictures—portraits, still lifes, and allegories—that were painted in a realistic style in the artist’s native Lombardy, in the north of Italy, although he blurred the boundaries between genres to suggest real-life scenes. Caravaggio’s paintings of musicians would have appealed to Roman collectors who were passionate patrons of music, and likely were created to decorate rooms used for performances. They have a dreamy, slightly melancholy air. If the songs are about love, as we can assume they are, they are surely about the painful side of love rather than its joys. Caravaggio’s early paintings of youths are usually scenes of sensual pleasure but with a built-in warning against indulgence, as when a youth has his finger bitten by a lizard lurking in some fruit. He brings us close to his figures, often having them make eye contact with us, and includes lovingly observed still-life details that enhance the naturalism and immediacy of the scene. Even when there is a visitation from the beyond, like the winged Cupid in The Musicians, he treats this in a matter-of-fact way, attentive always to breaking down the boundaries between the painted world and our own. Caravaggio’s musical paintings caught on throughout Europe in the work of his followers, who brought their own innovations to the genre.

 

The Gypsy Fortune Teller, c. 1595, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Cardsharps & Fortune Tellers    See more images
The young Caravaggio introduced another new kind of painting to the Roman art world with his scenes from the seamy side of life, its frauds and ruses. He painted these works on a large scale with half-length figures, and they were among his most widely imitated creations. His followers played countless variations on the same themes, trying various levels of subtlety and buffoonery in the humor and facial expressions. These highly animated compositions conjure up an underworld of wily cardsharps, soldiers of fortune, foolish dupes, sensuous and deceitful gypsy women, pickpockets, and thugs. They are based partly on everyday observations in the streets, partly on the stock characters and improvised comedies of the commedia dell’arte, partly on sheer fantasy. In such works, Caravaggio and his followers developed ingenious ways of involving us in the action. We read these amusingly moralizing pictures through gestures and expressions—but to unravel the trickery takes time. Despite being frozen in a static image, the story seems to unfold before our eyes like one of the popular plays that were its inspiration. The artist extends the theme of deception by painting his subjects with such a high level of naturalism that the viewer is duped and astounded by his artistry.  

 

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604–5, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio Saints    See more images
Caravaggio grounded his saints in everyday reality, indicating their spiritual states by means of natural phenomena, especially light. In his early painting of Saint Francis, he shows the saint’s ecstasy—his mystic identification with Christ—by directing a strong light upon his figure and the consoling angel. God’s grace is signaled by light in other images of the saints, such as the scene of Mary Magdalene’s conversion from her former life of sin. In paintings of Saints Matthew and Jerome in their studies, much emulated in Caravaggio’s circle, light is a metaphor of divine inspiration. Generally the saints seem to be emerging from darkness into light, which adds drama, symbolism, and also a sense of mass—as if they were sculpted, not merely painted. In a break from Roman and Florentine traditions, Caravaggio rejected the practice of refining his composition through drawings before he began to paint and instead worked directly from a live model in the studio, preserving that model’s particular appearance, never making the features or body conform to an ideal of beauty. The effect, central to Caravaggio’s art and that of many of his followers, was startling. At this time, many people believed that the painting of sacred personages such as saints called for a special, elevated style that set them apart from the mundane reality of the here and now. Caravaggio’s radical departure from this principle brought him much harsh criticism. He was accused of merely copying and so failing to capture a higher truth. But others recognized in his work a new kind of religious art that directly engaged the faithful and made old subjects new and alive. 

 

Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio The Sacred Narrative    See more images
Caravaggio was a masterful storyteller who could bring home the drama and significance of a biblical event with tremendous power. In his scenes from the Old and New Testaments, he created a new kind of painting—dramatic, even theatrical, yet grounded in the observation of ordinary reality—and it proved infectious among his contemporaries in Rome. His approach was to make the scene clear and simple, with the main actors in the drama seen close-up and caught in midaction at a decisive moment, embodying the whole meaning of the event. He played down the setting, sometimes to the point that it is a mere pool of darkness from which the figures emerge. It was the actions and states of mind of the characters in the story that counted, and Caravaggio presented these with sometimes shocking directness and intensity, breaking all the rules of decorum that restrained more conventional painters. He mastered the art of concealing art, re-creating a scene with such a flavor of reality that it comes across as an eyewitness account. It was his power to draw viewers into the emotion and importance of a scene that made his work an essential object of study, even for such an independent genius as the great Peter Paul Rubens.