Art In History Art Blog
In my piece on Monet I said that, while he was not as resonant for me as Manet or Cezanne, he was an artist whose inventions were so powerful that all later European artists had to react in some way to their implications. I realize that I have left behind another artist about whom the same can be said: Caravaggio. Coming at a time when the schism in the Christian church was dominating the European political and social scene, and when the implications of Renaissance naturalism were opening new avenues of artistic exploration, Caravaggio, in is short career, was a towering force.
Caravaggio had three great inventions. The first was to abandon the idealizing classicism of the Italian Renaissance in favor of an uncompromising realism. It is still clearly Italian in its avoidance of trivial detail and its emphasis on solid forms in space, but it is iconoclastic in its treatment of traditional subjects. This can be seen in the figure of Bacchus, generally considered to be a self-portrait, where the trappings of the deity do not disguise the wasted body and face of the habitual drinker.
The second great invention was to introduce a use of light and dark, or chiaroscuro, which went far beyond anything seen before in its drama and impact. This is coupled with his third invention, that of pushing his subject so far to the front of the picture plane that it bursts out into the viewers space, involving him in the action. The two techniques taken together eradicate the normal separation between the viewer and the painting, making the message immediate, stunning and unavoidable.
It is fascinating to place his work in the context of the upheaval in the catholic church as the reformation took hold in the north. There was a moment when the catholic church tried to respond by being as accessible as the protestants, before deciding that its strength lay precisely in its trappings of magnificence and mystery. We can compare a Caravaggio Madonna and Child with one by the Flemish master Rubens to feel the vast difference in approach.
A perfect example of the power of Caravaggios technique is seen in the "Conversion of St. Paul". The revelation which comes to the Roman Centurion is seen as a physical blow, hurling him from his horse. The horse is massive, and locked in to the front of the picture plane, meaning that St. Paul can only be in front of that plane, crashing down at our feet. Combined with the dramatic lighting, this creates a stunning and immediate effect on the viewer, be he learned or ignorant.
We see another example in the work "Christ at Emmaus", where jesus reveals himself to two apostles after his resurrection. For Caravaggio this is a moment of astonishment and terror, rather than quiet wonder and faith. Again, the forward edge of the table is locked in to the frame, and the nearer apostle is shoving his chair back into our space, making us want to jump back as well.
If we compare this to two treatments of the same subject by Rembrandt a generation later, we become aware of the tremendous influence of Caravaggio's work on the Dutch master. In an early work, the young Rembrandt is equally fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of the moment, and of Caravaggio's use of light. By the time Rembrandt returns to the subject in later years, he has turned the use of light to very different and much more profound purposes, seeing the moment as one of deep spiritual meaning.
Many other artists in the North, where there was a tradition of genre scenes of ordinary people, were drawn to Caravaggio's inventions. One was the French artist Georges de la Tour. In certain works such as "The Cardsharp" he is unabashedly imitating Caravaggio's treatment of the same subject. Later he finds his own voice, with the study of a single light source within the painting itself, as in his "Joseph the Carpenter". We will see another influence when we look at the Spanish artist Velazquez in my next post.