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Caravaggio

Italian Painter

Movement: Mannerism

Born: September 29, 1571 - Caravaggio, Lombardy

Died: July 18, 1610 - Porto Ercole, Lombardy

Caravaggio Timeline

Important Art by Caravaggio

The below artworks are the most important by Caravaggio - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self-Portrait as Bacchus/Sick Bacchus (c. 1593-94)

Self-Portrait as Bacchus/Sick Bacchus (c. 1593-94)

Artwork description & Analysis: It is probable that Caravaggio executed this self-portrait whilst in the employment of frescoist Giuseppe Cesari and the painting's carefully worked still life elements demonstrates the influence of Cesari's tutelage. Caravaggio's 17th-century biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies this painting as one of a group of the artist's early self-portraits painted with the aid of a convex mirror, a contention supported by the figure's awkward pose, as if turned to ensure better visibility in the mirror surface. The image may have been a 'cabinet piece' but was not, as far as is known, a commissioned work.

The title Sick Bacchus, a seemingly apt title for the subject's pallor and dark, hooded eyes, can be attributed to art historian Roberto Longhi, who believed that the artist painted it after he was discharged from the hospital, following an incident in which the artist was kicked by a horse and sustained severe injuries. Alternatively, the image's greenish coloration might simply be ascribed to a nighttime setting appropriate for the bacchanalia which was about to ensue. Bacchus was a fitting alter-ego for Caravaggio as he was the deity of wine, theater, ritualized displays of ecstasy and was synonymous with inspiration and destruction. The portrait, however, differs from traditional representations of Bacchus where he is depicted in the midst of unbridled celebration, often in a verdant landscape. Caravaggio's image adheres to the conventions of many of the artist's other works, presenting the mythological figure in a sparse interior. In addition, the artist's pallor and sedentary pose suggest not a deity in his prime, celebrating the virtues of wine and festivity, but rather the consequences of over-indulgence. Indeed, the ivy leaves encircling the artist's head have started to wither, a few of the grapes in his hands have begun to shrivel, and the two lush apricots in the painting's foreground betray the beginning brown spots of rot.

Cindy Sherman later famously reinterpreted this painting, posing herself as Caravaggio's Bacchus, in her 1990 photograph Untitled #224 (after Caravaggio's Bacchus).

Oil on canvas - Galleria Borghese, Rome

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1593-94)

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1593-94)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is one of two paintings representing the same subject matter; the other painting is in the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence. Here, a young boy, an example of the tousled, curly-haired youth who populated many of Caravaggio's early secular pieces, recoils in pain and surprise after having reached for one of the fruits on the table only to be bitten by a lizard, concealed among the pile of cherries. Though Caravaggio condemned Classical statuary, the boy's expression may have its root in the expression of horror found in the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, and the lizard is reminiscent of the reptile portrayed in the ancient Roman sculpture Lizard Apollo, which would have been in Rome in Caravaggio's time.

On the table, Caravaggio demonstrates his skill rendering the play of light over and through different textures. In keeping with Caravaggio's wider style, the boy exists in a nondescript, timeless interior, with blank walls punctuated only by a stark, diagonal light source originating from the upper left, and outside the frame of the painting. This heightens the intense expression of the piece, as it highlights the boy's bare right shoulder, raised as he recoils from the bite; his furrowed brow and mouth open in a gasp. The work is notable in large part for its striking sexual subtext. In the Italian street slang of Caravaggio's time, bitten fingers represented a wounded phallus, and the artist's inclusion of jasmine, a traditional symbol of sexual desire, in combination with the lizard lurking beneath the cherries and apples, each signifiers of temptation, suggests that the painting illustrates the perils of indulging in sexual appetites.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London

The Musicians (Concert of Youths) (c. 1595)

The Musicians (Concert of Youths) (c. 1595)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is an example of the Venetian pictorial genre of a 'concert' picture, exemplified by Titian's earlier 1510 work, The Pastoral Concert, in which artists celebrated the performance of music. This image, however, subverts the genre in a number of ways challenging traditional readings of it - it depicts a rehearsal rather than a concert and the inclusion of the classical clothing of the musicians and a winged cupid in the upper left of the image signals a symbolic intent probably linking music, love and wine (represented by the grapes in the cupid's hand).

The figures crowding the image seem to have been drawn separately and added to the composition. The central musician has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti and the other figure facing the viewer is possibly a self-portrait. The musicians are rehearsing madrigals and the lute player in the center is transported by the music, his wet eyes and dreamy expression suggesting sadness and lost love. The inclusion of a violin in the foreground indicates the presence of another musician. Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal del Monte, for whom this work was commissioned, was interested in music and he and his friends tutored musicians and encouraged musical experimentation. The crowded space of The Musicians may invoke the musical environment found in del Monte's household.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Medusa (c. 1597-98)

Medusa (c. 1597-98)

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting depicts Medusa, the Gorgon monster of Greek myth whose hair was made of snakes and whose gaze turned viewers into stone. Medusa was finally defeated by the hero Perseus who beheaded her using the reflection in his shield as a guide. Caravaggio depicts Medusa taking her final breath, immediately after the moment of her beheading. Unusually the image is painted on a circular canvas stretched over a convex wood backing. This mimics the shape of Perseus' shield and depicts the reflection of Medusa's final moments in its polished surface. It also references the practice of drawing Medusa on shields when going into battle to demonstrate victory over huge odds.

It is thought that Caravaggio used himself as the model for the image and as a self-portrait, Medusa is a good example of the artist's experimentation with gender and androgyny. In keeping with Caravaggio's interest in representing the world as it appeared and drawing from life, he used live snakes, common water snakes native to the Tiber River, to model Medusa's writhing vipers. The green of these and that of the background contrasts strongly with the red blood of the decapitated head highlighting the gory and visceral nature of the image. The painting was sent by the artist's patron, Cardinal del Monte, to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as a gift, and was well-received by the Medici family who put it on prominent display.

Oil on canvas mounted on wood - Florence, Uffizi

The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Artwork description & Analysis: This image is from Caravaggio's first major public works commission, to create paintings for the lateral wall of the Contarelli Chapel in the Roman church San Luigi dei Francesi. It has two companion pieces depicting other scenes from St. Matthew's life, including The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Here, Caravaggio depicts a moment from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ, accompanied by St. Peter, beckons to the tax collector Matthew to join him as a follower. The person of Matthew has been variously identified. Most interpretations cite the bearded, central figure to be Matthew, as this figure's gesture, a hand with an extended finger pointing towards his chest seems to ask "who me?". Others have suggested that Matthew is the younger man with bowed head at the end of the table and this may be intentionally ambiguous. Biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon attributes a political meaning to this composition. Completed around 1600, the year the French king Henri IV married Marie de'Medici, Graham-Dixon explains St. Matthew's slow rousing from "spiritual slumber by the coming of Christ" as an allusion to the French king's conversion.

This painting is a notable example of two of the artist's compositional traits: his depictions of holy figures in the guise of modern-day Romans, and his unique use of light. The figures around the table are dressed as members of the early-17th-century middle classes and Jesus and St. Peter are more simply clothed and barefoot, the faces are realistic and non-idealized. The only iconographic nod to the holy context of the scene is the faint, foreshortened gold halo above Christ's head, which is partly obscured by the diagonal beam of blinding light. These details caused critics to express dismay at the image and accuse the artist of blasphemy.

Though Caravaggio includes a prominently placed open window in the image, it provides no light; the brightness instead originates outside the picture frame, and is suggested as an otherworldly accompaniment to the divine presences of Christ and St. Peter. Caravaggio used this dramatic light source to integrate the chapel space into the world of the painting. Though its origin is not visible within the picture, the upper right light source was meant to connect to the natural illumination of the chapel itself and was an extension of the light emanating from a window directly above the chapel altar. The artist thus created continuity between the scene of Matthew's calling and the chapel in which it was situated.

Oil on canvas - San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The Entombment/Deposition (1603-04)

The Entombment/Deposition (1603-04)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Entombment was originally painted for the Oratorian church in Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella. The scene shows mourners carrying Christ's body to its burial place, with John the Evangelist in a red cloak supporting Christ's torso, and Nicodemus carrying Christ's legs. A distraught Mary of Clopas, a weeping Mary Magdalene, and a bowed Virgin Mary accompany Christ to his burial. As in his other work the figures are presented with a realism that belies their religious significance and this is enhanced the red and brown tones of the image (representative of Caravaggio's palette in this period) which further serve to highlight the earthy normality of the participants. It is plausible that the composition was inspired by Michelangelo's 15th-century Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica as Christ's limp body, dangling arm and foreshortened chest and head echo the pose of Christ as seen from the front of the sculpture.

The painting is organized along a dramatic diagonal, with figures aligned in a descent from the top right of the picture to the lower left corner. Each person illustrates a progression of emotion commensurate with their position in the painting. The outstretched arms and extended palms of Mary of Clopas occupies the apex of the diagonal and suggests the initial reaction of disbelief and despair at Christ's execution. The composition then proceeds downwards to a weeping Mary Magdalene, her face concealed from the viewer; to the resigned, bowed head of the Virgin Mary; to Nicodemus, struggling under Christ's weight. He turns his face to the viewer as if to ask "what next?". The question is answered by John the Evangelist who focuses on the example of Christ himself, whose expression of serenity, peace, and acceptance of death completes the painting's emotional arc. The painting was designed to hang above an altar and the stone tomb in the image echoes the shape and appearance of the altar. Consequently, Caravaggio extends the scene of burial into the space of the worshippers and the frontal light source beyond the plane of the painting appears to emanate from the altar itself - a divine light of resurrection animating, and lending hope to the burial scene above.

Oil on canvas - Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (in situ) (1608)

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (in situ) (1608)

Artwork description & Analysis: This is Caravaggio's largest work and was painted as an altarpiece for the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato, annexed to the Church of St. John in Valletta, in Malta. It is widely seen as one of Caravaggio's greatest paintings and may have been his passaggio, a gift customarily given following investiture into the Order of the Knights of Malta. This work is notable as the only piece Caravaggio ever signed. The blood pouring from John's head oozes into the artist's signature as 'Fra Michael Angelo' a centralized signature which, according to art historian Keith Sciberras, denotes the artist's new social status as Michelangelo, Knight of Malta. Scholars, including art historian Herwarth Röttgen, have noted Caravaggio's blood signature as an act of contrition, the artist professing his guilt and admitting his hand in the murder of his friend, the event which precipitated his flight and exile from Rome. Alternatively, David M. Stone argues that the artist's decision to sign the work through St. John's blood should be read as a celebratory gesture, the artist marking his new life in Malta as a Knight and his subsequent newly elevated social status.

As with other works from his Malta period the figures are clustered together leaving large swathes of empty or less populated space above and adjacent to the focus of the action. As a consequence, although the artist imbues each actor with a unique emotion or response, individuality is subsumed to the collective illustration of the dramatic moment. The only figure who betrays a strong emotion in the image is the old woman. The artist's tenebrism relegates much of her face to shadow, but Caravaggio highlights her hands, grasping her head in horror. The old woman is the emotional corollary to the placid, deceased St. John, and, by proxy to the stillness of the acts of witness which define the rest of the characters. The old woman's head, clasped in shock and dismay between her hands, represents the viewer's emotional guide to the scene.

Oil on canvas - St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valetta, Malta



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Caravaggio Photo

Related Art and Artists

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El entierro del conde de Orgaz) (1586 - 1588)

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El entierro del conde de Orgaz) (1586 - 1588)

Artist: El Greco

Artwork description & Analysis: This large painting, three and half meters wide by almost five meters high, is universally regarded as El Greco's greatest masterpiece and most famous work. It was commissioned by the parish priest of Santo Tomé in Toledo, and is considered to be a prime example of Mannerism. Along with Tintoretto, Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo da Pontormo, and others, El Greco is considered one of the main Mannerist artists. His contribution to the development of the movement is marked by visual compositions that moved away from an idealized perfection into a world charged with tension and emotional complexity through form, imagination, and expression.

El Greco referred to this painting as his 'sublime work.' The Burial of Count of Orgaz is a popular legend in Toledo of a pious and charitable man who left a large sum of money to the church after his death and was subsequently buried and escorted to heaven by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine. The funerary scene is portrayed at the bottom of the painting, with the Count surrounded by the two saints, followed by other noble men and clergyman of the time in 16th century clothing, captured in a static way. It is contrasted with the celestial kingdom in heaven that includes Mary, Christ, God, John the Baptist, and the angels, who all observe the scene, depicted in a more organic free flowing way, so as to represent the intangibility and immateriality of spirit. The young boy at the left is said to be Jorge Manuel, the artist's son.

One possible interpretation that is in the juxtaposition of the worlds: the physical world of earth and the spiritual world of heaven, each portrayed in their own ways. Earth is captured in normal scale with more proportional figures, whereas heaven is composed of swirling clouds and abstract shapes, with a more intangible quality to the figures. This clear distinction greatly allows for two ideas: on the one hand a union between both worlds is proposed, on the other, the separation of the worlds is enhanced. Another interpretation is brought forth by art Historian Dr. Vida Hull who claims the painting represents "a visionary experience." In her view, the amorphous character and the elongation of the bodies all convey a profound otherworldliness, as it is the soul of the Count that is being brought up to heaven.

Burial scenes were often depicted as a main religious theme in art. Other notorious works of burials, painted after El Greco's, include the Burial At Ornans (1849) by Gustave Coubert, The Burial of the Sardine (c. 1812-1819) by Francisco Goya, and the Burial of St. Lucy (1608) by Caravaggio.

Oil on canvas - Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo

Las Meninas (1656)

Las Meninas (1656)

Artist: Diego Velazquez

Artwork description & Analysis: Las Meninas, or the Maids of Honor, is considered to be one of Velazquez's most famous masterpieces, representing the sum total of a career's worth of genius, intelligence, and technical mastery. It is also lauded, even 300 years later, by artists and viewers alike as a seminal example of the art of painting. The complex and mysterious piece intrigued all who looked at it and it has been called a resume of Velazquez's entire life and career.

Visually, it is a sumptuously depicted scene in which the five-year-old Infanta Margarita, the heir to the Spanish throne, is surrounded by her ladies in waiting and other attendants. She is the daughter of King Philip IV and his second wife, Mariana of Austria. The painting itself is large, around seven by ten feet, and Velazquez is seen standing behind a large canvas on the left side of in his spacious studio in the Royal Alcazar in Madrid. The strongly foreshortened wall on the right has three rows of artwork, which help to establish the space. More than half of the space is dim, dark, and empty around the figures. The royal couple is shown as a reflection in a mirror on the back wall. Two Court dwarves, and a large dog linger in the bottom right hand corner. Behind the dwarves, two women, a nun, and a lady's guard are in conversation while the queen's quartermaster is seen on the stairs at the rear in front of an open sunlit door. The story has been related that the royal parents were weary of posing for Velazquez and sent for the princess to amuse them. King Philip IV was an amateur artist and a good friend of Velazquez and he recognized this busy gathering as a special moment. This resulted in a rare, intimate depiction of the Spanish royal family, their attendants, and a self-portrait of the artist. The relentless Court etiquette is less evident in this private scene. In her Memoirs, Madame de Motteville, who was present at the scene, writes of the young princess, "She is waited on with great respect, few have access to her and it was a special favor that we were allowed to linger at the door of her chamber."

Technically, the work is a testament to Velazquez's brilliance with composition. He was very masterful in his use of one-point perspective and chiaroscuro to control the space of the high-ceilinged room in this painting. He utilized strategic placement of his subjects to create multiple visual planes and diagonals, which draw the eye to various areas of the room in a balanced fashion. We are led not only to witness the activity in the room, but also to ponder what is outside the frames of what we can see. This is accomplished through the eyes of the princess and others as they peer out toward the viewer as if about to be captured in a photograph; through the acknowledgement of the queen and king seen only in reflection, and in the open door at the back of the room that displays the light of the world outside. The painting is considered a perfect construction, so much that other painters continue to study it, emulate it, and draw inspiration from its ideal form.

The importance of Velazquez's art is very evident in the great respect given to him by his contemporaries and more modern painters. Picasso painted many versions of Las Meninas in his own avant-garde Cubist style but maintained Velazquez's general form, naturalness, and positioning of the figures. Salvador Dali created Velazquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory using Velazquez's color scheme as a tribute to the older artist but also to present his own newer theories of art and thinking. John Singer Sargent painted a smaller scale copy of Las Meninas in 1879 and later used a similar composition in his The Daughters of Edward Darly Boit.

Las Meninas is also seen to be autobiographical, a statement by Velazquez in his mature years, cementing himself in the annals of great artists, taking his place alongside his great idol Rubens, whose work is hinted at on the high walls in the back of the studio. This work is a visual argument to the virtue of painting, the role of an artist in finding the jewels of an intimate moment and expressing them visually for the world to enjoy.

Oil on canvas - Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Artist: Jacques-Louis David

Artwork description & Analysis: The Oath of the Horatii depicts narrative from early Roman history. On the left, three young soldiers reach toward their father, pledging to fight for their homeland. They appear resolute and unified, every muscle in their bodies is actively engaged and forcefully described, as if to confirm their selflessness and bravery. These Roman Horatii brothers were to battle against three Curatii brothers from Alba to settle a territorial dispute between their city-states. They are willing to fight to the death, sacrificing themselves for home and family.

Underscoring their moral integrity, David compares their positive example with weakness. On the right, women and children collapse on each other, overwhelmed by their emotions and fear. Indeed, the women are more conflicted; one, a Curatii, was married to one of the Horatii while a Horatii sister was engaged to another of the Curatii. As they watch this dramatic pledge, they understand that either their husbands or their brothers were going to die and their loyalties are divided. David juxtaposes these two family groups, dividing the canvas not only into male and female roles, but contrasting the heroic and selfless with the fearful and uncertain.

This clarity is also reflected in the severity of the composition and style; while earlier artists had begun to mine Greco-Roman narratives as a fashionable trend in art, no other artist united these stories with David's stylistic minimalism and simplicity. The bare stage-like setting, organized by the sparse arches in the background, provides no distraction from the lesson being taught. Every figure and object in the painting contributes to this central moral.

Indeed, David even invented this scene to most concisely convey the essence of the narrative and its moral implications. In neither the written history, nor the 18th-century stage production of this story, do the sons pledge an oath to their father. David added this element because it allowed him to condense the larger epic into a singular moment, and to create the strongest possible emotional charge.

The enthusiastic reception of this painting at the Salon cemented David's reputation as the leading artist in the new Neoclassical style. Although the work was his first royal commission, and its emphasis on selflessness and patriotism was conceived with the monarchy in mind, its depiction of fraternity and heroic sacrifice would soon resonate with the French Revolution of 1789.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

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Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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