Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Subject of Art #10: The Other Michaelangelo - The Genius of Caravaggio!

Most of us are familiar with the works of the famed and revered Renaissance master sculptor and painter, Michelangelo di Buonarotti, and even the folks with no knowledge of art history at all will have heard of and perhaps seen photos of his most famous work—the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. However, there is another Michelangelo, born into the next generation of Italians, who is much less well known, even though his influence would change the style and technique of much of European painting.

This mysterious character was named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, typically known simply by his surname, Caravaggio, which also happened to be the name of the town in which he was born during the latter part of the 16th century. While the Michelangelo of Renaissance fame was a true giant in the art world whose uniqueness and genius could never be duplicated, Caravaggio developed ideas about painting that resonated with many of the artists of his day. His ideas inspired many to copy his techniques and spread his new style, which only continued to gain momentum through the centuries until the present day, where his influence can still be felt and seen in the work of contemporary realist artists.

Born in 1571 and being raised in the small town Caravaggio in the Lombardy region of Italy, Caravaggio lost both of his parents by the time he was thirteen. Fortunately, he had already demonstrated a talent for drawing and was taken in as an apprentice by a Milanese painter who had himself studied under Titian. From a young age he displayed a shockingly uncouth character that, from the point of view of our modern sensibilities, would seem to belie the evidence of deep sensitivity he displayed in his work. He was particularly prone to fighting and seems to have engaged in street brawls on a regular basis.

During one such incident in 1592, he appears to have wounded a police officer and was forced to flee from Milan, eventually ending up in Rome. In desperate straits, Caravaggio took a job as a painter of flowers and fruit for factory-like workshop that churned out cheap paintings for the masses (perhaps like the 17th century equivalent of Thomas Kincaid?), which must have been a difficult time for someone with Caravaggio's genius and tempestuous personality! Nevertheless, it was during that time that he seems to have developed most of his major stylistic innovations and became prepared to strike out on his own as a working artist. He had become acquainted with several people who were able to help him become known in the vibrant art world of Rome and in 1594 he painted what is considered to be his first masterpiece, The Cardsharps, that immediately gained him renown among the critics and collectors. A flurry of brilliantly executed private commissions finally brought him to the attention of the Catholic Church, from which he gained the larger public commissions that cemented his reputation as a master to his contemporaries and to us as well.

Caravaggio's innovations in painting were threefold. The most obvious one is his intensified use of chiaroscuro—the transition from light to dark in a painting, which he brought to never before seen extremes. His paintings are dominated by the inky blackness of the background that give way suddenly and sharply to the brightest, most intense lightness of the foreground figures. Far from having a jarring effect on the senses, Caravaggio's technique was so highly refined that he could pull off these high contrasts in a way that seemed pleasing to the eye and had the effect of drawing one further into the complex psychological dramas that were depicted. The technique was so influential that it was given a name - tenebrism - and became a standard for many artists up into the present times.

Caravaggio was also known for eschewing the use of preparatory drawings, preferring instead to work out his compositions directly on the canvas and directly from the live models. Such practices were considered barbaric by the academic establishment at that time, but such criticisms had little effect on the headstrong painter and the immediacy of the technique was something that would be applauded by generations of future artists who came to value the spontaneity of the moment afforded by painting directly in that manner.

Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, Caravaggio was a deeply committed realist as was evident from the meticulous detail he put into all of his works. The stark realism of his style was greatly at odds with the mainstream of art at that time which preferred a classical idealism and was offended by Caravaggio's "warts and all" images, even of stories from the Bible. His realistic depictions of his subjects led to more than a few scandals that resulted in rejection of his work by the buyer, particularly in the case of the Church when in his paintings of the Madonna the features of known local courtesans could be recognized! But again, he persevered in spite of the criticism and rejection and that spirit of realism that he sparked would become a revolution in the 19th century, changing everything we know about art and opening the doors to Modernism.

Unfortunately, Caravaggio's tumultuous personal life continued to cause him great trouble. He was forced to leave Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a fight and fled to Naples and from there to the island of Malta where he was knighted. All along the way he kept on producing incredibly vibrant works and building up his reputation. But again, in 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned for brawling and was expelled from the Knights of Malta "as a foul and rotten member." Upon his release he moved to Sicily where he had friends and thrived again on his brilliant work. But he also made more than a few enemies, eventually driving him out of Sicily. Finally he hoped to return to Rome in 1610 to receive a pardon for his earlier crime from the reigning Pope who seemed to look upon him with favor. He never got that chance, however, as he passed away from a fever en route from Naples at the young age of 39.

After his death, some of the people who had been his rivals and detractors in life sought to discredit him and were largely successful. His name was, for hundreds of years, largely forgotten, even though the artists that he inspired carried on his ideas, giving birth to the great works of artists such as Rubens, Velazquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Courbet and Manet, just to name a few. It was not until the 1920's that art historians finally restored Caravaggio to his rightful place as a true master of Western art, bringing back some vestiges of honor to a man whose life had been ruled by so much chaos.

Let us know which of Caravaggio's innovations are most crucial to your work? Don't forget to visit us online to get ready for your next masterpiece!

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