The Caravaggio Influence

How the renegade Italian artist revolutionised image making forever

The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Caravaggio was an artist who divided opinions during his own lifetime. His method of presenting human figures with realistic and often rugged features met with fierce criticism.

Moreover, the stories we know of his life — including tales of brawling, debt and murder — have come to shape readings of his art as dramatic, untamed and impassioned. As such, his paintings seem to echo his reputation as an unflinching and controversial character.

Yet despite the defiant air with which he lived his life, Caravaggio became a hugely influential force on the succeeding generations of artists and has become one of the most revered painters in Western art.

Caravaggio’s challenge

Caravaggio developed his artistic reputation in Rome, where moved from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years became notorious for his distinctively unpretentious style.

Painting in Italy at the time had evolved from the High Renaissance style exemplified by the “perfect” forms of Michelangelo into a style of painting that took stylisation and exaggeration as a norm, known in art history as Mannerism.

The significance of Caravaggio in the story of art lies in his rejection of Mannerist artificiality and self-conscious “facility” — most especially the search for a kind of effortless grace in depicting the human form.

Against this grain, Caravaggio painted humans without pretence: his figures are weighty, corpulent, earthy and palpable. His methods often involved painting directly on canvas without prior preparation, and he would sometimes cover entire paintings with new compositions if he wasn’t happy the first time.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil and tempera on canvas. 141 × 196.2 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

Take The Supper at Emmaus, painted by Caravaggio in 1601. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. The two companions were not aware before, but nowthey see.

On their faces and in their body language we see the sudden awareness of Christ’s identity. This transformation is the central conceit of the painting and its dramatic intention.

Caravaggio dared to present the Biblical story at a dinner table that was clearly contemporary and familiar, using ordinary men as models with worn clothes and wrinkled features, and eschewing any attempt at idealisation.

His tendency to show apostles as dirty and unkempt was a point of criticism often levelled by those who felt such religious subjects required a more hallowed approach. Yet his technique was quickly seized upon by other artists who were impressed by the gravity and directness of his painting style.

Darkness prevailing

Caravaggio became known for a technique of extreme chiaroscuro: that is, a heavy use of shadows and light to add dramatic depth to his scenes. This leaning towards shadowy, and sometimes brooding depictions was another break with the Mannerist tradition, which as the 16th century progressed had moved towards a lighter, more pastel-toned colour palette.

One of the clearest ways we can see this influence is through Caravaggio’s frequent creation of abstract settings for his paintings. That is to say, the way he often placed his scenes against a dark background that contained little or no hint of a location.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 107 × 146 cm. Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany

A painting like The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows the moment when Thomas the Apostle declared he would not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he could “put my hand into his side”, is set against an entirely black background. All of the drama is at the front of the painting, where the key elements such as faces and hands are highlighted against the backdrop.

The term for this style is tenebrism, a style of painting characterised by the use of light foregrounds contrasted against the background. The term is derived from the Italian “tenebroso” meaning “darkened” or “obscured.”

Christ Displaying His Wounds (c. 1630) by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Oil on canvas. 132.3 × 97.8 cm. Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland, UK

Now look at this painting, Christ Displaying His Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Galli was a member of the Caravaggisti — followers of Caravaggio who used his dramatic techniques as a basis for their own work.

In a similar mode to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this painting shows a pale-skinned Jesus in a three-quarter view. The lower half of his body is cloaked in a white linen cloth, which is draped over his left arm and wrapped around his waist in rich folds.

There is much of Caravaggio in this work. The almost pitch-black background, the invisible light source that illuminates little but the main subject of the work, gives a distinct sense of the figure of Christ emerging from the shadows with the exact place or time of day impossible to determine.

Influence beyond Italy

Numerous artists beyond the borders of Italy were also captivated by the new stylistic developments occurring in Italy which Caravaggio had spearheaded.

Martyrdom of Saint Andrew (1628) by Jusepe de Ribera. Oil on canvas. 209 × 183 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, after travelling to Rome and Naples in the first quarter of the 17th century, adopted many of the techniques that Caravaggio mastered.

Indeed, artists from across Europe gravitated to Rome to explore and share in the various aspects of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that Caravaggio had pioneered.

Left: Peter Paul Rubens’ copy of Entombment of Christ (1612-1614). Oil on oak wood. 88.3 × 66.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Canada. Right: The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Adam Elsheimer from Germany was one such artist. Another was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who made his way to Italy in the early 1600s. Painters like Titian and Tintoretto were instrumental in Rubens’ development, as was Caravaggio, whose Entombment of ChristRubens went on to produce a copy of.

Drama uncensored

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 145 × 195 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy

Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes also condemned — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. He deliberately sought to create heightened drama in his scenes, utilising the vivid language of highlights and shadow to sharpen the details of gestures or facial expressions.

Take a work like Judith Beheading Holofernes(c.1599). Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status – and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.

Yet for Caravaggio, the bloody reality was of more obvious interest. In his work he chose to show the actual moment of the assassination.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. 146.5 × 108 cm. Uffizi, Florence

Some two decades later, deeply influenced by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi created her own version of the scene, perhaps the most macabre depiction of the story ever painted.

In this work, Gentileschi gives us the most direct view possible, allowing us to witness the bloody force of the sword along with fierce attention paid to the harsh truthfulness of the slaying.

Caravaggio’s critics would later claim that his treatments of important Biblical subjects were disrespectful and indecent. But this did not stop his influence from extending to the generation of Baroque painters who followed him.

Few other artists of the era had such a mastery of narrative drama and physical gesture, and fewer still had the power to inspire and influence later artistic generations as far as the Romantics and Modernists.

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Venus De Milo-How She Might Have Looked

The unexpected discovery of one of the most famous statues in history

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

The Venus de Milo has the incongruous distinction of being one of the most well-known objects in art and yet it remains an enigma.

The story of the statue’s discovery is shrouded in romantic mystique, and historians can only speculate on how she might have looked in her original form.

And yet the Venus de Milo continues to engross those who spend time looking at her. Carved in marble, partially nude, and wearing an inscrutable expression on her face — perhaps one of confidence — her story is a remarkable one.

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

An unexpected discovery

Sometimes known also as Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo was carved in marble sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The circumstance of the sculpture’s original creation is a mystery, but it is known that at some point it found itself interred in a small cavern or niche on the Greek island of Milos and left for hundreds of years.

Then, in the spring of 1820, a farmer by the name of Yorgos Kentrotas was roaming the rugged countryside in search of stones to use as building materials, when he stumbled upon a sealed chamber in a wall. Removing some of the stones, he found this antique treasure within its depths.

The statue was considerably damaged: split into several parts with its arms missing and a fractured plinth. Moreover, unbeknownst to those who first saw her, she had lost her original decorative colouration — since the sculpture was probably painted in vivid colours and adorned with jewellery as was the custom at the time.

For many years, it was believed to have been created by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But as the years passed, more evidence was uncovered, namely an inscription found on a fragment of the plinth giving the name of Alexandros of Antioch — which was lost shortly after its arrival at the Louvre in 1821.

Its journey to the museum in Paris began when a French naval officer named Olivier Voutier anchored his ship in the harbour at Milos. Going ashore to hunt for antiquities near an old theatre, he noticed the local farmer Kentrotas had found something interesting.

The Frenchman felt certain that the sculpture was important and convinced his local vice-consul to buy it. They paid a good price for it. The statue came to France in 1821 and was given to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre Museum, and there it remains today.

An extreme posture

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Two distinct features of the Venus de Milo give the sculpture its memorable and inimitable charge.

The first is the extreme contrapposto posture, which describes the way the figure’s weight is shifted onto one standing leg. This is what gives the whole statue its natural “S-curve”.

In the case of the Venus de Milo, the twist of the hips and the kink in the left leg are unusually pronounced. Look again at the statue and let your eyes explore the shape of the form suggested by the beautifully modelled drapery of her robe.

The second aspect is the low waistline of the robe, which appears to be almost slipping off her hips, giving the sculpture more than a hint of eroticism.

It is this eroticism that provides the basis for the most likely identification of the statue as Venus, the goddess of Love — the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite.

How she might have looked

The Venus de Milo was originally found in several pieces, making her exact original form a matter of conjecture. The three main pieces that were recovered from Milos — the nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and a section of the right hip — seemed to fit together without controversy.

The fact of her missing arms prompted the local Milos farmer to continue to dig. He later found a hand holding an apple, two herms — square stone pillars with a carved head on top — and a further fragment of an upper arm.

A proposed restoration of the Venus de Milo (1916) by Adolf Furtwängler incorporating the arm fragments found with the statue at the time of its discovery.

Various artists and historians proposed how these parts might be assembled to form the complete statue, with some debate as to whether the stone pillars with heads on top were connected with the Venus statue.

In the latter years of the 19th century, the German archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler sketched out what might be the most convincing configuration, in which the figure’s left arm is resting on an unadorned pillar, with her hand resting on the pillar holding an apple.

The hand holding the apple, carved from the same Parian marble as the figure, seemed to confirm the identity of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Classical beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris, Paris gave the prize of the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War.

Furtwängler rejected the idea that the herms were part of the original form, arguing that the aesthetic effect of such an arrangement would be “distinctly unpleasing”.

Given the inability of historians to agree upon the sculpture’s original form, the Louvre made the decision to show the Venus de Milo without its arms or an adjacent pillar. Two centuries later, standing alone yet somehow indomitable, the sculpture continues to be an all-important part of the museum’s collection.

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Repoussoir-To Push Back

Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?

A powerful trick that so many paintings employ

Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, United States.

It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.

On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.

The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?

Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna (c.1639) by Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.

Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…

Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.

The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.

So what’s happening in all of these paintings?

Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.

The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)

In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.

Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. Kunst Museum Winterthur.

Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.

The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.

(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.

Detail of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.

Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.

The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.

In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.