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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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.

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The Allure of Evil in Art

The victim, the witness and the perpetrator

Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.

Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.

We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.

Victim

I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619

The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.

Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.

Witness

To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.

A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.

A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850

Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.

Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1599

This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.

Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.

Perpetrator

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.

In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels, 1808

William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.

These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grinEvil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.

Conclusion

As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.

11 Things Highly Creative People Sacrifice For Their Art

To be a creative can often feel like a choice that is both insane and thrilling in equal measure. There are thousands of jobs that are far more certain and stable than an artist’s work, yet true creatives know that there really is not a choice to be made. The artist must art. Therefore, the artist must find a way to live in the uncertain, wild space between what success looks like to others and what success feels like to themselves. Choosing a creative career is not something for the weak-willed, the comfort-chasers, the ones who need to know how their life will splay out ahead of them for years and years to come. Those are noble endeavors — to value comfort and security — but a creative sacrifices almost all convention in the name of art.

I doubt any of us regret it. We know that life is impermanent and we never know when our last day will be. We’d rather create the work that inspires us most and let it kill us.

1. Highly creative people sacrifice a comfortable life for a big, messy, weird, interesting life

Most creatives learn quickly that comfort and inspiration do not live harmoniously. You can have one, but not the other. Inspiration comes from action, from experimentation, from the chaos, the fire, the big wins and the big fails. In order to art and art well, you must live and live well. And, to live well is to constantly be pushing yourself out of what’s comfortable and into what’s unknown. This is the source of inspiration: whatever lay on the outer edges of comfort.

2. They sacrifice certainty for a big question mark about the future

Creatives have mastered the art of the unknown. Most of them wear this as a badge of honor, because they have learned the hard way that the best laid plans are the easiest sources of disappointment. Nothing about a creative life exists on a straight line. It’s like a squiggly line that often goes backward and then propels forward then stays in one place for an unnervingly long amount of time. There is no plan. The future is a shrug of the shoulders. The words “I don’t know” are the artist’s anthem. To not know is to be open to knowing, to be led, and the creative thrives there.

3. They sacrifice a stable life for the freedom to say yes at any moment

While creatives might have a yearning to build a life and put down roots, they know that there’s always a chance that their lives could be uprooted at any moment. Because an artist does not follow a set path, they have to be consistently open to saying YES quickly and without reservation. They have to be willing to uproot their lives in order to follow the inspiration or the opportunity whenever it comes up. Freedom is the artist’s currency.

4. They sacrifice approval from others for approval of themselves

Most art is created alone in a dark room. It’s thankless work. It’s like doing spec work constantly with the hope that, one day, it will pay off. If creatives needed approval from others to begin, they would never start (and some brilliant creatives never do start, sadly). Instead, artists know that it’s a necessity to approve of themselves, to believe in their work and, as equally important, to believe in the process. Creatives know that chasing approval will always prolong the work from ever leaving their minds, so they simply learn to give themselves the permission they may desire from others.

5. They sacrifice being accepted and understood by the world for being a visionary who may or may not be ever understood

Creatives know that any visionary work will not always be immediately understood or accepted. They accept that they may not ever be accepted or understood — yet make their art any way. They don’t look outside of themselves for the answers, for permission. They simply create whether anyone appreciates it or not.

6. They sacrifice all the “shoulds” for what their heart leads them to create

Creatives know that they can easily “should” their way into a miserable, uninspired life. They know that the world is built on “shoulds” — what this person should or shouldn’t do, how others should or shouldn’t live. Artists know that conventions and traditions hardly inspire creative work, that the only way to listen to what their heart yearns to make is to shut out the “shoulds” of the world and find their own way. This is an arduous process, to empty out themselves from all the beliefs of who they should be and, instead, to allow themselves to simply be who they are now and create what they need to create now.

7. They sacrifice constant happiness for the emotional spectrum of self-growth

Artists know that pursuing self-growth means letting go of the desire to be in a constant state of happiness. To grow is to shed old versions of self, which is to also say to grow is to be able to create new versions of art. The only way the art grows and evolves is when the artist grows and evolves. Every creative soon realizes that self-growth is a state of being and that means to be in almost constant flux. The process of evolvement has no room for holding tight to only one emotion — say, happiness — and needs to endure the entire spectrum of emotions to truly evolve. To face who they are as angry, sad, grief-stricken, resentful, bored is to allow themselves to evolve.

8. They sacrifice superficial relationships and work for vulnerable relationships and work

While creating uninspired art is something all creatives have likely had to do in their past — bills are hard — highly creative people feel even more strongly about making art from a vulnerable, real place. They know that at the heart of artistic genius is vulnerability, a brave person who is willing to be rejected, who is willing to share their soul with a world who may not be very kind to it. While creatives know that superficial work and relationships are oftentimes easier to maintain — and success is often easier to come by for the superficial — they know that art is a choice and a privilege and they always want to create from the deepest parts of themselves.

9. They sacrifice their pride for empathy and compassion

The best kind of art comes from a place of empathy and compassion, from an inherent curiosity around the human experience. Highly creative people understand that their curiosity around humanity is what brings them to the page, the instrument, the canvas, the laptop, the camera, the drawing board. Empathy does not exist with pride. It takes a certain degree of humility to have an empathic view of the world and artists understand that at the core of their work is a desire to move people with their art. This means they have a high level of respect for whoever will come into contact with their work. Creatives know that their tender heart, their empathy, their compassion is at the heart of their brilliance and they will eschew pride and arrogance in order to step deeper into that brilliance.

10. They sacrifice the perception of success for their own definition of success

From the outside, a creative’s life may not look very successful if success is defined by cultural expectations. An artist learns quickly that they must define success for themselves otherwise they will drown underneath other people’s expectations. In their conviction of self, they are free to create and build their life however they desire. Not having to “measure up” or prove anything to others is one of the most important things a creative must learn for themselves — because they could spend their entire artistic life trying to prove themselves and always come up short.

11. They sacrifice the life people told them they should have for a life they love, a life that is inspiring and fucking thrilling

Because that’s the whole point. To create is a privilege, one that artists know not to take for granted. To deny a conventional life is a risk, but not as great a risk as to deny their heart.