Beyond Caravaggio

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ

(National Gallery, until 15 January 2017)

Dark black shadows are split by waterfalls of cloth, dyed in deepest blood-red crimson. Light falls starkly on white flesh from an divine source, or peeps warmly through the fingers of a hand that shields a candle. Saints become brooding youths or old greybeards with seamed, unidealised faces and dirty feet. Musicians and cardsharps preen in fancy brocades, carrying a rogue ace tucked into the backs of their belts. This exhibition at the National Gallery leads us into the underbelly of Baroque Rome and Naples, to explore the works of Caravaggio’s followers. It’s an absorbing journey, which emphasises just how good Caravaggio himself was, and how hard it was to equal him.

Caravaggio died on a Tuscan beach at the age of 39 after a lifetime of roistering, brawling and throwing artichokes at waiters. But he left behind him an aesthetic that proved enormously influential, not just among those artists who’d known him, but also much further afield. In the decades to come, painters up in Northern Europe who’d never even been to Italy would be emulating his sharp contrasts of light and dark in their scenes showing drinkers or gamblers. This show gradually works out from Caravaggio himself: he, if you like, is the pebble dropped into the pond and we move further and further out with the ripples as we progress through the exhibition.

Thus, we begin with the world that surrounded Caravaggio. The first room shows two pictures usually cited as among his early works, first the Boy Peeling Fruit, which is wisely presented as ‘Caravaggio (?)’. I’ve never warmed to this picture, which feels so staid in comparison to his other works, although the curator Letizia Treves makes a strong case for its authenticity in her catalogue entry. Beside it is the Boy bitten by Lizard, with its fine still life of fruit and flowers in the foreground and its showy pose, which disguises the figure’s anatomical awkwardness (the young Caravaggio was so much better at things than people; fortunately, he improved).

Cecco: A Young Man with Recorder

Cecco del Caravaggio, A Young Man with a Recorder, c.1618, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

There’s also a painting attributed to Antiveduto Gramatica, the first artist in whose studio the young Caravaggio worked. At first glance, you think ‘Aha!’. Here are the card players, the strong contrasts and the subdued air of violence that would come to pervade Caravaggio’s work. Is this where he got it from? But be careful. Gramatica’s painting doesn’t date from the period when Caravaggio was working for him: instead, it’s from around 1615, five years after Caravaggio’s death. What we see here is not the master’s style which influenced the pupil. Instead, we see the master being influenced by that pupil. But for me, the two most interesting paintings in the room were the Musician and the Young Man with Recorder by Cecco del Caravaggio, whose real name was Francesco Buoneri. Cecco was probably the model for that Caravaggio painting of Amor Victorious in Berlin, which makes me giggle every time I see it. Court testimonials and inventories show that, even at the time, he was thought to be Caravaggio’s boyfriend.

These two paintings, again dating from five to ten years after his lover’s death, show that Cecco was a perfectly respectable artist in his own right. In the first, a young man plays a tambourine with a whistle between his lips (“It’s probably a euphemism,” my friend and I agreed). The technical quality of the white feather arching from his hat is remarkable, and I was much taken with the extravagant costume, which has slashes on the grey satin sleeves, and a fussy proliferation of ruff. The recorder-player poses behind a table set with a superbly naturalistic still life, against which he, ironically, looks even stiffer. Again his hat is graced with a feather and, as in the Musician, a foreshortened violin pokes out of the painting (this seems to have four strings; the Musician‘s, portentously, has only one).

Manfredi: A Drinking and Musical Party

Bartolomeo Manfredi, A Drinking and Musical Party, c.1618, Private collection (detail)

The second room focuses on Caravaggio’s successes in Rome and on those artists who worked in his immediate orbit. Its focal point is a stunning assembly of paintings, with Caravaggio’s mouthwatering Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ flanked by pictures by Gramatica and Giovanni Serodine. The latter isn’t an artist I’ve come across before and I was struck by his style, with its loose brushstrokes that have an almost 18th-century air about them. All four pictures were commissioned by the Mattei brothers, Ciriaco and Asdrubale, and to see them together is marvellous. Again, it only emphasises how damned good Caravaggio was. Better writers than me have rhapsodised over The Supper at Emmaus, where the apostle’s hand thrusts out into our faces; where the basket of fruit is so finely painted as to appear almost real; and the ripples of shock, amazement and serenity that pass between the four characters: two apostles, a youthful Christ and a baffled innkeeper.

But even the Supper pales alongside The Taking of Christ. This is a tumult of figures, in which the billowing cloak of a fleeing disciple isolates the figures of Christ and Judas at its heart. Black-painted armour gleams in the moonlight and that panicking disciple flings his hand outward, splayed against the darkness. And look at Christ’s clasped hands: how they indicate his resignation and submission to this moment, but also his sorrow. The interlaced fingers are taut, strained. My friend noted, astutely, that it’s hard to know exactly where Judas’s body is. He seems simply to appear from the knot of soldiers. Finally, there’s Caravaggio himself, jostling at the right-hand side with a lantern, desperately trying to get a better view.

In this room we come face to face with Caravaggio’s rivals and followers. Giovanni Baglione may have grown to hate Caravaggio in later life, but as a young man he painted an Ecstasy of St Francis which was infused with Caravaggesque spirit, from the high contrasts to the way the saint swoons into the lap of a handsome angel. A more secular scene comes courtesy of Bartolomeo Manfredi, who was one of the most successful exponents of Caravaggio’s manner. His Drinking and Musical Party draws us into the darkness of a Roman tavern, engaging us through the weary outward glance of an older man on the right. This picture allows us to imagine how the picture would have been posed in the artist’s studio, with the models dressed in second-hand castoffs from the artist’s box of costumes. Note that the older man wears a cream brocade tunic stitched with brown velvet, but the matching sleeves are worn by the young man on the extreme left. By dividing up costumes among their models, artists tried to make their dressing up box go further. There’s one particular doublet that I swear crops up in numerous paintings that I’ve seen over the years, by various different artists. We know that painters were used to pooling their props: in one court case, Orazio Gentileschi testified that he’d lent a pair of angel wings to Caravaggio. You can imagine these cash-strapped young men sharing out the few good-quality costumes they’d been able to get their hands on.

One painting I have to flag in this section was Christ displaying his Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, who’s known as Lo Spadarino. I’d never seen this before, as it’s from Perth Museum and Art Gallery (the Scottish one, not the Australian one), and although it doesn’t look like much in reproduction, it packs a real punch in the flesh. The background is so black that the white of Christ’s mantle and his pale flesh seem almost three-dimensional, achieving much the same effect as Caravaggio’s stunning Flagellation in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. The wound, which is painted with gruesome naturalism, becomes the key feature of the image, emphasised by Christ’s probing fingers which press and distort the flesh around it. And the thing which really gripped me was Christ’s expression, which I found startling. “Do you believe me now?” he seems to say, full of expectation, insistence and resolution. We’re cast as Doubting Thomas, faced with the reality of faith.

Ribera: The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew

Jusepe de Ribera, The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew, 1634, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Moving outward again, we turn to Caravaggio’s Italian followers, those who didn’t know him personally but were struck by his aesthetic. Sometimes this led to clumsy attempts to echo his compositions: look, for example, at Rutilio Manetti’s embarrassing Victory of Earthly Love, which tries to emulate the cocky bravado of Amor Victorious. Other pictures adjust Caravaggio’s work to emphasise its sensuality, as we can see in two paintings modelled on his Sleeping Cupid, by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo and Orazio Riminaldi. These paintings make Cupid a little older than Caravaggio’s paunchy infant, and there’s consequently a faintly disturbing air about them, which makes you wonder who would have bought these images of sleeping prepubescent boys.

Without a doubt, the most successful pictures are those which don’t simply copy Caravaggio, but transcend him, and there’s a fine example in this section: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders. Now, I’m not just saying this because I think Artemisia is awesome, though I do. But she grasps how best to use Caravaggio’s lessons. She takes elements of his style (pale flesh against a dark background; the lined faces of the salivating Elders) and uses it to boost her own individual approach to the subject. Think for a moment about how she presents the scene. Usually, in a Susannah, we’re invited to identify with the spying Elders. Oh, certainly, they’re bad men. Certainly, we sympathise with the offended virtue of the heroine. But, while we sympathise, the artist tempts us to look at that nubile young body laid bare for our admiration… to put ourselves in the shoes of those prurient old men.

Artemisia, needless to say, takes a different tack. Her desperate Susannah tries to cover herself with her shift, but she’s grabbed it so suddenly that it has slipped half out of her reach. One cuff trails in the water. We get a glimpse of nipple (you couldn’t deny the patron all the eroticism), but the emphasis is firmly on Susannah’s upturned face, as she pleads some unseen power for aid. The Elders smirk and crane for a better view from above. This is a true picture of a woman being outraged, being unable to control her own body – and, of course, Artemisia knew all about that.

Honthorst: Christ before Caiaphas

Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ before Caiaphas, c.1617, National Gallery, London

We move to Naples then, where Caravaggio’s style had particular appeal. The exhibition includes paintings by Caravaggio’s greatest follower (in my opinion), Jusepe de Ribera. Like Artemisia, he borrowed just enough from Caravaggio to set off his own individual strengths. Ribera is your man if you want pictures of soulful old saints, who were obviously strong men in their day, but whose flesh now sags and wrinkles, and whose collarbones protrude from their scraggy necks. Just look at the loose flesh on the hands of his St Onuphrius and the remarkable head, seen in profile, of St Bartholomew in the picture of his Martyrdom from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (To any Spanish readers: there’s an excellent exhibition on Ribera currently at the Prado; see it if you can.)

Finally we take the broadest of all themes: Caravaggio’s legacy. Here there are drinkers and gamblers by the accomplished Valentin de Boulogne, whose Concert (from Chatsworth) shows a young man wearing a cream damask sleeve with brown velvet trimmings. Is it the sleeve from Manfredi’s dressing up box? (The rowdy figure in the background seems to be wearing an identical sleeve on his left arm.) I was also pleased to see Gerrit van Honthorst’s monumental and stunning picture of Christ before Caiaphas, in which the scene is lit by a single candle. Caiaphas leans forward, interrogating, while Christ stands with wrists bound (wearing what looks like a surplice slipping off his shoulder), his expression one of patient endurance. There are other figures in the background but we hardly see them: this is a contrast between age and youth, practicality and idealism. And in these rooms we see a whole host of artists playing with the idea of candlelight, which comes to replace the blindingly white divine light which appears in Caravaggio’s own works. We see candles shielded by hands, or hidden behind musical scores or blocks of wood, so that the artists can show off their mastery of light and shade.

Regnier: St Sebastian

Nicolas Regnier, St Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant, c.1628, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

In the late 1620s the French artist Nicolas Regnier, who ran a life-drawing studio for young artists in Rome, painted a remarkable St Sebastian. This doesn’t show the usual scene of the saint contorted against a tree, looking noble while arrows bristle from him. Instead, we see him after the shooting, when the arrows are carefully removed by a devout woman, Irene, and her maid. Remember that the arrows didn’t kill Sebastian: he was eventually martyred by being clubbed to death, but that’s less visually appealing. Regnier’s two women are idealised, their faces mostly hidden in shadow, and so the most striking feature of the painting is Sebastian himself. He sprawls over a dark red cloth spread on the black earth, his legs splayed and his arm crooked around his head. His head is thrown back; his lips parted. It’s a hugely erotic image (and, as my friend noted, “that arrow’s in a very suggestive place”). It’s tempting to think that Regnier was aware of Caravaggio’s magisterial St John the Baptist, now in the Nelson-Atkins musem, which concludes the show. Here again is that contrast of taut youthful flesh with bright red cloth and black shadows, and a saint shown with a head of tousled dark curls. And here, too, the saintly attributes are almost an afterthought: the intention doesn’t seem to be to encourage thoughts of salvation, but instead to encourage the eyes to linger on worldly beauty. That, more than anything else, seems to have been Caravaggio’s chief legacy.

This is a wonderful show, as you can tell from my excessive enthusiasm. Don’t be one of those people who sees the word ‘Caravaggio’ and then grumbles because there isn’t much of him here. This is a fascinating exploration of one man’s influence, interpreted by artists of many different nationalities. While there are a few absolute stunners, the show is also interesting because it gives us the chance to see where some artists didn’t quite make it, and it encourages us to think about what Caravaggio did differently, and why they couldn’t quite reach his levels of quality. It makes you engage with the subject, rather than just confronting you with one masterpiece after another, and I think that’s what makes a good exhibition. If you just want to see Caravaggios, after all, buy a book or go to Rome.

If you can’t get to see the show in London, it’ll be travelling around the UK and will be at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin from 11 February until 14 May 2017 and at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh from 17 June until 24 September 2017.

Find out more

Caravaggio: St John the Baptist

Caravaggio, St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c.1603, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

5 thoughts on “Beyond Caravaggio

  1. arwen1968 says:

    We’re planning to see this exhibition in a few weeks’ time (when we’ll have a free weekend!), and this was very informative on what to expect, thank you… I’ve got a love-hate relationship with Caravaggio (I could run a mile from some of his paintings but kill for others) but I know nothing of the influence he had on other people, so I’m very much looking forward to learn more.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I don’t love him unconditionally either, but when he’s good, he’s very, very good. 🙂 This is just one of several very fine exhibitions at the moment. I saw two others at the weekend that I really enjoyed, and which I hope to write about soon when I get the time: Portrait of the Artist at the Queen’s Gallery, and Emma Hamilton at Greenwich. Hope you enjoy the Caravaggio and do come back and share your opinions!

      • arwen1968 says:

        I’m still trying to make up my mind about the Emma Hamilton exhibition actually…I’m not convinced that the NMM should present an exhibition on her just because Nelson was in love with her! I suppose I might just go and see it as we go there a lot anyway so what’s to lose? but I didn’t find the advertising of the exhibition particularly appealing – generally speaking, I’ve got zero interest in celebrities, current or otherwise.

        Anyhow, looking forward to read what you thought about it. 🙂

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