Monday, March 28, 2011

40 Days of Artists: Caravaggio

There are so many reasons to despise Michelangelo Merisi. He was a connoisseur of controversy and rebellious, deviant behavior. He would often have affairs with his models - both male and female, and may have even done so with his much younger male models as well. When he wasn't painting, he would often spend time in jail for various crimes - sometimes for inflicting bodily harm to others. Later on in his life, he even had to flee Rome because he was wanted by authorities for the murder of another man, supposedly over an argument of a disputed score of a tennis match.
So why would I pay tribute to him? Well, let's face it, he was an extraordinary painter. Merisi, most widely and famously known as Caravaggio took late Renaissance and Mannerism to a new movement known as Baroque. Caravaggio took the contrasting light/dark technique of chiaroscuro to the extreme with a technique called tenebrism, in which the figures seemed to emerge from the darkness into bright and dramatic light. Tintoretto was another notable artist known for having very similar dark paintings with areas of intense light. Caravaggio also abandoned the traditional, idealized interpretation of the "pious" looking religious figures, and would typically pick his models right off the street to give these figures a more "human" appearance. These were models that were more likely to act and pose, and just look like normal human beings. Many were prostitutes, or perhaps maybe drunkards from his favorite tavern.
As if it was not controversial enough to use prostitutes as models for the Virgin Mary, Caravaggio would also use young adolescent boys for some of his figures, and would often have them pose nude for the paintings. Paintings that today may be considered masterpieces would have certainly been considered grossly indecent at the time.
After being accused of the murder, Caravaggio fled Rome and eventually made it to Naples. There he completed another of his great masterpieces, The Seven Works of Mercy. It marked a new motif for Caravaggio, in which he began feeling this overwhelming sense of condemnation for his own actions. This guilt began to show in his paintings. He was after this mercy for himself, as there was a bounty on him in Rome. In a symbolic gesture, he painted David, in which the young David holds the head of Goliath. In this painting, Caravaggio does a self-portrait, but it is a far cry from his arrogant, somewhat narcissistic nature throughout his life, as he painted himself as the head of Goliath. It is thought that this was Caravaggio's way of offering his own head for the wages of his sin of murder. Caravaggio's influence as a painter can be seen throughout the Baroque age of painting in masters like Artemisia and Ribera, and even up in northern Baroque artists like Rembrandt. Though he had many crimes and controversies throughout his life, Caravaggio's work as a painter has managed to redeem the negative points of his reputation since his death 400 years ago.

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness
oil on canvas
173 x 154 cm.
c. 1605

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