Italian painter Caravaggio looms as one of the most important and influential of the early European masters. His name is synonymous with a particular style of painting known as chiaroscuro (which uses shadows, shading and light to create particular effects), and he is generally given credit for helping to transition European painters from the style known as Mannerism to Baroque. His works inspired painters like Rubens and Rembrandt. Today, his paintings hang in some of the most impressive and important art museums of the world, including the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery in London. But who was Caravaggio, and why was he so important to the history of painting?
Life story of Caravaggio
Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1571, the painter now known simply as Caravaggio was born in Milan and trained there until his early 20’s, when he moved to Rome. His life history can be basically divided into four distinct periods: his early life until adulthood (1571-1592) in Milan, his move to Rome and the creation of a unique painting style based around an extreme form of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism (1592-1600), his master period (1600-1606), and then a few dark years of exile when he fled Rome for Naples, Malta and Sicily. During his career, Caravaggio created at least 48 original pieces of art, and many of his most famous paintings date from 1600-1606, when he was known as “the most famous painter in Rome.” An entire school of painters known as the “Caravaggisti” sought to emulate his style and win his respect.
Painting style of Caravaggio
Throughout his life, Caravaggio was known as a violent, touchy fellow who was quick to brawl or take offense at any slight. That might have helped to inform his painting style, which focused on dark themes, like violent struggles, torture, death and pain. And Caravaggio was revered for his intense realism in his paintings. To help bring out the physical, emotional and psychological realism of a moment, Caravaggio turned to chiaroscuro, especially the use of dark shadows and he isolation figures in rays or shafts of life. To see the full effect of this approach, consider this famous painting from Caravaggio known as “The Calling of St. Matthew.”
Instead of flowery angels and symbolic clouds, Caravaggio chose to portray an important moment in the life of St. Matthew very realistically. There is a dramatic gesture, the transfixing of St. Matthew in a ray of light, and dramatic expressions on the faces of all subjects in the painting.
Other famous paintings of Caravaggio include “The Crucifixion of St. Peter,” “The Entombment of Christ” and “The Denial of St. Peter.” By the time of his death in 1610, Caravaggio was rightly regarded as one of the most important and influential painters of his generation. Even beginner artists and painters more than 400 years later are familiar with his style, even if they are not as familiar with his name.