Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Characteristics of Paintings by Caravaggio

This is about the distinctive features and characteristics of paintings by the artist known as Caravaggio.

I went to a Breakfast Preview of Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery this morning and pondered while I was walking round how I was going to frame this post.

It suddenly struck me that since the exhibition was about his followers and imitators and interpreters that focusing on his characteristics might be a good idea.

The Characteristics of Paintings by Caravaggio

Hence this post is about the style and approach used by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (i.e. his name Michelangelo Merisi and he came from a small town called Caravaggio near Bergamo). He is known as Caravaggio.

Key Techniques employed by Caravaggio

These included:


Ha was based in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century when it was a strong centre of Cathocism - but it also had a dark underbelly and underclass
  • he demonstrates intense naturalism - his people, fruit and flowers are very life-like
  • He is a keen observer of nature  
    • he paints from life - and uses models for his paintings
    • he initially specialised in painting fruit and flowers and is credited with producing the very first still life painting (see How to create a still life painting - and then review the bowl of fruit in "The Supper at Emmaus" below!)
  • he uses everyday subjects - ordinary people in sometimes extraordinary circumstances - but also pickpockets, swindlers, charlatans amd steet performers. 
"painting still life requires as much artistry as painting figures"
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Supper at Emmaus, 1601

Oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
The National Gallery, London | © The National Gallery, London
  • his figures are at least torsos, however...
  • he often uses three-quarter length figures; and...
  • occasionally figures are full length
  • his figures are often life-size
  • his hands are sometimes oversized

The curator contends that as a result his paintings appear very modern, it's easy to make a connection to the characters (you don't need to know any iconography to understand what's going on)


  • narrative paintings (not something we see a lot of these days!)
  • he demonstrates a capacity for very effective storytelling 
    • the storytelling has direct and emotional appeal
    • the stories transcend time
  • which is is underpinned by excellent composition and design. His compositions are:
    • often densely packed 
    • tightly cropped - just enough and no more
    • often employ dramatic tension e.g. subjects which very nearly touch - but not quite 
    • employ a shallow pictorial space
      • bulk and mass are tight againt the four lines which make the frame. 
      • backgrounds are very dark - and indeterminate in depth - which effectively makes them shallow
    • in summary they have a strong illusionistic power - they look real and it feels as if the figures are right next to us and might spill out of the picture frame
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Taking of Christ, 1602 

Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm 
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson 
Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin


His paintings frequently use evocative lighting through the use of
  • a strong directional light
  • employment of chiaruscuro - generating strong and prominent contrasts between light and dark
His paintings sometimes use muted lighting.

However he NEVER created a painting with a candle - no matter how many candle paintings were produced by his followers (all shown in one room with low lighting which makes the technical way candleight is shown all the more effective- even if it's nothing to do with Caravaggio!)

Caravaggio's Fans and Followers

Interestingly Caravaggio did not travel nor did he run workshops although his influence was widespread across a wide range of countries and artists.

Instead artists apparently:
  • flocked to Rome to see his work for themselves
  • or developed their own interpretations having seen his work elsewhere 
  • or tried new approaches after being told about the techniques and themes he employed.
One of the latter is Georges de la Tour - and the exhibition is worth going to if only to see his remarkable painting of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, c. late 1620s, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. This echoes Caravaggio's paintings of card sharps - although the people and clothing get a completely different treatment.

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)
The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (about 1630 - 34)

Oil on canvas 97.8 x 156.2 cm
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas | © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

At the end of the day though, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever who is the Master Artist in this exhibition. There may not be a lot of Caravaggio paintings in the exhibition - and most that are can be seen on a regular basis as part of the permanent collection - but they tower over all the other paintings in the show in terms of impact and presence.

Information about the exhibition

The exhibition is more about Caravaggio's influence and the painters of the the Caravaggesque style which peaked between 1612 and 1620 and had disappeared by c. 1650 - until Caravaggio's skills and talent and paintings were rediscovered in the early 20th century

It actually comprises 5 definite paintings by Caravaggio, one probable painting and 47 paintings by other artists.

The exhibition is in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing and continues until 15 January 2017. Adult tickets are £16 and you can find more information about tickets here

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