Baroque Painting Essay

Few can dispute the beauty and grace of the Baroque era. It is difficult to define this era as it was a term later put to the ideas of the age between 1600 and 1750. “The Baroque grew up at the beginning of the seventeenth century in papal Rome, where, rather than a clearly defined style, it was a tendency, common to all the arts – in short, it was a taste, a fashion” (Conti 3)

The artists of this time tried to break away from previous conventions, while at the same time hailing the past geniuses. It focused on a tantalizing mixture of old and new, and on action – a moment caught within a canvas.

“Baroque meant movement, desire for nobility, love of the infinite and the non-infinite, of contrasts and bold fusion of all forms of art. It was as dramatic, exuberant, and theatrical as the preceding period had been serene and restrained. ” (Conti 4) In particular, the intricacies of light and shadow perfected by Caravaggio are not just pleasant to the eye of the past. A camera is now used, and adorning the walls of most houses you find black and white prints, effectively showing the contrasts between deep shadows and gleaming light.
What is this, but the every man’s attempt to recreate what Caravaggio achieved? The impulse toward the adoption of this idiom (thematic use of light and shade) came from Italy, indeed from a single Italian artist . . . known as Caravaggio… Although his work has been more attacked by some critics than appreciated, there is no doubt that he marked the beginning of a new epoch. . . His paintings showed sturdy peasants, innkeepers and gamblers; and though sometimes they might be dressed as saints, apostles and fathers of the Church they represented reality in its most crude and harsh aspect.
(Conti 40-41) Caravaggio was born in 1571, and in his relatively short life time of thirty nine years, he managed to bring Italian art to a whole new level. His subject matter changed over the years and depended largely upon his patrons’ desires. While much of his patronage, just like Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo before him, depended on the Church, the wealthiest and most dominant force in Italian politics at the time, he was not always in their favor. Caravaggio was a notorious brawler with a dark temperament. This temperament and violence is easily visible in many of his works.
While he started his career in the late 1590’s painting young boys playing music or holding flowers, he was without a doubt most famous for his later works with more religious and often violent themes. It is in these works we see his definitive use of light and dark. This technique, recreated by Caravaggio, was called tenebrism, and was in effect a more intense version of an already existing technique called chiaroscuro. This use of light and dark, of shadow and narrow beams of illumination, was highly effective, and has inspired artists for many years since. Indeed, “. . in Caravaggio’s universe there can be no light without darkness.
” (Martin 223) This, along with his interesting and highly controversial usage of ordinary folk of the time, helped his works to stand out against others as dramatically as his use of light and shadow. He was a highly valued and famous artists of his time, but while his works influenced some of the greatest artists of all time (including Velazquez and Monet), his fame diminished quickly following his death and until the early 20th Century. Much of the information written about him came from contemporary enemies – either rival artists or critics who did not approve of his works.
Many of Caravaggio’s greatest works revolve around subjects involved in movement as well as deep emotion. Rather than have a noble person pose, he not only chose lowly peasants and prostitutes as his subjects, but painted them in the throes of movement or action. This effect acts as a snapshot, a glimpse into the life of the people within the painting. The effect of a camera could not produce a more fascinating result – a true study of human emotion and activity. Particularly regarding his religious subject matter he fell into controversy.
He rarely used the pious perfection of Mannerism for his techniques, instead choosing to use a prostitute to model for the Virgin (Death of the Virgin), and an old man to pose as St. Matthew (St Matthew and the Angel). This choice made him popular and unique in many circles, and earned him an eager and young following. But among the established artist clique and in particular among certain members of the Church, his use of the peasants and the outcasts were thought to be vulgar and sacrilegious, too dark and menacing for display in the Church.
He also refused to use existing works of art for his inspiration, instead choosing real life subjects, and did not work from sketches, but used the back of his brush directly on the canvas to outline his images. While he got a lot of bad attention for this “Caravaggio’s work was not negative; his aim was to restore full coporeal density to the unstable figures of Mannerism. ” (Bazin 30) Caravaggio’s life was as tempestuous as many of his paintings and he was involved in several brawls. This, no doubt, contributed to his list of enemies who gave less than generous accounts of his life.
Their mission almost succeeded; as his name did not reach the heights of popularity other artists achieved until the 20th Century, even though certain artists were aware of his works and used his influence. In 1606 he killed a young man, and was forced to flee his rich allies of Rome. Arriving in Naples, he was protected by the Colonna family, but after several incidents was forced to flee to Malta and then to Sicily. An attempt was made on his life in 1608 when he returned to Naples, but finally it was a fever that reportedly killed him in 1610.
Caravaggio was never out of work, and wherever he went his paintings were generally highly prized. Despite his short career, and the lack of an official school, his influence was certainly felt, even if primarily in the rest of Europe and not his homeland of Italy. “His influence was harvested instead in Spain, and in Flanders and Holland. ” (Conti 42) It is also true that this influence pushed the boundaries of time. “Caravaggio’s direct influence was brief, though intense, and was confined to his immediate followers, many of them foreign-born, who worked in Rome.
But the indirect consequences of his work for European art were far reaching and incalculable. ” (Kitson 41) The revival of interest in his works in the 20th Century shows his small existing collection of fifty paintings to be of equal caliber to any of the greats and his unique technique can be said to have influenced even modern art. “. . . in the Cicerone (Jacob Burckhardt) categorized Italian painting of the age of Rubens, from the Carracci and Caravaggio onwards, not as Baroque but as modern, ‘partly eclectic, partly naturalistic’. ” (Turner 36)
Of all the paintings Caravaggio created his religious ones are the most riveting. Allegorical and fascinating all at the same time, they teach us something about the subjects and ourselves. The people in Caravaggio’s paintings are bound together by dramatic relationships which raise all the problems of life, grief and death. From his paintings there emerges a pessimistic impression of human destiny, and it was not surprising that Caravaggio’s art opened the way to that anxious exploration of the soul which attracted many of the painters of the seventeenth century.
(Bazin 31) We don’t see one of the greatest sacrifices in the world in Carr painting of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac. Instead we see a father pained at sacrificing his son, but determined to do it as God’s wish. As in many of Caravaggio’s paintings, the moment in time caught on canvas displays a moment of emotional anguish or change, and together with his use of shadows and light, the subjects become not just the characters of a story, but real life human beings. There are no halos. No storm clouds representing Gods watching eye.
Just a man about to do the unbelievable to his son, who is suddenly given an alternative where before there was none. It is heart wrenching and very effective. Caravaggio abandoned many of the rules and guidelines of the highly successful artists of the Renaissance, whose main focus was the adoration and idolization of the human and the religious experience. This was not out of disrespect as was thought at the time, but instead was his attempt to enhance what had been started by these great masters.
Yet this caused many to reject his art, while young artists of the time thrived on his art revolution. Although, they never made as much direct progress as he had himself, they did continue to use aspects of his art, picking and choosing the more forgiving and less controversial use of light and dark, while at the same time bypassing, or conveniently forgetting, probably the most important focus for the artist himself, that of the use of the ordinary. Probably one of the most effective and realistic paintings of his career was the Incredulity of Saint Thomas.
In this painting, all of the features we attribute to Caravaggio are in evidence. Jesus stands to the left of the painting while three old men, Thomas in the foreground, look at the future saint put his finger in the wound in Jesus’ side. At the risk of putting too modern a gloss on his work, one could almost say that Caravaggio was the inventor of the anti-hero in religious art . . . Christ and Saints are dressed in drab clothes . . (they are) tough working men who would not stand out in a crowd . . .
Ordinary people press around them in defiance of the Counter-Reformation doctrine that lay people could only approach God through the intermediary of the clergy. (Kitson 101) All three men are old, Thomas’ coat is torn at the shoulder and there is an expression of amazed incredulity on each of the faces. Caravaggio’s use of light and dark makes the wrinkles on their foreheads stand out all the more. This is an image of the disciples that people never saw before. Even the expression on Jesus’ face is captivating and completely endearing as he guides the doubting hand of Thomas to his wound.
The light comes from an unseen point to the left off-canvas and highlights the foreheads, the torn shoulder fabric and the exposed torso of Jesus. There is hardly a better example of the use of light and shadow or the use of the ordinary man as the subject matter. The use of light in this case draws the eye towards the most important parts of the painting, the parts that tell the story. The use of light and shadow also show Thomas progressing from the shadows of doubt into the light of faith and belief – he is further out of the shadows than the other two, a symbolic, yet very natural, move towards illumination.
“What (Caravaggio) excels in is truth to the physical and psychological facts of a situation . . . an insistence on incidental details . . . which corresponds to the way the eye notices small things in moments of crisis. ” (Kitson 101) Without a doubt, Caravaggio’s burst onto the art scene in 1600 caused a rippling effect throughout the art world. “The naturalism of Caravaggio which was to have momentous consequences for the whole of European painting, was the first great liberating force in Baroque art.
” (Martin 41) Artwork that was highly sought after and appreciated in his lifetime, yet with a personality that was difficult to get along with, he was an enigmatic character with a trenchant for trouble. His inglorious and early death in 1610 was followed by an equally early dissipation of his influence and descent into ignominy in his own country Very soon, what had been started by Caravaggio was credited to others, and for over 400 years, his influence was seen but not heard.
With the visual and symbolic impact of strong light and deep shadows, the modern art scene seeks to exemplify the great works of Caravaggio, a motif which he started all those years ago. And in today’s world it is in little doubt that the use of everyday culture and life is far more interesting a subject than that of the higher unknown. Caravaggio’s genius is in little doubt, and even though it took a little while for his appreciation to be felt again on a large level, it is comforting to know that the boundaries of art were pushed at a time when the world was ‘recovering’ from the Renaissance.
Though art was cultivated to a high level during that period, the elite still had something to learn from the everyday man, and understating something in a painting, as Caravaggio did, could have far more of an impact in the long term. Caravaggio pushed the boundaries on a snobbish world and presented us with the gritty truth. His own life was a series of light periods and dark ones, and to this day his eccentricities have preserved his right as one of the greatest artists of the Baroque era, indeed of all time.
Works Cited Conti, Flavio. How to Recognize Baroque Art. Italy: Macdonald Educational Ltd. , 1978. Bazin, Germain. Baroque and Rococo. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd. , 1998. Martin, John Rupert. Style and Civilization: Baroque. London: Penguin Books, 1989. Turner, Jane (ed. ). From Renaissance to Impressionism(The Grove Dictionary of Art). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Kitson, Michael. The Age of Baroque. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. Wikipedia Web Site: Caravaggio Search.

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