Was Caravaggio the most influential painter?

Who has been the painter with the greatest influence? This is an unanswerable question–like who was the greatest painter?–but I wonder about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Turner, and Picasso. I might even opt for Picasso, but the National Gallery’s exhibition Beyond Caravaggio makes a strong case for it being Caravaggio. Certainly there are the words Caravaggesque and Caravaggisti, whereas none of the painters I’ve listed above have such words developed out of their names.

The characteristics of a Caravaggio painting are drama, story-telling, violence, characters you’d see on the streets of Rome then and now, light and darkness, immediacy (“like a flash of lightning”), beautiful still-lifes amid the drama, and compositions where the characters burst out of the frame and we, the viewers, are made part of the picture. All of these characteristics were rapidly copied by first Italian and later Spanish and Northern painters–so much so that many pictures not by Caravaggio where thought to be by him and many Caravaggios were thought to be by other painters. Modern science has helped sort out this confusion, but there’s still plenty of room for argument over attribution–with prices soaring and plummeting as attributions change.

The exhibition had more Caravaggios than you might expect when there are relatively few and some of the best are fixed in churches in Rome and Malta (the possibility of seeing the pictures draws me to Malta). All of the Caravaggios were familiar, including The Taking of Christ, which I’d seen in Dublin. I note that all of the newspaper reviews included it–perhaps because it’s quintessential Caravaggio but also perhaps because it was the best Caravaggio not from Britain. It’s an example of a Caravaggio that was thought to be by another painter until the 1970s.

The Taking of Christ, 1602

You inevitably feel that the Caravaggios are superior to the paintings of his followers, and I think (although I probably fool myself) that I could pick out all the paintings by the master. But the point of the exhibition was really to learn about and enjoy his followers. Some of them (Ribera, Reni, both the Gentilischis, De La Tour, ter Brugghen, and Honthorst) I’d heard of, but there were more that I didn’t know–mostly the early Italian ones, including Carlo Saraceni and Bartolomeo Manfredi. Wikipedia tells me that the Netherlands Institute for Art History lists 128 artists labelled “Caravaggisten.” Interestingly the exhibition didn’t extend to Rembrandt and Rubens, both of whom are included among the Caravaggisti; nor was there any mention of the Counter Reformation, although Caravaggio was the leading painter of that movement.

One painting by an Italian follower that I much admired was Christ Displaying his Wounds by Giacomo Galli. Christ looks right at you and invites you–like Doubting Thomas–to put your finger into his gaping wound.

galli

I liked Artemesia Gentilischi’s Susannah and the Elders as a picture that moves the influence Caravaggio into the female realm.

artemesia

The painting by her father, Orazio, amused me with the donkey’s head so central and the Holy Family fleeing from Egypt all in the lower half of the picture. Lin thought it a silly painting.

orazio

I’ve always enjoyed the paintings of Jusepe de Ribera and his Lamentation over the Dead Christ shows how he injected Spanish passion into the Caravaggio style. The commentary told us that Ribera was fascinated by flesh, blood, torture, and executions and evidently attended torture sessions and executions, sketching while he watched. You can see this interest in the picture of St Bartolomeo being flayed alive.

early 1620s

ribera-bartholomew

Nicolas Régnier was a Flemish painter, and I like his painting of Saint Sebastian being cured by Saint Irene, which combines, like several Caravaggio paintings, the sacred and the profane. Saint Sebastian seems to have been shot with only one arrow, and Irene and her assistant are remarkably dressed for such surgical work.

nicolas-regnier

The argument that Caravaggio was one of the most influential painters ever may ultimately be undermined by the fact that he was copied for only a few decades after his death and then largely forgotten and ignored for 200 years. It’s only comparatively recently that he has come to be admired as one of the greatest and most influential of painters.

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