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Discovering the Baroque Masters: Caravaggio and His Followers

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known more simply as Caravaggio (1571–1610), was the greatest and most influential painter of the Baroque style. He was also a quick-tempered Bohemian who was often jailed for brawling and was forced to flee from the law and his enemies, escaping to Naples, Malta, and Sicily at various times. His "travels" helped to spread his extraordinary style, which was soon imitated across Europe.

Caravaggio infused his work with more gritty naturalism than any previous artist, hiring common people as models for saints and apostles, which shocked many of his contemporaries. He dramatized his religious scenes by throwing a diagonal light across his subjects, highlighting some of their features (to emphasize certain emotions and actions) and leaving the rest in shadow.

Caravaggio's lighting technique is called tenebrism, from the Italian word tenebroso, which means "gloomy" or "murky." His paintings recount climactic moments while powerfully suggesting the events that precede and follow them.

Caravaggio created his dramatic lighting effects by letting natural light stream through a high window or with a highly placed lamp that threw a beam down onto his subjects. This technique, known as cellar lighting, yields dramatic effects if the artist positions his models well.

In Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600; created for the Contarelli Chapel), the cellar light slashes across the back wall and illuminates the faces of some of the men crowded around a wooden table where Matthew counts his money. Three of Matthew's companions regard Jesus, who has just entered and stands in the shadows. The cellar lighting streaming through the window almost traces the line of Jesus' index finger, which points at the tax collector Matthew, who's about to change jobs. But the future apostle resists, avoiding Jesus' eyes and staring stubbornly at the stack of coins on the table. The painting illustrates the tug-of-war going on inside Matthew. The tension between light and dark, between pointing fingers and gazing eyes staring in opposite directions, heightens the drama to the breaking point.

Notice that despite Matthew's reluctance to sign on, Jesus' feet are already turned toward the exit and the future. Caravaggio was the first to depict a single tense moment and let the tension stretch the moment backward and forward in time.

To help break the barrier between a painting and the viewer, Caravaggio and other Baroque painters placed highly illusionistic objects — a bed, a copper bowl, someone's foot — at the bottom edge of their paintings so that the objects appear to project into the viewer's space. You feel that you can touch these objects, so you become more involved in the painting.

Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi were two artists who were influenced by Caravaggio.

Orazio Gentileschi: Baroque's gentle side, more or less

Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) was the first of Caravaggio's many followers. Gentileschi emphasized realism like Caravaggio and placed his subjects close to the viewer in a stop-action moment as in his The Lute Player (1610). In this sensitively rendered painting, a female lute player, illuminated by Caravaggio's cellar lighting, gently strums her instrument. It's a fine work, but there's no tension and no stirring sensuality as in Caravaggio's The Musicians (1595–1596) and The Lute Player (1595–1596). The stop-action in the Gentileschi painting is truly stopped. The frozen moment doesn't pull us in multiple directions as in a Caravaggio painting. One of Gentileschi's most moving works is his Madonna with Child in the Gallery Borghese in Rome. The tender warmth in the mother's face as she gazes at her child is magnified by the lighting.

Shadow and light dramas: Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c. 1652) wasn't the only female artist in the Baroque period, but she is one of the few to paint historical and religious paintings. Most other female artists were pigeonholed into portrait, still life, and devotional paintings.

Among Artemisia's greatest works are Susanna and the Elders (1610), Judith Slays Holofernes (1620), and Lucretia (1621). Like the heroines in Lucretia and Susanna and the Elders, Artemisia was raped. Her personal experience resonates in these works. Like her father Orazio and Caravaggio, Artemisia placed her figures intimately close to the viewer.

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