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Caravaggio’s Influence on 17th Century Art

February 22, 2012

Caravaggio was an artist in the early 17th century that most distinctly captured the Baroque idea of drama. His dramatic paintings, and the techniques he used to produce them, influenced a wide range of artists that followed in the 17th century.

The Conversion of St. Paul is a Caravaggio piece that shows many of Caravaggio’s signature techniques. The chiaroscuro lighting gives this piece immediacy and suspense, with a wide range between the brightest white and the darkest dark (which is jet black). Caravaggio also relied heavily on implied line in facial expression, posture, and gesture, with the figure behind the horse looking down onto Paul and Paul with his hands grasping towards the top of the piece. The lighting highlights on the figures and the horse follow this same cyclical path that guides the eye around the piece. Though the dramatic lighting may not be considered “naturalistic” in that it is an exaggeration of what we typically encounter in reality, the manner in which Caravaggio depicts surfaces like skin, metal, and fabric are naturalistic, and feel accurate to how that kind of lighting would appear. The shiny quality of a horse’s soft, groomed hair is effectively reproduced, as is the metal handle of the sword laying next to Paul. Tenebrism is also used in this painting, the technique of bringing a figure or form into the scene from out of darkness. Here, both the horse and the figure behind the horse come into the scene and are met with a strong, contrasting light.

Diego Velazquez’s Water Carrier of Seville and Georges de la Tour’s Mary Magdalen With the Smoking Flame are two examples of 17th century work that draws from Caravaggio’s unique style. In Water Carrier of Seville, Velazquez shows intense attention to surface quality. The difference in texture between the two ceramic pieces, one dull and one glossy, are depicted in a impressively realistic fashion. Tenebrism is used in this piece as well, and the eyes of the two foreground figures dictate our interpretation/reaction of them. Both the hands and eyes of the figures move us about the piece in the same solemn manner as The Conversion of St. Paul.

In Mary Magdalen With the Smoking Flame, the hands and eyes reference the main focal points of the piece as well. The figure of Mary takes up nearly the entire composition, as did the figures in Velazquez’s piece as well as Caravaggio’s. The sheen of the human skull and fingernails contrasts with the dull skin and fabric. Mary also fades into darkness using tenebrism. The detail realism of this painting is not as strong as the Velezquez or the Caravaggio, with the face and bare shoulder/upper chest being softer and less intricate, but the attention to realistic lighting effects and the chiaroscuro are obvious links to Caravaggio.


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  1. I found your observation about the lighting in Caravaggio’s painting being not remotely naturalistic to be quite accurate without having that thought occur to me before reading it. Thanks! I mean I KNEW that the lighting was not given any source in the painting and that it was used for dramatic impact but there is certainly a reason to mention that an artist who painted dirt under the fingernails of his subjects, dirt on their feet and having a naturalistic approach to scale would have no qualms about how he presented the lighting. Now I am interested to find out what theater was doing during this time period to see if they were experimenting with lighting in the early 17th century….

  2. The monochromatic background is also a key feature of Caravaggesque paintings. We can see such a background in all of the paintings that you mentioned. I especially like the monochromatic backgrounds, since they push the figures to the foregrounds of the paintings.

  3. I think the light really makes these images very dramatic. The contrast of dark in the background really pushes the images into the foreground and adds a lot of drama to the image. I also thing the image of the guy and the horse really bring the view into the image by the placements of the horse and man. I almost feel as if the man could fall right on top of me.

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