In the light of the divine

Car­avag­gio’s over­whelm­ing im­pact on artists in the early 17th cen­tury makes for an en­thralling ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery, writes Michael Hall

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

Car­avag­gio’s achieve­ment into a tight fo­cus and al­lows us to ap­pre­ci­ate the way that such out­stand­ing painters as Ger­rit van Hon­thorst or Orazio and Artemisia Gen­tileschi dis­tilled his in­flu­ence into some­thing dis­tinc­tive.

Car­avag­gio be­came fa­mous overnight with the un­veil­ing, in 1600, of his first pub­lic com­mis­sion—can­vases de­pict­ing the Call­ing and Mar­tyr­dom of St Matthew, painted for the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in the cen­tre of Rome. They are still there, at­tract­ing vis­i­tors by the coachload to won­der in par­tic­u­lar at the heart-stop­ping drama that Car­avag­gio con­jures up in the Call­ing from a shaft of light, as the Divine erupts into a hum­ble room.

Car­avag­gio died in 1610, at the age of 38, after a ca­reer of barely 18 years, in which he pro­duced be­tween 80 and 90 paint­ings. Al­though he had as­sis­tants, he never ran a stu­dio with pupils in the con­ven­tional sense. no drawings by him are known—he drew di­rectly onto the can­vas—nor did he make prints.

The rea­son he ex­erted an in­flu­ence so quickly and pow­er­fully was the fact that he worked in Rome, at the cen­tre of the Ital­ian art world, where rich pa­trons were abun­dant and where colonies of for­eign artists, many only tem­po­rary res­i­dents, quickly spread Ro­man in­no­va­tion through­out Europe. Most of the artists we think of as ‘Car­avaggisti’ had a di­rect con­nec­tion with the artist, ei­ther by per­sonal ac­quain­tance or by study­ing his paint­ings in the churches and palaces of Rome.

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