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
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.