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A hard act to follow: on Caravaggio's followers

A group of books looks at the artists Caravaggio influenced—more or less

by Theodore K. Rabb  |  24 February 2017
Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601). (Image: © The National Gallery, London)

Although the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death in 1610 was the occasion for a stream of publications about a long-neglected pioneer, the flow has not abated in the years since 2010. One of the major books of that year was a massive two volumes dedicated to the Caravaggeschi, as his followers were known, and that interest, too, has continued. Despite the decline in Caravaggio’s influence by the 1630s, the three decades in which he or his emulators flourished have become the focus of intensive research. Another two huge volumes on Rome 1600-30 appeared in 2012; the Caravaggeschi of Emilia and of Florence have prompted major studies; and 2016 produced two exhibitions and three hefty books that investigated the effect on other artists of Caravaggio’s interests. (In Pursuit of Caravaggio, the catalogue of an exhibition mounted in London by the art dealer Robilant + Voena, reaffirms the continuing interest in, and market for, the Caravaggeschi.)

Michael Fried’s book After Caravaggio, not tied to an exhibition, seeks to elaborate on what he regards as the main elements of these works. Fried is a distinguished scholar who has written on European and American art from the 17th century to the present, including a series of lectures on Caravaggio that was published in 2010. Applying close analysis of individual paintings, Fried wishes to demonstrate his view of the path-breaking achievements of Caravaggio and his followers. The focus, however, is not on the usual innovations that commentators have cited: realism, drama, the use of live models, the reliance on the everyday and ordinary people, or the chiaroscuro effects of shadow and light. These are mentioned, but the principal aim is to emphasise other aspects that Fried considers startlingly new. Among these features, he highlights the creation of what he calls the “gallery” picture; the attempt to draw viewers into a scene, together with reminders that they remain outside it; the significance of hands, the soles of feet and the angles of tables; and the importance of such themes as music and taverns.

This book is not for the fainthearted, or indeed for anyone who comes to the topic for the first time. Readers are asked to accept what Fried sees in these paintings, and if he himself is puzzled, the problem is dismissed. What is an old woman doing in a painting by Cecco del Caravaggio?  “Don’t ask, as the expression goes.” Fried’s attempt to expose his themes in every individual work he considers makes simple appreciation of the many illustrations difficult, as do such phrases as “tenebristic verism”. Nor is the influence of Caravaggio as central a subject as the themes themselves. An entire chapter, for example, is devoted to Guercino before he came to Rome or encountered Caravaggio, and a coda leads to the conclusion that Descartes was later to adumbrate his mind/body distinction as an extension of the issues these painters had raised.

There is no question that the student of the Caravaggeschi—especially Cecco, Manfredi, Ribera and the French followers of Caravaggio—will learn a great deal from Fried’s analyses. Many of his assessments of details are convincing, and even if one does not follow him to his theoretical conclusions, one will learn a great deal along the way. Meanings may sometimes seem stretched or superfluous, but this is a sharp eye, which will reward those who accept its guidance.

More down to earth is Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio. This talented French follower (1591-1632) of Caravaggio seems to have come to Rome in the mid-1610s, ready to absorb the innovations of the Carracci as well as Caravaggio. It was the latter who came to be the dominant influence—on Valentin’s boisterous lifestyle as well as his painting. Indeed, it was apparently the heavy drinking, the endless quarrels and the loose living that brought him to an untimely and agonising death at the age of 41. In his last years, however, he finally gained broad recognition for his art from Rome’s major patrons, including a commission for an altarpiece in St Peter’s Basilica.

In other words, this was no minor figure, and it is a matter of some surprise that the exhibition of 47 of his paintings—alongside three by other Caravaggeschi—at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (closed 22 January 2017) was the first major monographic show of his work. Indeed, despite much admiration in his native France, it was not until the 20th century that he gained wide recognition as a significant Old Master. In that regard, he shares the fate of Caravaggio himself, who also had to wait more than 300 years to achieve the status he now enjoys.

What was it that marked out Valentin as one of the Caravaggeschi?  In an essay in the catalogue, Keith Christiansen argues that it was, above all, the practice of painting directly from live models, dispensing with the traditional preparatory drawings. This had been one of Caravaggio’s main innovations, and we see how essential it was to Valentin. Of similar importance, not unrelated to the lifestyle, was such subject matter as card sharps, fortune-tellers and musicians. And the presentation of religious scenes relied on harshly lit moments of tension or violence (Judith and Holofernes, the deaths of martyrs) that were reminiscent of Caravaggio himself.

All these themes, and more, are addressed in the essays and catalogue entries. Of special interest is the detailing, by Patrizia Cavazzini, of the brawls, legal disputes and other elements of rowdiness and violence that surrounded many of the Caravaggeschi in Rome. There are also two essays that emphasise the importance to a French audience of Valentin’s work—an appreciation that eventually came to be widely shared. His paintings may not have the emotional impact of Caravaggio’s, but it is clear that he was a worthy successor, and that this remedying of long neglect is to be warmly welcomed.

The Italians and the French having explored the art of the Caravaggeschi, it is now the turn of the British and the Irish. Three National Galleries—in London, Edinburgh and Dublin—have joined forces to examine the interest that the three countries have shown in this movement, and the results can be seen in a travelling exhibition and its catalogue, Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery of Ireland, 11 February-14 May; Scottish National Gallery, 17 June-24 September). Even if some of the exhibition’s pictures are now located abroad, all of them can be associated with these lands, and the geographic dimension gives the show a special interest.

The treatment starts with Caravaggio himself. Of six essays in the catalogue, only the last three deal with his followers. And six of the 49 paintings on display are by the master himself, including two of his finest works, the Supper at Emmaus (1601) and St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604-05), the latter on loan from Kansas City. Here one can see for oneself the innovations that prompted so much emulation—not only the radical departures from traditional forms, but also the new emphasis on psychological insight and storytelling. Again and again, the other paintings reflect one or more of the master’s inventive techniques.

A major focus of the essays, and also of the catalogue entries, is the long history of interest from England, Scotland and Ireland in Caravaggio and his followers. Thanks to the outline of this story in an essay by Letizia Treves, one learns that examples of the new style were being bought from the 1630s onwards. That the buyers over the centuries were moved by individual interests is also apparent, because their acquisitions flew in the face of powerful critics like John Ruskin and Christopher Fry, both of whom (and they were not alone) found these paintings vulgar and ugly. The heroes, instead, are the likes of James Hamilton, First Duke of that name (1606-49), or Brownlow Cecil, Ninth Earl of Exeter (1725-93), whose purchases ensured the import of art that was long regarded as unfashionable.

So distinct yet similar to one another were the Caravaggeschi that attributions were often difficult, and the catalogue is full of accounts of changing conclusions and diverse speculations. What is clear, nevertheless, is that this outburst of new and more earthy approaches to painting caught the imagination of connoisseurs throughout Europe. Although it was a short-lived phenomenon, lasting only a few decades, its effects were long-lasting. Three centuries may have had to elapse before the importance of the new style was fully recognised (St John the Baptist in the Wilderness could find no buyer in England when it went to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1952), but the recent spate of publications and exhibitions establishes beyond doubt how revolutionary was this moment in the history of European art.

With that said, two questions arise: why was the moment so short-lived, and what were the long-term consequences? To the first, the answer is widely accepted: with Rome as the centre of new ideas, thanks to the incomparable inspiration of ancient and Renaissance works, and the unrivalled availability of patronage, the artists who flocked to the Eternal City soon moved on to pastures new. After just a generation or so, they adopted a different set of goals and influences—elegance, classicism and the example of Poussin. But the second question has no clear-cut answer.

In the London exhibition, two altarpieces by Juan Bautista Maino (1581-1649), lent by the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, were shown as reminders of the variety of Caravaggio’s impact. Maino had been in Rome in the early 1600s, and some of his many figures were clearly Caravaggesque. But one could hardly call him a follower in the way that Valentin and others were. And that is the point.  Those who actually imitated the master were pale by comparison. Nothing produced by Valentin, Manfredi, Cecco or their ilk comes close, in either power or originality. But the qualities they sought, as identified by Fried and the authors of these catalogues, were never lost. Rubens, for example, may not have been a Caravaggesco, but his theatricality was just one of the characteristics he inherited from Caravaggio; significant, too, was his copying of the latter’s Entombment of Christ (1603-04) and his recommendation to his own patron that he buy The Death of the Virgin (1604-06). It was indirectly, through the new goals he had set for painting, that Caravaggio’s influence continued long after his lifetime. The irony is that the critical acclaim caught up with him only in the late 20th century, when painters were no longer interested in reality, in live models, in sharp contrasts between light and dark, or in the evocation of high drama.

• Theodore K. Rabb is the emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in early modern Europe, he is a frequent contributor to The Art Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is The Artist and the Warrior, and he is currently working on a book of essays about the visual arts

In Pursuit of Caravaggio
Carolyn Miner, ed
Robilant + Voena in association with Società Editrice Allemandi & C., 78pp, £20 (hb)

After Caravaggio
Michael Fried
Yale University Press, 234pp, £40, $60 (hb)
Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio
Annick Lemoine and Keith Christiansen, eds
Yale University Press in association with the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 288pp, £45, $65 (hb)

Beyond Caravaggio
Letizia Treves and Aidan Weston-Lewis
with Gabriele Finaldi, Christian Tico
Seifert, Adriaan Waiboer, Francesca
Whitlum-Cooper and Marjorie E. Wieseman
Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery Company, 208pp, £25 (hb)

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