Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 23, 2013
J. Patrice Marandel, ed. Caravaggio and His Legacy Exh. cat. Los Angeles and Munich: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Prestel Verlag, 2012. 174 pp.; 180 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9783791352305)
Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy
Exhibition schedule: Musée Fabre de Montpellier Agglomération and Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, June 23–October 14, 2012; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 11, 2012–February 10, 2013; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, March 8–June 16, 2013
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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (ca. 1595–96). Oil on canvas. 36 3/8 x 50 1/4 in. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1943.222.

Until several years ago, Richard Spear’s 1971 exhibition catalogue, Caravaggio and His Followers (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art), defined the scope and limits of Caravaggio’s influence on painters in Rome and beyond. But since 2010, more recent exhibitions commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Caravaggio’s death have offered the opportunity both to evaluate new discoveries in the individual careers of Caravaggesque painters and to discuss anew the large and disparate group of followers. Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy is the fourth and last of a linked series of exhibitions dedicated to Caravaggio and Caravaggism, an initiative of FRAME, a Franco-American museum consortium, and four of its participating museums: the Musée Fabre, Montpellier; the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Hartford was an apt closing venue, for in 1998 the Atheneum had hosted Caravaggio and His Italian Followers, a major loan exhibition from the Galleria Nazionale, Rome. The two French venues of Burst of Light boasted between them 133 paintings and produced a hefty scholarly catalogue. LACMA’s reduced show entitled Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy (click here for review), a literal translation of the French title, presented only fifty-six works, many from U.S. collections substituting for the original loans. The handsome U.S. catalogue, a fraction of the size of its French counterpart and serving both U.S. venues, consisted of two opening essays, of which more about below, condensed introductions to the six sections of the show, and brief entries concentrating on subject matter and style, with an appendix of provenance and bibliography.

Smaller than the Los Angeles exhibition and displaying only thirty-five works, the Hartford show retained only one European loan, from London’s National Gallery: Caravaggio’s late and disquieting Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist (ca. 1606–10). The Atheneum enriched its exhibition with five uncatalogued works from its own ample collection of Caravaggesque pictures, including paintings by Caracciolo, Caravaggio’s principal Neapolitan follower, and Francisco Ribalta, an early protagonist of Spanish naturalism. A small, auxiliary space supplied reproductions of Caravaggio’s early genre pictures—regrettably absent—in order to convey their impact on Bartolomeo Manfredi and the northern artists who developed this strain in the master’s work. Although its compact size necessitated exclusion of many Caravaggesque painters—notably Cecco del Caravaggio, Spadarino (Giovanni Antonio Galli), Artemisia Gentileschi, and Orazio Borgianni—the Hartford show offered the rare opportunity to see major works by Caravaggio and select followers on the East Coast, which was otherwise deprived of the various anniversary exhibitions of 2010.

Caravaggio’s brooding and magnificent St. John the Baptist (ca. 1604–5) dominated the central of three galleries displaying four other of his religious paintings and works by Giovanni Baglione, Orazio Gentileschi, and Carlo Saraceni, his first acolytes in Rome. Spanning most of his short career, the Caravaggio selection provided the essential frame of reference for the predominantly sacred works by his followers on view. The earliest of Caravaggio’s paintings was Hartford’s own tender Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (ca. 1595–96), striking for its small scale, which he quickly abandoned for life-size figures. Hanging adjacent, Baglione’s ca. 1601 canvas of the same subject, acquired by LACMA in 2002, is possibly an autograph replica but of lesser quality than his version at the Art Institute of Chicago. Gentileschi, Caravaggio’s sometime acquaintance, was represented by two works painted relatively late yet still Caravaggesque in lighting and reliance on models. Gentileschi’s Danaë (ca. 1622–23) portrays a reclining female nude, a subject indebted to the Venetian and Carracci legacies, but nonetheless delineated with a surface realism and harsh directed light learned from Caravaggio.

That both Gentileschi’s Danaë and Baglione’s St. Francis exist in more than one autograph version raises the critical issue of Caravaggio’s own studio practice reportedly based exclusively on painting from life and thus effectively ruling out the production of autograph replicas. Yet recent and contested attributions of putative second versions in Caravaggio’s oeuvre have stimulated debate: did he routinely use tracings as did Gentileschi to transfer his compositions, or did he assign or allow others to do so? Only further technical investigation of Caravaggio’s oeuvre and, even more pressing, of that of his followers will illuminate their studio practices. Saraceni’s Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (ca. 1610) exemplified his reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s style in a delicate idiom distinguished by a varied, saturated palette and a cast of petite figures. Questions of attribution and dating surrounding Saraceni’s work will be illuminated in an eagerly anticipated monographic show in Rome.

Foremost among Caravaggio’s Spanish followers, Jusepe de Ribera was represented by his early Roman canvas, the wholly original Allegory of Taste (ca. 1614–16), a prize of the Atheneum. As recapitulated in his catalogue essay, Gianni Papi has recently pushed back Ribera’s arrival in Rome to before 1611 and questionably as early as 1604–5, before Caravaggio’s flight from the city. He even goes so far as to credit Ribera rather than Manfredi with the invention of the influential “Manfredi Manner” (Manfrediana methodus), the term Joachim von Sandrart coined for the horizontal compositions with genre-inflected narratives favored by Manfredi and the northern Caravaggists. Identifying Ribera as the hitherto mysterious “Master of the Judgment of Solomon,” Papi has assembled some sixty works that, he argues, all date to the young Ribera’s Roman years before his definitive move to Naples. His further re-dating of many paintings by Ribera to even as much as ten years earlier than previously thought buttresses his claim that Ribera was the primary source for many features the Caravaggists adopted in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century. In Hartford, four versions of the Denial of St. Peter by Nicolas Tournier, Gerrit von Honthorst, and Gerard Seghers offered a useful survey of the type of dramatic close-up narrative introduced in Caravaggio’s own late interpretation on view. Ribera’s Denial of St. Peter (ca. 1615?) was unfortunately absent, and so Papi’s identification of it as the ultimate prototype for the northern versions could not be assessed. More time will be needed to reach any consensus about the dating and attribution of Ribera’s Roman oeuvre. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum has purchased Ribera’s early The Penitent Saint Peter (ca. 1612–13), a forcefully rough portrayal of the apostle.

In the other flanking gallery, the focus fell on Caravaggio’s northern followers, among them Hendrik Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Dirk van Baburen, three Caravaggists from Utrecht, the Dutch center that sheltered Catholics even into the seventeenth century. Select candlelit compositions by the Utrecht painters underlined the poetic invention of Honthorst, nicknamed Gerard of the Nocturnes, of an internal artificial light source that at once softens and rationalizes Caravaggio’s tenebrism. Also noteworthy in the gallery was Van Baburen’s savage Crowning with Thorns (ca. 1621–22), which Wayne Franits identifies in his recent monograph (The Paintings of Dirck van Baburen [ca. 1592/93–1624]: Catalogue Raisonné, Turnhout: Brepols, 2013) as a first version of the tighter and more refined composition in the Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.

Three artists included test the limits of Caravaggio’s legacy that Spear set forty years ago. The first, the young Neapolitan Luca Giordano, was born in 1634, well after most painters in the show had been to Rome and back and had abandoned Caravaggism. Unlike Ribera, Giordano did not form his style in Rome but instead would have known Caravaggio’s Neapolitan works, such as the Flagellation (1607), as revealed in the long inclined line of the saint’s head in Hartford’s St. Sebastian Tended by Irene and Her Companions (ca. 1660). The second artist, Francisco de Zurbarán, never went to Italy, so any link to Caravaggio in his St. Serapion (1628), another Atheneum masterpiece, is indirect, and his inclusion implicitly endorses the controversial view that Caravaggio influenced the strong Spanish tradition of naturalism. Both Giordano and Zurbarán were excluded from Caravaggio’s following in Spear’s restrictive criteria that required an Italian sojourn and direct knowledge of Caravaggio’s or his closest disciples’ works. But as J. Patrice Marandel explains in the catalogue, the organizers of the U.S. shows deliberately rejected “followers” in the title in order to avoid the negative connotation of slavish epigones versus creative emulators and, moreover, to justify the expansive selection of painters. The third artist, Georges de la Tour, perhaps claims a category all his own. His Old Man and Old Woman (ca. 1618–19) find no parallels in Caravaggio’s art. But the meditative Magdalene with the Smoking Flame (ca. 1636), one of his several variations on the theme, betrays many Caravaggesque features. La Tour, who lived and worked in the Duchy of Lorraine, probably saw Caravaggio’s late Annunciation (ca. 1608–10) in the Cathedral of Nancy (now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts) but otherwise learned indirectly of Caravaggio’s art in nearby Utrecht through the works of the Caravaggists back from Rome.

Of the two introductory catalogue essays, Mandel’s presents a concise yet partly unreliable overview of Caravaggio’s career. Baglione was not Caravaggio’s only biographer to have known the artist personally; the irascible Orazio Gentileschi cannot be described as an “even tempered artist”; and Manfredi did paint public works, as Mancini recorded, and as the attribution of the Leonessa altarpiece suggests. Marandel belies history by saying that the Carracci arrived in Rome with the “stated mission” to reform painting and misreads Annibale’s explosive Assumption (1600–1) in the Cerasi Chapel as “serene.”

In his stimulating essay, “Some Reflections and Revisions on Caravaggio, His Method, and His ‘Schola,’” Papi rejects previous dismissals of Caravaggio’s following as an artistic movement in the modern sense of the word, persuasively enumerating the essential components of such a group: convergence of many young artists in the same place at the same time, in daily contact and sharing similar habits, and joined in friendship or linked by enmity. I would add that notwithstanding the lack of an official credo—indispensable to so many modern movements—Caravaggesque painters shared a collective artistic identity shaped by consciously selected themes and a repertory of pictorial devices inspired by the master. Papi’s further claim that the Caravaggists adopted a non-traditional manner of painting that “represented the complex experience of living” and found affirmation through their painting alone is, however, a mite oversimplified. But he rightly emphasizes the breadth and depth of talent in the group, on patent display in Hartford. Privileging his own considerable contribution to reconstructing the oeuvres of individual followers, Papi proposes a new framework for discussing the movement, one predicated on Mancini’s list of the “Schola” of Caravaggio: Manfredi, Ribera, Cecco del Caravaggio, and Spadarino. For Papi, these artists, rather than Caravaggio himself or his earliest followers, Baglione and Gentileschi, served as models for numerous young artists who adopted Caravaggism in Rome during the 1610s and 1620s. Papi inexplicably omits Saraceni, whom Mancini listed as the fifth member, albeit only in part, of the school. Given Cecco’s and Spadarino’s absence from the exhibition, Papi’s proposals could not be fully tested, and his contention strains belief that by school Mancini implied not simply a following but instead an apprenticeship with the master.

The Hartford show offered the public a potent distillation of Caravaggio’s and his followers’ art, opening an expansive vista of European Caravaggism viewed from the vantage of North American collections. As studies of Caravaggism continue to multiply, still shadowy individual artistic personalities will become ever clearer, and the boundaries of the movement will be redrawn.

Catherine Puglisi
Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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