Drama. Emotion. Light. Dark. Violence. Murder. One need only to mutter the name Caravaggio (formally Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) and these are some of the words that immediately spring to mind. Styles and techniques such as chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and dark in a painting) and tenebrism (a style of painting featuring intense chiaroscuro in which darkness dominates) are nearly synonymous with his name. The master painter who is widely revered for his profound influence on the Baroque period had such a vast influence that his work gave birth to a group of followers, known as the Caravaggisti, who sought to employ the same techniques and distinctive stylistic choices as their master including dramatic lighting and energetic scenes.
Bringing together two of the master’s rarely loaned works of art, “Among Friends and Rivals: Caravaggio in Rome” at the Art Institute of Chicago offers us a lesser-seen side to the artist’s mastery and a direct look at the influence the painter had on the work of others, such as Baglione, Buoneri, Reni, Giordano and more.
Though regarded as the most copied work of his art, “The Cardsharps” is rarely the painting that is associated with the name Caravaggio; instead, it is usually his more violent and dramatic works such as his rendition of “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” “The Cardsharps,” however, offers a slightly different look into the scope of mastery of Caravaggio’s work. The painting depicts the scene of a youthful boy playing a game of cards in which his adversaries are cheating, unbeknownst to him. The viewer is drawn into the scene and becomes an active participant and onlooker in the deception of the young boy. There is no violence or extreme use of dramatic lighting; rather, we get an insight into the expert level of detail Caravaggio employs to leave the viewer clues as to the nature of the scene.
You might visit the show to admire the works of Caravaggio, but you will stay to appreciate the selected works of art that hang alongside them. Notable highlights include “The Resurrection” by one of Caravaggio’s closest followers, Francesco Buoneri. With its black background and highly exaggerated contrast of light and dark, “The Resurrection” serves as a perfect example of the influence that Caravaggio’s groundbreaking style had on the work of his followers. This influence is seen again in “The Ecstasy of Saint Francis” by Giovanni Baglione. One of the first artists to take direct inspiration from Caravaggio, Baglione employs again the dramatic use of contrasting light to highlight the dynamic scene of Saint Francis swooning in ecstasy into the arms of an angel upon viewing the methods used to torture Jesus as presented by another angel. Baglione later turned from an admirer of Caravaggio to a rival, following an infamous fallout between the two artists.
“Among Friends and Rivals: Caravaggio in Rome” offers any Caravaggio fan a unique and exciting opportunity to see works they may not otherwise get the chance to. One need not be an established fan of Caravaggio, however, in order to appreciate and celebrate the expansive influence the artist had.
“Among Friends and Rivals: Caravaggio in Rome” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through December 31.