After the unveiling of Caravaggio’s first public commission in 1600, artists from across Europe flocked to Rome to see his work. Seduced by the pictorial and narrative power of his paintings, many went on to imitate their naturalism and dramatic lighting effects. Paintings by Caravaggio and his followers were highly sought-after in the decades following his untimely death at the age of just 39. By the mid-17th century, however, the Caravaggesque style had fallen out of favour and it would take almost three hundred years for Caravaggio’s reputation to be restored and for his artistic accomplishments to be fully recognized.
The show, which travels to the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin) and the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh) in 2017, offers a unique opportunity to discover a number of hidden art treasures from around the British Isles. The majority of the 49 paintings in the exhibition come from museums, stately homes, castles, churches and private collections across Great Britain and Ireland. These paintings, many of which will be unfamiliar to visitors, will demonstrate how Caravaggio’s art came to inspire a whole generation of painters. 'Beyond Caravaggio' begins by exploring Caravaggio’s early years in Rome, where he produced works depicting youths, musicians, cardsharps and fortune tellers. These paintings were considered highly original on account of their everyday subject matter and naturalistic lighting. The National Gallery’s own Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594–5) will hang alongside works including Cecco del Caravaggio’s 'A Musician' (about 1615, Apsley House), Bartolomeo Manfredi’s 'Fortune Teller' (about 1615–20, Detroit Institute of Arts) and a masterpiece by French Carvaggesque painter, Georges de la Tour, The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (1630–34) from the Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas. The unveiling of Caravaggio’s first public commission in 1600 caused a sensation and quickly led to numerous commissions from distinguished patrons, among them Ciriaco Mattei for whom Caravaggio painted The Supper at Emmaus (1601, The National Gallery, London) and the recently rediscovered 'The Taking of Christ' (1602, on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St, Dublin). These two paintings will be reunited with other Caravaggesque works formerly in the Mattei collection: Giovanni Serodine’s 'Tribute Money' (Scottish National Gallery) and Antiveduto Gramatica’s 'Christ among the Doctors' (about 1613, the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh). Caravaggio’s practice of painting from life and his use of chiaroscuro (strongly contrasted lighting effects) were quickly emulated, but artists did not simply replicate his style; taking Caravaggio’s works as their starting point, they responded to different aspects of his art and developed their own individual approaches. Giovanni Baglione’s 'Ecstasy of Saint Francis' (1601, The Art Institute of Chicago) is the first truly Caravaggesque painting by another artist; Orazio Gentileschi, who was a friend of Caravaggio’s, is represented by two very different works, whilst his immensely talented daughter, Artemisia, is present in the exhibition with 'Susannah and the Elders' (1622, The Burghley House Collection). 'Christ displaying his Wounds' (about 1625-35, Perth Museum and Art Gallery) by Giovanni Antonio Galli (called Lo Spadarino) is one of the most striking and memorable paintings in the show. Caravaggio travelled twice to Naples – both times whilst on the run (the first after committing murder). The Kingdom of Naples was then part of the Spanish Empire and home to many Spanish artists, like Jusepe de Ribera who is represented by three works, (notably 'The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew', 1634, National Gallery of Art, Washington). Neapolitan artists also frequently travelled to Rome where they had the opportunity to see Caravaggio’s earlier works: this was the case with Mattia Preti, whose 'Draughts Players' (about 1635, Ashmolean Museum of Art, Oxford) will be on display. Caravaggio’s greatest legacy was the enduring power of his storytelling. He injected new life into biblical stories, often blurring the lines between sacred and profane subjects, such as in 'Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness' (1603–4, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). This will be shown alongside masterpieces by his followers, such as Nicolas Régnier’s 'Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant' (about 1626–30, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull - generously lent during Hull’s UK 2017 City of Culture celebrations) and Gerrit van Honthorst’s 'Christ before the High Priest' (about 1617, The National Gallery, London). Seduced by the power of Caravaggio’s paintings, artists continued to emulate him well after his death, but by the middle of the 17th century Caravaggio’s naturalistic approach had been rejected in favour of a more classicising painting tradition. It would take almost three hundred years for Caravaggio’s reputation to be restored and for his artistic accomplishments to be fully recognised. Today he is rightly admired once again for his unforgettable imagery, inventiveness and astonishing modernity.
- 12 October 2016 – 15 January 2017 Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery, London, UK
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