Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) trained as a painter in Milan in the workshop of Simone Peterzano (who had himself trained under Titian) and arrived in Rome seeking his fortune in 1592. In the bustling city, wealthy patrons avidly sought decoration for their palatial residences whilst the Catholic church, convulsed by the Protestant reformation in Northern Europe and the subsequent Counter-Reformist wave, was keen to reaffirm its authority through the use of a bold and expressive artistic language. In this setting, Caravaggio's innovations (working dal naturale, that is, from life, resulting in the heightened realism of his paintings; his dramatic treatment of chiaroscuro -light/dark contrast-; and the compelling drama of his narrative) soon caused a sensation and gave rise to a large movement of disciples and followers (the Caravaggisti), until taste eventually shifted and Caravaggio's influence waned in the mid-17th century. Only in modern times would the significance of Caravaggio's work be fully rediscovered and the Milanese painter given a prominent position in art history.
Following on the footsteps of a series of remarkable exhibitions in London looking at art history from novel and highly enlightening angles (see my review of the Painters' Painting: From Freud to Van Dyck exhibition, 23/06 - 04/09/2016), Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery, London, 12/10/2016-15/01/2017) looks at the development of the Caravaggista movement, first in Caravaggio's own circles in Rome, then further afield in Italy and all over the continent. After Caravaggio's first big success in 1600 with The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew (still on display in their original location in the church of St Luigi dei Francesi, near the Pantheon) his style was first imitated by Rome associates like Cecco di Caravaggio, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) or Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) and younger Italian painters like Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622, don't miss his 1615/20 The Fortune Teller near the start of the exhibition). Later on we are presented with beautiful pieces by other Caravaggisti tackling popular topics from the time like Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom (1615/16) by Guido Reni (1575-1642), the 1617/18 painting on the same subject by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri (1589-1655), and Susanna and the Elders (1622) by Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio's daughter, 1593-1656). Work by Caravaggio himself includes the well-known Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594/95, National Gallery) and, side by side in the second room, Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, with the puzzling perspectival error of the hands of the disciple on the right of the picture) and the magnificent The Taking of Christ (1602, National Gallery of Ireland, only spotted in a Jesuit collection in Dublin and actually confirmed as a Caravaggio in the 1990s).
The exhibition moves on to the work of Caravaggio-influenced artists further away from Rome like Naples-based Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652, a personal favourite of mine; don't miss his Lamentation over the Dead Christ, early 1620s), Dutchman Willem van der Vliet (c 1584-1642, with his A Philosopher and his Pupils, 1626) and Frenchman Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639, with his Dice Players, 1620/25). The end of the exhibition reflects on the power of narrative as emphasised by Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, with more beautiful pieces like Christ before the High Priest, c 1617, by Gerrit Van Honthorst (1592-1656), but save strength to gaze at Caravaggio's truly stupendous St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1603/04, brought to the exhibition from its usual location at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.
Beyond Caravaggio is a first-rate offering and hopefully won't be the last in this vein of exhibitions that trace relationships and influences through art history rather than focusing in a single artist. Seen from this perspective, the link between Caravaggio's ideas and other universal figures like Rembrandt (who started painting in the late 1620s and became perhaps the greatest master of chiaroscuro) becomes evident. It is a pleasure to be helped in this way to make sense of the daunting sea of names and tendencies that old master painting may sometimes appear to be.