Artists Who Died Before 40: Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610
It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists, because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However, they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.
That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness, and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Like some of the more famous artists (or maybe infamous) like Raphael and Madonna, he was simply known as Caravaggio.
Italian Baroque Painter
Born in September of 1571 in Milan, Caravaggio had a huge influence on Baroque painting with his dramatic use of lighting that was imitated and copied throughout Europe. He had a way of painting realistic physical and emotional paintings and was often criticized for painting flaws that many other artists would have overlooked, such as rotting fruit and dying flowers, models with torn or worn clothing, etc. Yet this was part of the human experience and he captured it. At the time many critics felt that he was “flouting” decorum with his non-ideal naturalism, but it is those things that distinguished him. His extreme lighting technique was termed tenebriso or tenebrism: the use of extreme shadows and bold lighting to portray deep feeling and emotion. In the Calling of St. Matthew, Christ is standing in the light while Matthew is nearly obscured by the darkness; perhaps spiritual darkness. He would use an almost theatrical setting and sometimes paint things that offended the religious leaders of the day, such as the backside of the horse in the Conversion of St Paul, and the backside of solder in the Crucifixion of St Peter.
Have you ever heard of tenebrism before?
Italian Contemporary: Artemisia Gentileschi
Another Italian contemporary of Caravaggio also made use of the tenebrism technique but within the bounds of decorum (or perhaps on the very edge) was Artemisia Gentileschi. It isn’t often that a woman artist makes a name for herself in the 17th century but Artemisia did, due to her celebrity and beauty, along with her fabulous handling of women heroines in her art. Her story involved being raped by her father’s apprentice at the age of 19, and later painting women as the masters and heroines of their fate.
As this tenebrism technique spread to Spain and the Spanish Netherlands, other Baroque artists became known for using the extreme lighting effect also. Names like Diego Velasquez and Rembrandt come to mind. Most of their work looks as if the subject were in a dark room and someone just opened a window.
Family Died of the Black Plague
At the age of six, Caravaggio lost almost his entire family to the bubonic plague. This would have an emotional impact on him, and he spent the rest of his life doing whatever he needed to survive.
As an adult, he suffered from “painter’s colic” which we now know is caused by severe intestinal pain with obstinate constipation due to chronic lead poisoning. Many old world painters suffered from this because many of the most used paints were lead-based and it doesn’t need to be ingested to harm you. Merely handling lead paint will allow it to absorb into the skin and have long-term effects. Also breathing in particles. Lead is known to cause brain damage as well as constipation and other intestinal disorders, and eventually death from long-term contact. One biographer commented that Caravaggio’s personality and propensity for violence were probably due to his constant use of Lead White and Vermillion.
Laundry List of Toxic Chemicals
Painters in the 16th and 17th centuries did not have access to paint already mixed smooth and in tubes as we do today. They often had to spend hours grinding the pure pigments, mixing them with linseed oil or tung oil and a solvent such as turpentine and water. The mixture is ground and mixed until it is smooth and thick before painting begins. This is the time when the painter is vulnerable to breathing in particles and contaminating the skin. You have to wonder how much of the emotional anger Caravaggio suffered from was chemically induced.
Even today I use a laundry list of toxic chemicals in my paintings. They include oil-based paints, turpentine, Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide), chrome yellow (lead chromate), lead or flake white (lead carbonate), vermillion (mercuric sulfide), burnt umber or raw umber (iron oxides), and a host of others. The Cadmiums, Chromes, lead white and zinc yellow may even cause lung cancer. Many of my artist friends like to use latex gloves and some even use hospital face masks when painting. I find the masks restrictive, so I don’t use one. However, I know better than to blow the chalk when I’m working with pastels. They are pure pigment and blowing sends a hailstorm of particles into the air for me to breath in. Often when the dust gets too much I take the picture outside and shake off the excess into the grass, hoping to keep it out of the air where people could be breathing.
Who Killed Caravaggio
One incident involved Caravaggio cutting a hole in the ceiling of his studio to accommodate his larger paintings. “Since he was a renter, this didn’t sit well with his landlady.” (Watkins, web) When she sued him over the ceiling, he and some friends took out their revenge by throwing rocks at her windows. This would not endear him as a very favorable renter.
Considered a lawless hot-head, an early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and described his lifestyle three years previously, recounting that "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." (Watkins, web) He was even known to be thrown in jail for carrying a pistol without a permit and hurling rocks at the police.
Watkins, Ally (2011-02-24). "Caravaggio's Rap Sheet Reveals Him to Have Been a Lawless Sword-Obsessed Wildman, and a Terrible Renter". BlouinArtinfo. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
Infection or Lead Poisoning
Some said he was extremely crazy, others said he had an unnatural fear that caused him to travel from town to town believing he wasn’t safe any longer. At one point he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist on a platter, only he used his own face for the head of John. Not long after he painted David with the Head of Goliath, David looking rather sad at the head, and again the head was Caravaggio himself.
In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later in 1610, at the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany, reportedly from a fever while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.
Some scholars argue that he was murdered by “enemies” and others believe he died of lead poisoning because of the high concentration of lead in the bones of the body they now believe most certainly to be Caravaggio.
The master painter never married and had no known children. Some believe he did not like women since there is not a single female nude among his painting. During his lifetime, he was accused of sodomy but he denied knowing any male prostitutes or engaging in such things. However, you must remember that sodomy was a capital crime and once an artist was “smeared” his art was smeared too. He did, however, spend time with female prostitutes, which was legal. Much is not known about Caravaggio and so there has been much speculation for centuries. Even the exact circumstances of his death are a mystery that is only partly pieced together.
Caravaggio lived such a short time and had so many imitators that some of his paintings were misattributed to some other artist. Even as late as 1990, one painting was found to be his that had been attributed to someone else for centuries. Later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Ruskin, a Victorian “stick in the mud” critic labeled Caravaggio as an Evil Genius. Caravaggio’s temperamental nature was looked on by later writers and critics as overly-harsh for many years.
Painting Sold for 75,000 Pounds Worth Millions
In 2001 a painting thought to be a “copy” of a Caravaggio was sold for 75,000 pounds at a Sotheby’s auction. A London art dealer who specializes in Italian Old Masters saw the picture in the catalog and thought it might be something more interesting. The painting was cleaned and X-rayed, uncovering the true quality of the work. The X-rays showed that the artist had changed his mind while painting it, which would not have happened if it had been a copy. The scientific analysis revealed that it was indeed Caravaggio’s work and was worth millions. You just don’t hear about things like that happening very often.