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Artists Who Died Before 40: Caravaggio

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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St Thomas, the Doubter

St Thomas, the Doubter

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610

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.

Supper at Emmaus, 1607

Supper at Emmaus, 1607

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.

St Jerome

St Jerome

Calling of St Matthew

Calling of St Matthew

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.

Crucifixion of St Peter

Crucifixion of St Peter

Painter's Colic

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.

St Jerome, 1607

St Jerome, 1607

Entombment

Entombment

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

Conversion of St Paul

Conversion of St Paul

Lawless Hot-Head

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.

Crowning with Thorns

Crowning with Thorns

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 poisoning because of the high concentration of lead in the bones of the body they now believe most certainly to be Caravaggio.

David and Goliath

David and Goliath

Never Married

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 paintings. 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. 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.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Harsh Criticism

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.

Cardsharps

Cardsharps

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 every day.

Art History Comments Welcome

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 20, 2016:

Lawrence,

I agree with you. It's colorful people like Caravaggio who make history fun to read about and he did leave some of the best Baroque paintings of all time. Many artists tried to copy his style and a few succeeded in making it their own. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Lawrence Hebb on June 18, 2016:

This was fascinating. Like Billybuc I love any type of history so this hub was a great read as I didn't know all that much about the artist.

Caravaggio sounds like he was a bit of a colorful character, no matter what the cause was it seems he was a bit too much to handle for most people, yet it's people like that who leave some of the best work for future generations.

I loved this hub.

Lawrence

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 10, 2016:

CorneliaMladenova,

I think his being a hot-head might have been linked to the lead poisoning too. It's a shame that so many artists suffered from painting with these heavy metals. But you are right, he must have been a hoot to know. I love that he got mad at his landlady for suing him and he threw rocks at her windows. That makes me laugh. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise.

Korneliya Yonkova from Cork, Ireland on June 10, 2016:

Caravaggio is great not only as an artist. He must have been incredible personality too. I like the fact that he was even known to be thrown in jail for carrying a pistol without a permit and hurling rocks at the police. Cool :)

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 03, 2016:

Tara Mapes,

Thank you, Tara. I'm glad you liked it. I love his paintings also. Very rich colors too. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 03, 2016:

Larry Rankin,

Thank you, Larry. I'm so glad you like these artists biographies. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Tara Mapes from Cincinnati on June 03, 2016:

Wonderful compilation and history! Love the imagery too.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 03, 2016:

Another interesting biography.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 03, 2016:

billybuc,

My friend, you must live, sleep and eat near your computer. You are always the first to read my work and comment. I so appreciate your support and encouragement. I love art history but like you, all history is interesting if it is about people and not just places and dates. Caravaggio was a fascinating and tragic character. He makes me want to put my watercolor away and pull out my oil paintings... with gloves, of course.

Blessings,

Denise

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 03, 2016:

I have a love for any type of history, so thank you for this interesting information. Have a great weekend.

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