Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy

Toured to two French and two U.S. venues all in the FRAME network, June 2012 to June 2013: over 425,000 visitors

The Exhibition Schedule

  • Musée Fabre, Montpellier

    Jun 23, 2012 - Oct 14, 2012
  • Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

    Jun 23, 2012 - Oct 14, 2012
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    Nov 11, 2012 - Feb 10, 2013
  • Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford

    Mar 6, 2013 - Jun 16, 2013

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in conjunction with the Musée Fabre, Montpellier and the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, all FRAME member museums, co-organized and presented an exhibition devoted to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) and the impact that his revolutionary art had on art in Italy and throughout Europe. The exhibition opened simultaneously in June 2012 at the two French museums split between Italian/French and Northern followers and traveled to Los Angeles November 2012 through February 2013; with the final venue in Hartford in March 6 through June 16, 2013. Both the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art contributed important masterpieces to the project and over 60% of the loans that constitute the exhibition are from FRAME member museums. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was the first American Museum to purchase an authentic painting by Caravaggio (the great Ecstasy of St. Francis acquired in 1944) and it has added a great many works by his followers and imitators in Italy, Holland, Flanders, and France, such as Gentileschi, Saraceni, Riminaldi, Ribera, Zurbarán and Sweerts. In recent years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has acquired an important group of Caravaggesque paintings by Saraceni, Baglione, and Valentin to name but a few.

Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio; Saint Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1594; Oil on canvas, 36 3/8" x 50 1/4"; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Caitlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1943.222

Born near Milan in the town of Caravaggio, the painter first studied in Milan with Simone Peterzano from whom he acquired knowledge of Lombard realism and Venetian colorism. He then made his way around 1592 to Rome where he launched his independent career beginning as a painter of still-lifes. Caravaggio’s distinctive qualities of clarity of design, intense light with contrasting chiaroscuro, and precise rendering of details soon brought him attention. He found patrons among the cultivated noblemen and church hierarchy and produced a number of paintings of young musicians, sensual youths, and card players that have a directness that was quite novel.

Carlo Saraceni (Italy, Venice, 1579 - 1620), The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, circa 1610, Painting, Oil on canvas, 53 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (135.89 x 98.425 cm). Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation (AC1996.37.1), Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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Caravaggio’s combination of earthy realism and close physical observation transformed traditional religious subjects, imbuing them with a humanizing touch and profound sense of spirituality.  This tendency—to render the lives and sufferings of the saints as accessible and identifiable—spoke to the Counter-Reformation’s drive to dismantle the legacy of Mannerism’s artificiality and dramatization, and replace it with a direct and unfettered rendering of religious subjects.  As Helen Langdon has written, Caravaggio was at the forefront of this shift:  “Never before had an artist presented religious drama as contemporary life ... Nor had any earlier painter dared to break so dramatically with long established studio traditions, painting his figures from nature, directly onto the canvas, with complex effects of studio lighting. It was the figures having been painted from life that most fascinated Caravaggio’s contemporaries.”

Trouble, however, both personal and political, plagued Caravaggio’s career.  Despite his strong support among Rome’s elite, the artist became known for his violent temperament and frequently ran afoul of the law.  After many small scuffles, in 1606 Caravaggio finally quarreled with, and killed, a papal employee.  Fleeing Rome and fearing for his life, Caravaggio sought refuge first in Malta and later in Naples.  Neither city proved a safe harbor for Caravaggio, nor did his fighting ways abate.  Finally, Caravaggio succumbed to fever in Porto Ercole while en route to Rome to receive a papal pardon.  He was only 39 at the time of his death. 
The impact of Caravaggio’s unique style—his blend of bright highlights and masterful chiaroscuro, dubbed tenebrism—sent tremors across Europe’s artistic landscape.  In Rome, aftershocks of Caravaggio’s revolutionary reworking of realism appeared in the work of artists such as Baglione, Manfredi, Saraceni and Orazio Gentileschi.  Throughout France, Spain, Flanders, and Holland, aspects of Caravaggio’s style were disseminated and employed by artists who had visited, and worked in, seventeenth-century Rome.  Painters adapted Caravaggio’s theatrical use of light and figural staging, while many French artists, including Simon Vouet and Claude Vignon, borrowed liberally from Caravaggio’s work for their large-scale religious and genre compositions.  Particularly in Spain, Caravaggio’s legacy was telegraphed through the work of artists like Zurbarán and Velazquez, providing the foundation of what would become distinctive about Spanish realism and genre painting throughout the seventeenth century.

In the US presentations, Caravaggio and His Legacy examines Caravaggio through the lens of his European influence as well as his distinctive oeuvre of religious, figural, and genre scene paintings. The LACMA and the Wadsworth venues will focus on Caravaggio’s influence on Italian and French artists in the 17th century, as well as his Spanish and Northern followers. 

The exhibition will present a remarkable selection of costume and theatrical pieces, genre scenes, portraiture, narrative history painting, and religious works, including key themes organized around topics such as musicality, festivity, violence, nude studies, as well as religious works of St. Francis, St. Sebastian, the Last Supper, the Denial of St. Peter.  Many paintings in the exhibition have been loaned by American museums in Los Angeles, Detroit, Kansas City, and Minneapolis, while numerous works will travel for the first time to the United States from as far as Caen, Montpellier, Toulouse, and Marseille. 

This exhibition is organized under the auspices of FRAME, the French Regional American Museum Exchange.  A consortium of 26 museums across North America and France that promotes cultural and professional exchange, FRAME is committed to assembling unique exhibitions that take advantage of the broad and exceptional collection base of its partner institutions.  The FRAME network has contributed many significant loans and professional expertise to the exhibition and the catalogues.