An unprecedented eight Caravaggio paintings on view together for the first time in California

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy, an exhibition devoted to the legacy of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), one of the most influential painters in European history. The exhibition was co-organized by LACMA, the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, under the auspices of FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange), an international consortium to which all four museums belong.

Orazio Gentileschi, Danae, circa 1622-1623. Oil on canvas, 63 3/4 x 89 15/16 in. Cleveland Museum of Art. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund. Photo ©2012 Cleveland Museum of Art.

Caravaggio’s striking realism, violent contrasts of light and darkness, and ability to express powerful emotions were as surprising to his contemporaries as they are to us today. In this exhibition many of the innovations introduced by Caravaggio were adopted by painters from different countries, backgrounds, and influences. In this exhibition an unprecedented eight paintings by Caravaggio himself are shown together for the first time in California. Fifty more paintings document his influence on a host of painters from France, Spain, and the Netherlands, including Georges de La Tour, Gerrit van Honthorst, Velázquez, and Simon Vouet.

“The four-hundredth anniversary of Caravaggio’s death in 2010 triggered many exhibitions throughout the world. These have generated new scholarship, reattributions of paintings and an ongoing fascination with Caravaggio and the Caravaggesque painters,” says J. Patrice Marandel, the Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Art at LACMA, “Our exhibition has benefited from this new research and presents to the public unexpected aspects of the subject.”

Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy first opened simultaneously in two French venues, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse (both on view June 23–October 14, 2012). Following LACMA’s presentation, an edited version of the exhibition will travel to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (March 8–June 15, 2013).

Michelangelo Merisi was born in the small town of Caravaggio, near Milan, in 1573. He first studied with Simone Peterzano (1540–1596), an artist trained in Venice and an able painter of fresco decorations in Milan. In 1592, Caravaggio moved to Rome, attracted by the many opportunities the city offered: besides the Church itself, many aristocrats offered their patronage to talented and ambitious painters. Among these, the young Caravaggio quickly established himself as one of the deftest at securing the support of some of the most affluent and sophisticated patrons. His compositions, at first modest in size and subject, were kept and protected by their owners, who rarely traded them but made them nonetheless accessible to a wide audience. In Bodies and Shadows a seldom exhibited early portrait of Maffeo Barberini, one of Caravaggio’s patrons upon his arrival in Rome, illustrates the variety of the artist’s subjects that included portrait, genre-scenes, and – increasingly – religious compositions.

Caravaggio’s rebellious nature and difficult – indeed violent – temperament were notorious. Conscious of his original talent and protective of his own success, Caravaggio entertained ambiguous relationships with other artists. Unlike many artists of his generation, Caravaggio did not have proper pupils but many artists gravitated around him with various success. Giovanni Baglione’s (1566–1643) Ecstasy of Saint Francis shows how a gifted artist could get stylistically too close to the master. This may have exasperated Caravaggio who replied by posting libelous statements about Baglione, leading to a celebrated lawsuit. In 1606, Caravaggio’s murdering of a young man over either a woman or a game of tennis forced him to leave Rome where he was wanted by the police. He subsequently spent time in Naples, Malta, and Sicily – still receiving protection and commissions both from old and new patrons. Trying to return to Rome where he expected pardon from the Pope, Caravaggio died of malignant fever in Porto Ercole in 1610 at the age of thirty-nine.

By the time of his death, Caravaggio was arguably the most renowned artist in Rome. His style had changed drastically in his later years, becoming even darker and more brutal than before; his reputation had reached artists well beyond the Italian peninsula. This exhibition brings together a large group of artists who worked predominantly after Caravaggio’s death, carrying his legacy in different directions. While united under Caravaggio’s aesthetic influence, these artists are nonetheless highly original in their own rights and were known by their contemporaries not so much for being “Caravaggesque” as for being artists of immense talent and individuality. These include artists who are known to have been close to Caravaggio himself, such as Orazio Gentileschi, Giovanni Baglione, and Carlo Saraceni in particular.

Attention is devoted to Bartolomeo Manfredi, who, developing subjects and compositional devices typical of Caravaggio, elaborated a style that became particularly seminal with French painters in Rome. Simon Vouet is the most famous of those artists, who kept working in the light of Caravaggio until his return from Rome to Paris in 1627. Night scenes, brilliantly illuminated, were the specialty of Dutch Caravaggesque artists Gerrit van Honthorst and Matthias Stomer. Caravaggio’s stay in Naples left important works, admired by many artists, in the city, which resulted in a typically Neapolitan Caravaggist school fed by the example of Jusepe de Ribera, a Spaniard based in Naples whose role in disseminating Caravaggio’s style was as important in Naples as Manfredi’s had been in Rome. Paintings by both Zurbarán and Velázquez, two of the greatest Spanish painters of the seventeenth century, demonstrate that even in faraway Seville the lesson of the master was not ignored.

The case of Georges de La Tour is a mysterious one. Included at the end of this exhibition, the enigmatic artist from Lorraine developed in his works subjects and elements that seem to suggest an inevitable encounter with the work of Caravaggio. Yet, as far as we know, the painter never went to Italy and how he could have known of Caravaggio’s works in his native Lorraine remains conjectural. The two painters may have more in common and share a coincidental fate: after years of neglect, both Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour were rediscovered in the early part of the twentieth century, and both embody at best the attractiveness of a school whose affordability speaks directly to our modern sensibility.