Georges de la Tour's Magdalen. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gift of The Ahmanson. / April 11, 2013)

Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy

Ends June 16, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford,


It is nearly impossible to look at a painting by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi, 1572-1610) without pondering the personal chaos out of which it was created. The preternaturally talented Caravaggio was, as an old bluesman might put it, born under a bad sign. At age 6, most of his family was wiped out by bubonic plague. By the time he moved to Rome at 21, he was roaming city streets with a gang of artists and hooligans whose Latin motto translated as the ur-punk-ish "without hope, without fear."

He drank and probably drugged, gambled and fought, was omnivorous in his sexual tastes, from boys to prostitutes, and may have had syphilis at his death. Not surprisingly, then, Caravaggio painted on the run, constantly fleeing creditors, court cases (for murder, for assault, for insults). He was grievously wounded — actually disfigured — in a tavern fight in Naples. And yet, he did paint, in much the same way that Jim Morrison wrested timeless poetry, music and art out of his own personal chaos. Like Morrison, Caravaggio was popular in his day, much sought-after for commissions (no lonely and ignored Van Gogh he) but tempestuous and tormented. How could such personal chaos produce such unrivaled mastery?

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art once again begs that question in "Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy," an exhibition of five works by the elusive master (only 80 works by Caravaggio are known to exist in the world) augmented by 30 works on similar themes by his contemporaries and immediate successors. This show, which offers a taste of Caravaggio's genius, is particularly good at reminding you of that he had few rivals in his day. The five paintings by Caravaggio (Martha and Mary Magdalen, Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and The Denial of Saint Peter) are housed in a central gallery and then two adjoining galleries are filled with the work of artists in Rome, Spain, France, Holland, and elsewhere said to "incorporate elements of Caravaggio's style and themes in their work." These artists, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco Zurbaran and Michiel Sweerts, were said to be so smitten by Caravaggio that they have been called "Caravaggisti."

Some, like the brilliant Flemish Sweerts, were separated from Caravaggio by many more than six degrees. According to the curators, Sweerts' "Burying the Dead" (1650), included in this show, "suggests a debt to Caravaggio, though probably received by way of Northern painters working in Rome." But most of the others are very much aping the master. Indeed, many depict the same scenes Caravaggio painted.

For example, in Caravaggio's version of "The Denial of Saint Peter," Peter is in the process of denying Jesus three times to two figures of authority. The painting was done in Caravaggio's final year of life, and it reflects his own dissipated state. Peter's eyes are haunted and afraid (Caravaggio slept with a dagger), tormented; he is haggard and disheveled, caught off guard. His guilt is all over his face. In Gerrit van Honthort's 1625 version of this scene, found in the adjoining gallery, Peter is poker-faced, calm and reasonably assured that he won't be found out. In Nicolas Tournier's 1625 version of the same scene, found in a third gallery, Peter is hanging out in a tavern, and the interrogation by the authorities is depicted as almost an afterthought, secondary to the drama of the more central dice players. It seems a preposterous scene — did Peter hang out in taverns? Were there taverns and dice players in Jesus's day?

In short, the subject matter may be the same but the technique is not. Caravaggio's paintings leap to life, while the others just look like standard-issue museum fare by comparison.

The appeal of Caravaggio to modern art lovers may be partly due to his "bad boy" aura but that doesn't fully explain it: Just look at the art! These aren't just Biblical scenes but scenes of life made to look like Biblical stories. They are personalized by Caravaggio and to his time and his own life, and that makes them easy to approach without an art library's worth of knowledge. Francine Prose has written, "The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint, the street tough, the martyr, the killer, the genius—the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need…"

The Wadsworth Atheneum has had a storied connection to Caravaggio. Indeed, it was one of the museums that helped resuscitate Caravaggio's reputation in the 20th century — for 200 or so years prior to that, his work had fallen into disfavor for being "vulgar" — and it's a feather in the Wadsworth's cap that, with its purchase of Ecstasy of St Francis in 1944, it became the first in America to own a work by Caravaggio. It wasn't until 1950s, with an exhibition in Milan, that his reputation was rescued for perpetuity.