Art: Master of the Gesture

At the Metropolitan, Caravaggio's turbulent genius

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In one way Caravaggio's quest for strength and legibility reversed itself. He exaggerated the battle between light and dark to such a pitch that the late work became hard to read; its forms turned anxious and flickering, as though snatched from the very throat of darkness. But by then, this confusion had acquired its own expressive integrity as the handwriting of a painter more and more possessed by death. Caravaggio's sense of mortality was the thing his imitators found hardest to copy. But this did not stop the spread of Caravaggism. Within a decade of his death his followers had diffused his message all over Europe: Caracciolo and Ribera in Naples, Georges de La Tour and Valentin de Boulogne in France, Seghers and Honthorst in The Netherlands, and dozens of others inside and outside Italy.

Scratch almost any great 17th century painter except Poussin, and traces of Caravaggio will appear. The vivid, tragic piety of his work after 1600 was fundamental to baroque painting. Without his sense of humble, ordinary bodies lapped in darkness but transfigured by sacramental light, what would Rembrandt have done? Caravaggio was one of the hinges of art history: there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same. No wonder that he is now the artist that many new painters, in an age without authentic culture heroes, pine to be.

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