What’s the big deal about Caravaggio? (Metropolitan Museum Favorites, 12)

The Metropolitan Museum is showing “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” through January 16, 2017. But before we go beyond Caravaggio, let’s talk about what made Caravaggio himself such a big deal.

Here’s The Last Supper, 1592-94, by Jacopo Tintoretto, who was at the time one of Italy’s most prominent painters.

Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1592-94. Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore. Photo: Wikipedia.

Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1592-94. Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore. Photo: Wikipedia.

If you know 16th century art, you can’t mistake the Last Supper for the work of anyone except Tintoretto – yet strong influences from his predecessors are still visible. From Leonardo da Vinci comes sfumato (colors that shade from one to another, without sharp transitions) and chiaroscuro (strong light/dark contrast). From Michelangelo come elegant, elongated proportions. such as those in the figure standing at the right.

Caravaggio (1571-1610) burst onto the Roman art scene around 1600, just after Tintoretto’s death. The Metropolitan Museum has Caravaggio’s Denial of St. Peter, ca. 1610.

Caravaggio, Denial of St. Peter. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: MetMuseum.org

Caravaggio, Denial of St. Peter, ca. 1610. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: MetMuseum.org (This link takes you to the MMA’s site, which has a link to a map showing the gallery in which this work is displayed.)

What makes the Denial of St Peter so completely different from Tintoretto’s Last Supper?

First: If you look at a batch of 15th-16th c. paintings that tell a story, you’ll see scenes crowded with full-length figures (for example, Masaccio, Raphael, and the Tintoretto above). Caravaggio drastically reduced the number of figures. Then he zoomed in on the figures, showing them half length. This gives the expressions and gestures of those few figures much more impact.

Second: Caravaggio went for extreme drama – here, one of the moments when St. Peter denied knowing Christ. The soldier’s back is turned to us; the woman’s face is turned partly away, and in shadow. But St. Peter’s face and hands are in the spotlight: we can’t miss the intense emotion he’s feeling.

Third: Throughout the Renaissance, important figures were shown with handsome faces and figures, wearing elegant costumes. Caravaggio painted normal people in normal clothes – people his contemporaries might have seen on the street. Given the elegant figures in everyone else’s paintings ca. 1600,  these everyday figures made Caravaggio’s paintings attention-getting and very memorable. (Occasionally this got Caravaggio in trouble, as when he painted a Death of the Virgin in which the Virgin looked very, very dead. Or very, very much like Caravaggio’s mistress. Or both. The church that commissioned it refused to accept it.)

Fourth: The introduction of oil paints in the 1420s or 1430s gave artists a vast array of new, intense pigments. Artists could finally paint objects in their actual colors. Caravaggio realized that limiting the colors was an effective way to set a mood. He almost exclusively uses deep reds and browns, which help make his scenes somber yet dramatic.


Caravaggio died at 39 and never ran a school or took on apprentices, but his style was so striking that he soon had followers throughout Europe. Among these “Caravaggisti” was Valentin de Boulogne. I’m looking forward to seeing the Met’s exhibition and learning in what ways he was “beyond” Caravaggio.


  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art has two Caravaggios: the Denial of St. Peter and The Musicians. ca. 1595. My favorite Caravaggio (even though I’ve never seen it in person) is The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, in Rome at San Luigi dei Francesi.
  • This essay is a spin-off from my Innovators in Painting walking tour at the Metropolitan Museum. I’m in the process of revamping it: let me know if you’d like to be notified when I offer it (DuranteDianne@gmail.com).
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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