Rembrandt vs. Caravaggio- the Great Two Artists in Baroque Comparison

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            Rome was the centre where baroque art and from where it spread. The great artists of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Caravaggio, Peter Paul Ruben and Rembrandt, could not have developed as they did without direct or indirect contact with the artistic events in Rome. Even though conditions radically changed after 1650, Rome must be given a large share in any consideration of European art during the second half of the century. Caravaggio and Ruben used some of their works to serve the Catholic Church’s dynamic Counter-Reformation aimed at snuffing out Protestantism. Several of these, notably Ruben and Van Dyke, also lent their talents to glorification of the emerging breed of centralizing monarchies such as those of the Bourbons in France and the Stuarts in England. But the greatest of all baroque artists and surely one of the five or a six greatest artists of all times was Protestant and a republican: Rembrandt van Rijn

By the end of the sixteenth century a new spirit in art became evident. At first it grew from a desire on the part of the popes to make Rome the most beautiful city in the world. Term the Baroque, the style that expressed the changing temper of the close of the sixteenth century expanded all through the Catholic world and became characteristic style of the seventeenth century. It provided a means of counteracting the Protestant Reformation and was widely adopted by the increasingly centralized European monarchies as a means of giving physical substance to the power and glory of the state. As an art form it tended to emphasize great material splendor and dramatic impact. One of the first and most influential artists to give expression to this new mode was Caravaggio.

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The most original painter of the seventeenth century, Caravaggio (1571-1610) injected new life into Italian painting after the sterile artificiality of Mannerism (Dunford 253). He took realism to new lengths, painting bodies in a thoroughly down and dirty style, as opposed to pale, Mannerist phantoms. In so doing, Caravaggio secularized religious art, making saints and miracles seem like ordinary people and everyday events. Although specializing in large religious works, Caravaggio advocated direct painting from nature often; it seemed, directly from the seamy slums.

Caravaggio’s use of perspective brings the viewer into the action, and chiaroscuro engages the emotions while intensifying the scene’s impact through dramatic light and dark contrasts. This untraditional, theatrical staging focuses a harsh light from a single source on the subject in the foreground to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the power of the event and the subject’s response. Because of the shadow background Caravaggio favored, his style was called “il tenebroso” (in a dark manner).

Many of Caravaggio’s patrons who commissioned altarpieces refused to accept his renditions, considering them vulgar or profane. However, Caravaggio’s choice of disreputable, lower-class folk as suitable subjects for religious art expressed the Counter Reformation belief that faith was open to all.

To the contemporary French painter Poussin, known for his peaceful scenes, Caravaggio was a subversive betrayer of the art of painting. To the police, he was a fugitive wanted for murder. But to major artists like Rubens, Velazquez, and Rembrandt, he was a daring innovator who taught them how to make religious paintings seem both hyperreal and overwhelmingly immediate.

No artist in seventeenth-century Italy exerted a greater influence on subsequent artistic expression, both in Italy and the north of Europe, than Caravaggio. In his work there is a strong genre element which he achieved partly by using picturesque models which seem taken from the workaday world. His use of everyday types of people, naturalistic anatomical details such as wrinkles, hair, and veins, and of contemporary costumes and settings, were devices to make his biblical and mythological subject matter seem real by making it appear familiar. This was opposition to tradition and the practice of his more academic contemporaries in whose work the human figure and other components were idealized and made remote from daily life in order to achieve a sense of nobility and grandeur. Caravaggio also initiated the use of intense dramatic lighting, so that the illuminated parts of his figures often stand out in startling brilliance against dark backgrounds. Caravaggio has left few drawings, but this may not mean he did not make drawings, but rather he did not value them highly enough to preserve them carefully.

Subsequently the influence of Caravaggio became widespread; it appeared in the work of both Franz Halls and Rembrandt in Holland. The breadth of handling, the freedom and vigor of execution shown in the Caravaggio drawing became increasingly characteristic of Baroque drawing in Italy. The major artists displayed a rich inventiveness in their unconstrained and expressive manner of drawing. The brilliance of their highly personal and often unique modes of working make the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Italy one of the most fertile and productive periods in the history of drawing. Drawing became highly valued as a form of artistic at this time preferred specializing in drawing and prints to a career as a painter.

Caravaggio was in the most active phase of his artistic career. He was a classicist, nor an adherent of the Baroque; he had no intention of following any models. He was less valued by his age than were the Carracci. His painting fall into two groups. One group consists of flowers, still life and fragments from the everyday life of people of rather than exalted station something quite unheard of at a time when art was governed by aesthetics of grandeur. Caravaggio said on several occasions that the painting of flowers cost him as much effort as major compositions. At that time, this seemed an extraordinary observation. The other group is made up of the large religious canvases of the 1600-1606 periods, where Caravaggio is as though trying to demonstrate his ability to paint in the manner of his famous contemporaries. Whatever his intentions, those paintings are different. As someone rightly pointed out, hid religious paintings have no trace of heaven: the saints have no haloes and no attributes, the Holy Virgin is depicted without angels or palatial architecture; and everything is stripped of pathos.

Following Caravaggio’s lead, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is the Netherlands’ most famous artist. He is best known for his portraits and for his paintings of scenes from the Bible. In many of his paintings, Rembrandt used a style called chiaroscuro, a strongly contrasting treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting (Niz 9). Translated from the Italian word means “half-revealed.” He copied this style from Caravaggio. During his lifetime, Rembrandt was a wildly successful portraits painter. His paintings are characterized by luxuriant brushwork, rich colour, and a mastery of chiaroscuro. Numerous portraits and self-portraits exhibit a profound penetration of character. His drawings constitute a vivid record of contemporary Amsterdam life. The greatest artist of the Dutch school, he was a master of light and shadow whose paintings, drawings, and etchings made him a giant in the history of art.

Today his reputation rests principally on the probing, introspective paintings of his late years, their subtle shadings implying extraordinary emotional depth.

For the first twenty years of his career, Rembrandt’s portraits were the height of fashion, and he was deluged with commissions. Although his output was prolific, he was difficult to deal with. “A painting is finished,” he said, “when the master feels it is finished.” Customers often resorted to bribery to receive their portraits on time. During this prosperous period, Rembrandt also painted Biblical and historical scenes in a Baroque style. These intricately detailed works were lit dramatically, with the figures reacting melodramatically. The year of The Nightwatch, 1642, marked a turning point in Rembrandt’s career (Montgomery 119). His dear loved wife died prematurely and he increasingly abandoned facile portraits with Baroque flourishes for a quieter, deeper style. In his mature phase, Rembrandt’s art became less physical, more psychological. He turned to Biblical subjects but treated them with more restraint. A palette of reds and browns came to dominate his paintings, as did solitary figures and a pervasive theme of loneliness. He pushed out the limits of chiaroscuro, using gradations of light and dark to convey mood, character, and emotion.

On the other hand, attention to studio realities marks the demise of European history painting as it had been. Painters withdrew from depicting significant, text-related actions (religious, mythological, and historical) taking place in a greater world. With the striking exception of Rubens, who might be described as an old believer, the imaginary theater of art that existed previous to this was over.

Rembrandt and Caravaggio instead try to bring the themes of history painting into studios that are not domestic. They deploy models in the studio to replace the dramatic figures of history painting. Late in his career, Rembrandt repeatedly represented people who sat to him in his studio in such a way as to suggest historical personages. Rembrandt attaches historical themes to portraiture, an essential studio genre. Caravaggio, by contrast, persists in depicting dramatic enactments, which, however, he stages with models in the studio. He signals this by a darkened interior and by the lighting, scale, and proximity to him of figures, in particular their flesh and accoutrements.

It is not surprising, then that some seventeenth-century art critics reacted adversely to the style of Caravaggio, who pioneered so aggressive a naturalism that his works were seen as vulgar, lacking in decorum, and somehow indecent in their realism. Caravaggio rejected graceful invention for its own sake, and instead sought to enhance the expressive content of his paintings by forcefully contrasting light and dark, by merging his subjects with their environment, and by generally sacrificing clarity and explicitness of form to pervasive, disturbing and disruptive emotions.

Among the many artists influenced by Caravaggio was the court painter, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), who not only produced intimate portraits of the Spanish royal family but also chronicled a sub-heroic world of vernacular experience, of humble subjects pursuing ordinary activities, in the ultra-realistic manner popularized by Caravaggio. Dutch painting in the seventeenth century experienced a golden age, partly as a result of the Italian influence exercised by Caravaggio and his followers. Among other Netherlands artists, Rembrandt adopted various features of the style: the magical dark brown and golden hues of many of his paintings, known as “tenebrism,” and his concern for naturalistic detail both stemmed from Caravaggio. Just as, in music, Monteverdi had made the irregular use of dissonance acceptable for expressive purposes, disturbing the smooth surface of the art of counterpoint with crude imperfections, so too did Rembrandt make ugliness acceptable in art by choosing models from among the most ordinary and coarse specimens of humanity and daring to show them as they were, even if marred by wars and wrinkles.

The colour in the two paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt is similar, in the sense that it largely consists of red and gold and is used for tonal enrichment in the medium range. But, unlike Caravaggio, Rembrandt set great store by drawing and print-making, and his mastery of tone can be seen even more clearly in that part of his work where even a limited range of colour is not a distraction.

Remembrandt was a seventeenth-century Dutch artist known for his highly original style of painting. He lived in Holland during the “Golden Age” (Raczka 23), when that nation was at the peak of its economic and cultural development. Among the era’s many gifted Dutch artists, including painters Frans Hals and Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt is probably the most well-known and, possibly, the most admired and celebrated. In seventeenth-century Europe, most countries had adopted a heavily ornamented style of art known as Baroque. In Holland, however, artists tended to prefer realistic representation. The world of art in this republican and Calvinist country differed from the rest of Europe in other ways too. Unlike artists in Italy and Spain, for example. Dutch painters did not typically have patrons, such as aristocrats or high-ranking church officials. They worked mainly for wealthy professionals and middle-class merchants. The exceptions, however, included Rembrandt, who received commissions from Prince Fredrick Henry of Orange.

In considering Rembrandt as a teacher, scholars in the past emphasized his influence on the works of presumed students and followers; today they are considering Rembrandt’s training of apprentices as assistants, and the emphasis is on the way art was made in his workshop. A new sort of concreteness, the setting and the habits of the workplace, is being introduced.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of drawing in the four-year program might seem surprising given the school’s emphasis on useful education, but in fact some type of drawing course was included in every semester: first and second-year students practiced writing and drawing, third and fourth year students learned perspective, mechanical drawing, and ornamental writing. The long-lived curriculum influenced generations of prominent future artists including Joesph Boggs Beale, Thomas Eakins, and William Trost Richards. All three men began their high school education in drawing by studying Rembrandt Peale’s Graphics.

Caravaggio’s art inspired Europe wide emulation. During his lifetime his work was imitated, by his friends and also, more tellingly, by his rivals. Within a decade of his death a pan-European following had mushroomed, a phenomenon scholars term “Caravaggism.”Launched in Rome, it spread to wherever his works were to be found. Caravaggio’s style was imitated by almost all Italian painters, and now it is also imitated in southern and northern Germany.

Yet critics across the century and beyond damned him as the man who came to destroy painting. Indeed, use of this epithet was spurred on chiefly by Caravaggio’s widespread influence on younger artists.

The difference between Rembrandt and Caravaggio was more than the fact that Caravaggio used harder key lights and higher contrast (necessary because his works hung in dark churches usually high above the alter) but also that Rembrandt used more glazing to add depth to his dark areas, allowing them to recede into darkness gradually.

            Certainly, the reminder underscores the contrast in temperament that, for all tradition has joined them as parallel object-lesson of the excesses to which unenlightened naturalism leads, sets Rembrandt and Caravaggio radically apart. Caravaggio voices the question of love in the angry tones of tortured ambivalence while Rembrandt sounds the gentler note of the quiet Christian charity with which Paul revises the picture of faithless and hopeless estrangement framed. Still, more significant than the contrast is what Rembrandt shares with Caravaggio.

            There may be hope for the future of art, imagine the impact artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt could have achieved their own lifetime if they had at their disposal that vast media machine that now seems to dominate our daily lives.

Works Cited

Dunford, Martin. “Amsterdam.” London: Rough Guides, 2003.

Montgomery, John. “The new wealth of cities:” city dynamics and the fifth wave.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007.

Niz, Xavier. “Rembrandt.” Capstone Press, 2006.

Raczka, Bob. “Where is the world.”? Around the Globe in 13 Works of Art. Millbrook

            Press, 2007.


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