2006 marks the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, so you’re likely to hear a lot about him this year, from me and others. As part of Holland’s celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th, two of the major museums in Amsterdam, the Rijksmusem and the Van Gogh Museum are having a fascinating exhibit (at the latter space) celebrating and comparing the work of home-boy Rembrandt with bad-boy Caravaggio in what promises to the the chiaroscuro smack-down of the ages.
The Rembrandt – Caravaggio exhibit (which also has its own site here), will compare the work of the two great painters by hanging their paintings side by side, giving visitors the chance to compare their technique, subject matter and emotional impact.
Rembrandt and Caravaggio (actually Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio, Italy) were the two greatest masters of the Baroque period, and two of the greatest painters ever. Both were revolutionary in their way, both reached heights of success and depths of personal tragedy, both painted scenes of violence (usually biblical) as well as calmer subjects, and both developed their own powerful style and acquired painting skills in the rarified heights of supreme virtuosity.
Rembrandt was influenced by Caravaggio; he learned of the other master through Dutch artists like Honthorst and Van Baburen who traveled to Italy and carried the Italian master’s influence in their own work. It’s unlikely the influence traveled in the other direction.
Both painters were masters of chiaroscuro, the use of dramatic contrasts of light and shadow to describe form. (Chiaroscuro is Italian for “lightdark”.) You can see the technique, as well as some of the power, drama and superb skill of both painters in the images I’ve posted above: Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Since we can’t all go to Amasterdam for the exhibit (sigh), here are some links to resources and galleries for the two artists on the web so we can do our own smack-down. Unfortunately, there’s nothing for Caravaggio like Jonathan Janson’s amazing site devoted to Rembrandt: life , paintings, etchings, drawings and self protraits. (See my post about this site and Rembrandt’s drawings.) The other major web galleries are represented in my list for both artists:
On canvas, my money would be on Rembrandt, if only because I feel a more human connection to his work than to the turbulent emotions of Caravaggio. In the ring, however, smart money would be on Caravaggio, who had a history of violent conflicts, arrests and imprisonments for assaults, and killed a man in a dispute over a game of court tennis. (He spent a couple of years on the run, during which time he did some of his finest work, and was eventually pardoned by the Pope.)
In either case we come out the winners. It’s hard to overstate the importance and influence of these two heavyweights of painting virtuosity and artistic vision.