Caravaggio is one of the most famous and controversial artists of all time. He was born in 1573, and many people today still use him as an example during discussions of whether or not people should celebrate the work of artists that have done unethical things. Caravaggio's violent life is as well-known as his work today. The visually dramatic style of his work quickly attracts attention, as does the emotionally dramatic nature of his life.
If the Baroque style of art can be traced to a single individual, that person would be Caravaggio. Caravaggio's painting style is unmistakable. He placed a lot of emphasis on the use of dramatic lighting in order to make his subjects stand out visually. Many of Caravaggio's paintings are very dark, both in terms of the subject matter and the amount of heavy shadowing. In many of his paintings, the figures seem to be half obscured by darkness.
At the same time, Caravaggio rendered the figures in his paintings with vivid color, making each of them come to life on every canvas. He was excellent at depicting facial expressions and the natural texture of people's faces. When many people feature classic paintings of religious scenes today, they often knowingly or unknowingly include Caravaggio's work, since it makes for such an eye-catching presentation.
Caravaggio's life provides many examples of the ways in which infamy can help or hurt an artist. His paintings on the life and times of St. Matthew were considered very controversial in his own time, since the notion of depicting religious figures in a realistic manner was still a new and unsettling idea. Religious figures were painted in a deliberately unnatural manner throughout the Middle Ages, emphasizing their lack of connection to the world. However, Caravaggio only became more famous in the wake of such controversy.
However, Caravaggio was by all accounts a man with a very violent and destructive temper. He had received a commission from a Cardinal at the tender age of twenty-four, but a lot of Caravaggio's early successes were undone by the fact that he was not an emotionally stable individual. He was sent to jail time and time again for committing acts of assault. Most horrifically, he killed someone over the results of a tennis game in an act of unbridled rage and aggression. At that point, Caravaggio had to leave the city altogether and was no longer able to maintain anything resembling a stable life.
Caravaggio was in hiding in Naples in 1607, and his main hope was the possibility of being pardoned by the Pope. Many of Caravaggio's famously dramatically lit paintings were created during this point in his life. He continued to paint even as he was more or less running for his life. Caravaggio continued to be both praised by the public and pursued by the law during this point in his life. Even being eventually pardoned by the Pope didn't save him, because he ended up being mistakenly imprisoned anyway. It was a mistake that would indirectly cost him his life, and he died in 1610.
Caravaggio's work is still celebrated today, and his crimes are still debated today. Throughout his own life, Caravaggio was both a brilliant artist and a seemingly uncontrollable criminal. It seems that both aspects of this enigmatic figure have been preserved, and history will continue to see him as a symbol of how complicated artists and our relationship to art can be, for better or for worse.