Art Institute of Chicago exhibit gives a rare, up-close glimpse of 2 Caravaggio works

Because of his tumultuous, Netflix-ready life story and the groundbreaking nature of his art, Caravaggio is one of those marquee names in art history like Rembrandt, Monet or Picasso.

SHARE Art Institute of Chicago exhibit gives a rare, up-close glimpse of 2 Caravaggio works
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Cardsharps, about 1595.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “The Cardsharps,” ca. 1595 is now part of an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Art museums like to offer exhibitions of different size and scope. At one end of the spectrum are blockbusters, attention-grabbing shows with dozens of works that shake up the understanding of an artist or movement or put forward some novel thematic treatment.

At the other, are focused, jewel-box presentations. Instead of trying to make any big art-historical statements, these intimate offerings take away any distractions and allow viewers to really zero in on just a handful of selections.

Containing just five paintings, “Among Friends and Rivals: Caravaggio in Rome,” which runs through Dec. 31 at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a smart, visually arresting example of the latter.

Caravaggio review

REVIEW: ‘Among Friends and Rivals: Caravaggio in Rome’

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

Admission: Free, with regular museum admission

Info: artic.edu


The museum is marketing this tiny show as though it were a blockbuster, and it’s not hard to understand why. Because of his tumultuous, Netflix-ready life story and the groundbreaking nature of his art, Caravaggio is one of those marquee names in art history like Rembrandt, Monet or Picasso.

Adding to the allure of the late 16th- and early-17th-century Italian painter is the rarity of his extant paintings. There are just 50 to 80 works in the world, a number that varies according to which attributions one trusts, and only seven are owned by museums in the United States.

None, though, are in the Art Institute’s collection. “Among Friends and Rivals,” organized by Rebecca Long, curator, painting and sculpture of Europe, gives visitors the unusual and welcome chance to see two loaned examples of Caravaggio’s paintings. Alongside are three paintings from the Art Institute by contemporaries who were working in Rome at the same time and were influenced by him.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” ca. 1598. The painting is one of two featured in a special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” ca. 1598. The painting is one of two featured in a special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of the Kresge Foundation and Mrs. Edsel B. Ford.

After studies under the Milanese painter, Simone Peterzano, Caravaggio (his full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) moved in 1592 to Rome, first serving as an assistant to Giuseppe Cesari and then striking out on his own and making a name for himself with religious commissions and other works.

But with his hot temper and penchant for violence, Caravaggio made a mess of his personal life. Facing the possibility of a death sentence, he had to flee Rome in 1606 after killing a young man with whom he had previously brawled. He moved from place to place in his last years, dying under disputed circumstances in 1610 when he was just 38.

During his lifetime, Caravaggio ushered in a captivating brand of painting that brought together psychological intensity, naturalistic use of live models and a heightened kind of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism — a dramatic use of light and shadow.

One of the artist’s earliest masterpieces was “The Cardsharps” (ca. 1595), which is on loan for this exhibit from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It depicts a hapless aristocratic youth who doesn’t realize he is being bamboozled at cards. The other player is cheating by having cards tucked behind his back in his waistband and by taking signals from a second crook who is standing behind the youth. A major part of the painting’s appeal is that the viewer becomes a kind of participant by reading the clues and figuring out what is happening in this little scene.

The second Caravaggio canvas, “Martha and Mary Magdalene” (ca. 1598), on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows the dramatic New Testament conversion of Martha’s sister, Mary Magdalene. A strong light, suggesting God’s grace, is reflected in a convex mirror next to Mary.

Caravaggio created such a sensation with his new painting style that he inspired a group of followers who became known as the “Caravaggisti.” Three are represented in this show: Francesco Buoneri, Bartolomeo Manfredi and Giovanni Baglione, who went on to become a rival.

While these works form a compelling self-contained offering, the grouping is really a show within a show. It is displayed along one wall of Gallery 211, which is typically devoted to a portion of the museum’s old-master collection from roughly the same period.

Jusepe de Ribera, “Penitent Saint Peter,” 1628–1632, Oil on canvas.

Jusepe de Ribera, “Penitent Saint Peter,” 1628–1632, Oil on canvas.

Mrs. Goldabelle Macomb Finn Fund, with additional support from friends of the European Painting Department

Many if not most of the 15 surrounding Spanish and Italian paintings that normally hang in that space also show Caravaggio’s influence and are obviously intended to be seen as an extension of “Among Friends and Rivals.”

The artist’s impact on baroque painting went beyond the borders of Italy, directly or indirectly touching artists like Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera. He arrived in Rome in 1612 and fell under Caravaggio’s sway, as his painting “Penitent St. Peter” (1628/32) makes clear with its bold light falling from heaven and deep emotion.

Experiencing the two borrowed Caravaggio works is a thrill in itself, but their insertion into this gallery also brings heightened attention to the Art Institute’s stellar collection of related works and allows visitors to see these old friends in new, fresh ways.

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