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Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621.

Last November I got an amazing opportunity to see an exhibition of the artwork of Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio. The art world knows him as simply Caravaggio. He is often considered the father of the Baroque style and created some of the most celebrated masterpieces in his short life.

Ordinarily, for one to see the masterworks of Caravaggio, one must travel to the famed museums of Italy and France. But Fort Worth, Texas? I lucked out. I viewed it as a serendipitous chance to see one of my all-time favorite artists without having to travel across the globe. The list of “All-Time Favorite Artists” changes, depending on how I’m feeling when someone says, “Hey Bill, list your all-time favorite artists.” But usually Caravaggio is in my top two…sometimes three. This opportunity couldn’t be missed so I booked a flight and headed out to Fort Worth and the Kimbell Art Museum.

In order to avoid a lengthy entry, I’ll give a few highlights about the man:

• Born in Milan, Italy

• Lived only 39 years (1571 – 1610)

• Killed a man in a brawl and was constantly on the move to avoid arrest and his enemies

• Considered the father of the Baroque style.

• Famous for his use of high contrast lighting effects (known as chiaroscuro) and his realistic treatment of his subject matter, even when it was the convention of the time to portray the human figure in an idealistic manner. This is especially true when dealing with religious themes.

• Comparable to Michelangelo and Raphael with regard to his influence and affect on his contemporaries

• Influenced the works of Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Vermeer, Diego Velazquez and Bernini to name only a few

• Handled his success poorly. He would often spend the commissions he earned on mischief and debauchery that could span weeks.

• His death is surrounded with confusion and conjecture. Some scholars say he died of fever. Others say his cause of death is from the high levels of lead in the paint used at the time. Still others believe he may have finally fallen victim to an enemy.

For me, walking through the exhibit was awe-inspiring. To know I was standing at approximately the same distance the artist was when he was creating the painting was humbling. To be among those masters’ works was an emotional experience…and I’m not saying that to be dramatic. At one point, I was embarrassed to be caught wiping away a few tears by one of the security folks standing nearby. And, by the way, there wasn’t nearly enough posted security, in my opinion. I was just about arms-length distance from most of these paintings. What if I was some nut with a knife, here to trash these magnificent works because I had some screws loose? Catastrophic!

There are multiple reasons his artwork is so amazing to me:

• I love his chiaroscuro style. It brings huge drama to each piece.

• His expert modeling enables the figures to have such volume and realism. Simply gorgeous!

• He uses interesting composition. At times he will leave a space relatively empty, giving it visual weight. Other times he will create compositions that swirl, where objects and shadow lead the viewer’s eye around the whole of the painting.

• His paintings draw the viewer in, nearly as a participant in the action. Often his works have a shallow depth of field, where objects in the foreground are painted off the edges to give the illusion of being a short distance in front of the viewer. But the paintings from which the viewer definitely can’t escape are those where an individual in the painting is actually viewing the spectator! Genius!

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601

 There were about 26 Caravaggio paintings in the show. The rest were created by the followers of his art style, known as Caravaggisti, and other masters that were highly influenced by his work, totaling somewhere in the range of 50 pieces. Many of the artists, actually most, were unknown to me but I was extremely excited when I saw there was a Rubens!

I wish I could post photography taken from the exhibit, but unfortunately for me, photography of any kind was strictly prohibited. So I will have to rely on my memories of the show…everything I saw, everything I felt, and do my best to keep those amazing experiences fresh in my heart.