Caravaggio’s Genre Paintings
In common use, the word “genre” is synonymous with category or type. But when related to art, a genre painting is one dealing with everyday scenes of life, interiors, or recreation. For a long time these types of works were looked down upon. It was thought that art should show religious scenes or classical mythology showing life lessons.
Caravaggio came along at a time where this was changing. Artists in northern Europe, and some in Italy, were beginning to paint smaller pictures, commissioned by individuals, rather than churches. Early in Caravaggio’s career, before he was the most sought after painter in Rome, he painted many of these genre works.
His first known painting, Boy Peeling Fruit, from 1593, already shows what will become his distinctive style. It is a simple composition showing an adolescent boy holding a knife and peeling a pear. In front of him are other fruits; plums, more pears, and nectarines. Caravaggio had just arrived in Rome and was working in a workshop for another artist, but this would have been done for him to sell on his own. Like many of his paintings, this image was repeated by Caravaggio in another painting.
During that same year, Caravaggio painted the more ambitious Boy with a Basket of Fruit. Like the Boy Peeling Fruit it shows a young man with dark hair and wearing a white shirt. Also in both, the figure is clean, well kept, and healthy. However, in Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit there is much more detail. Caravaggio shows his talent and ability to capture nature with the fruit basket. There are recognizable fruits that are still studied by botanists today. His depiction of the leaves is so accurate that scholars can use them to determine the time of the year that it was painted. Even the fungus that is on the leaf is identifiable to modern scientists. The boy’s white shirt hangs off his shoulders, showing his muscular frame. In doing so, Caravaggio shows that he can paint human anatomy and folds in drapery – an especially complex task that artists use to prove their talent.
In 1594 Caravaggio painted two of his most well-known genre scenes; The Fortune Teller and Cardsharps. Both of these go beyond simple compositions to show his ability, rather they are moral lessons aimed to represent warnings about deceit and trickery. Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller shows a young man, smartly dressed and carrying a sword, standing with a gypsy. While getting his palm read, he looks at the girl’s face with an aura of smugness. He is, however, unaware that she is slyly taking his ring off his finger without him knowing. Caravaggio’s Cardsharps shows a similarly seedy scene. In it, two young men are playing cards, albeit on different playing fields. One of the figures, dressed in dark colors, is unaware that he is being taken by a system of cheating. Behind him an older man peeks down and sees the boy’s cards, signaling to the other boy. The boy closest to the viewer shows us that he has a second set of cards behind his back ready to be switched in order to win the hand. Both of these paintings warn the viewer of the dangers of modern life and participating in the activities of the underground.
The following five years of Caravaggio’s career are spent painting similar subjects of boys with fruit, flowers, moral lessons, musicians, and the beginnings of his religious scenes. Even in these early pictures his style is clearly evident. His models were real people, not copies of classical sculptures. Caravaggio’s compositions were becoming more complex, but they already had his dramatic use of light and shadows and showed the detail he would become famous for. By 1600 Caravaggio is painting exclusively religious scenes showing biblical stories or figures, but using lessons and methods he developed in the earlier genre paintings.
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