Caravaggio was the original bad boy of art. A notorious brawler, he was frequently hauled before the courts and his life was regularly threatened by his enemies. After killing a man, supposedly over a wager on a tennis match, he fled Rome and spent the rest of his short life on the move. He died of fever on a beach in Tuscany aged just 38.
To fully appreciate the impact of Caravaggio's art, it is useful to view it alongside his immediate predecessors. Artists such as Michaelangelo, Titian, Veronese and Raphael were famous for their sumptuous use of light and colour, creating works rich in detail and often on a grand scale. So we see work like this...
And then this appears...
...and suddenly painting looks all grown up. It's like having your sweet fairy-dress-wearing little girl appear in the doorway one day wearing black leather and a nose-ring.
Caravaggio's work brought a new level of realism to art, depicting his subjects with dirty feet, bulging veins and wrinkled faces. This outraged some at the time who believed it was sacrilegious to portray holy figures with such human imperfections. The naturalism of his subjects' poses add intimacy and immediacy to the works, creating the sense of stumbling upon an actual event with real people, rather than a carefully contrived scene. And of course the most striking aspect of his work is the stark contrast of light and dark (chiaroscuro for bonus smarty-pants points), which was much admired and imitated by many artists that followed him.
Caravaggio's work is also notable for its heightened sense of drama, and even violence - not surprising given his personality.
He was an absolute master at capturing vivid emotions in his subject's expressions. See the contrast below between Holofernes' shock, Judith's disgust, and her maid's avid, almost blood-thirsty determination.
And yet he could also create gentle, even serene pieces.
Caravaggio influenced a generation of painters who became known as the Caravaggisti. Among them was a female artist, then rare, called Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi was raped by her painting tutor and, unusually for the time, had pursued a court case against her attacker. So perhaps it is not surprising that Gentileschi made several paintings depicting Judith slaying her rapist, Holofernes. These powerful images just might represent the first feminist artworks.