Monday, December 13, 2010

Brugghen and Caravaggio- A brief Comparison

A research on Caravaggio and Caravaggism brought me to this painting by him. It is called the Calling of St.Mathew.    

Calling of St Mathew, Caravaggio, 1599-1600, Rome

This is a typical Caravaggio with strong chiaroscuro and dramatic gestures. Not to mention non-idealized figures. And my search for Caravaggism also brought up another  Calling painting.

Calling of St Mathew, Brugghen,, 1621, Utrecht

At the first glance of course, I thought this was another one of his painting, slightly altered for another patron. Wrong. This one was done by an Utrecht painter called Hendrik ter Brugghen (1588-1629)! He is one of the first Dutch followers of Caravaggio. It is known that he spent some time in Italy, but art historians are not sure whether he actually met Caravaggio. Not that it matters much. His sojourn in Rome must have given him ample chance to look at the master’s paintings and also that of his many followers.

Whenever I think of Dutch painters of that era, soft subdued paintings by Vermeer come to mind. We don’t really associate Dutch paintings with strong chiaroscuro and flamboyance like that of Caravaggio. Brugghen of course painted popular subject matters like the one below- including musical scenes and houses of ill reputes. Even though the subject matter here is typically Dutch, the treatment still remains very Caravaggesuqe! Strong single source of light and rich darks being the hallmark of Caravaggism.

The Concert, Brugghen,1626

  In both  Calling of St. Mathew and The Concert, one thing that distinguishes Brugghen from Caravaggio is the composition. He paints massive forms very close to the picture plane against mostly light background. His dramatic cropping gives the pictures more intimacy. While Caravaggio's paintings are awe inspiring and intense, Brugghen’s paintings are dramatic but more accessible.

If we look at both the Calling paintings, we see that Brugghen has toggled Caravaggio's composition! But he did retain the other painter's repoussoir, which is pushing back of the figures inside the picture plane to create space (it is my opinion that Caravaggio creates space more effectively than Brugghen). Brugghen  also used  Caravaggio’s penchant for putting figures in profile. But Brugghen’s painting is not just a plagiarism of Caravaggio’s work. His modeling of form is more subtle, with amazing handling of light and shadow which is heightened by his handling of highlights! The fabrics are modeled delicately with bluish gray undertone. The cropped figures close to the picture plane makes the viewer a part of the painting, whereas Caravaggio’s painting is almost theatrical with viewer standing off the stage.  In other word's Caravaggio's painting is more cinematic.

Even though Brugghen is a close follower of Caravaggio, I think trained eyes will be able to differentiate the paintings For the less initiated the difference would seem very minimal. To me the most important distinction between these two is their modeling of form. The starkness of Caravaggio and the subtle modeling of Brugghen is something that differentiates these two. And it seems to me that Caravaggio’s palette is dominated by ochre whereas Brugghen’s is dominated by cooler colors like lavender gray. But then again, I am looking at reproductions! I hope someday, I will be able to stand in front of these paintings and can give a more authentic account!



  1. How do you imagine either of these artists' techniques will affect your own creation of mixed media paintings? I'm curious.

  2. Joan, I love Caravaggio! I have loved him even when I did not know anything about painting....Drama is what draws me the Caravaggism.... I think that is something I might incorporate more!