Rembrandt and Caravaggio

That artists influence each other is of all centuries. The Romans were already copying the art of the Greeks, involving both imitation and assimilation of pictorial motifs. The same is actually true of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. The Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) seems to have influenced northern Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Caravaggio is best known for his treatment of light and dark - aka chiaroscuro (or chiaroscuro) mentioned. We can find this stylistic feature in Rembrandt to some extent. Should the similarities between the two painters be taken as imitation or inspiration?

In Rembrandt's early years as a painter, the so-called Leiden period (from 1625 to about 1631), his style transformed considerably. The painter tried to explore how the effect of light could be enhanced by using a bundled light source. By exaggerating the contrasts, he managed to create a spotlight effect that we can also find with Caravaggio. The only question is whether it is plausible that Rembrandt copied this technique from the Italian Caravaggio. 

Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson, 1636
Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, 1598-99

It is important to note that Rembrandt and Caravaggio never met. Also, Rembrandt never travelled to Italy where he could have possibly seen works by Caravaggio with his own eyes. Art-historical literature attributes a particular role to Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). This teacher of Rembrandt is said to have ensured that the Dutch painter was aware of Caravaggio's style. Lastman was in Rome between 1600 and 1606 at a time when Caravaggio was also there. Perhaps they even met... Some authors believe that Rembrandt's teacher borrowed specific motifs from the Italian master that can subsequently be seen in works by Rembrandt. In other words, through Lastman, Caravaggio would then have had (indirect) influence on Rembrandt.

Second, the Utrecht Caravaggists may have had a role to play. Utrecht had the seat of the highest Roman Catholic authority in the Northern Netherlands. As a result, the city had close ties with Rome. It is plausible that cross-pollination between the Netherlands and Italy also took place in the artistic field. The light-dark contrasts, for instance, are clearly visible in the works of Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), one of Utrecht's Caravaggists. Through this route, Rembrandt might have been inspired by Caravaggio's chiaroscuro effects. 

Hendrik ten Brugghen, Melancholia, 1627/28

Yet not everyone is convinced that Caravaggio influenced Rembrandt in the ways mentioned above. According to some, the Dutch painter saw Caravaggio merely as a source of inspiration. He borrowed pictorial motifs he knew indirectly through Lastman, but deployed them for his own purposes. This seems a logical assumption, because if we look closely at the works of the two painters, we see more differences than similarities. For instance, Rembrandt did not use direct lighting like Caravaggio. The latter tends to keep the background dark, causing the illuminated figures to detach from it. Rembrandt, on the other hand, is intrigued by the interplay created between the various depth layers in the picture space by means of light. The passages in Rembrandt's paintings often form a unified representation. In Caravaggio's work, this is absent. In short: is it imitation or inspiration? That Rembrandt was inspired by Caravaggio's chiaroscuro effect in his early period is obvious. By contrast, Rembrandt went his own way. Imitation is in the detail so inspiration seems a clearer line. 

This blog was written by art historian Emma Bulens.

Want to know more about Rembrandt or Caravaggio? Both artists are represented in our courses, such as the course Masterpieces or 8 Artists.