A Closer Look at Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Caravaggio

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Let’s take a closer look at Michelangelo Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit. A delicate still life by an intense and controversial artist.

It’s amazing to think Caravaggio painted this centuries ago, without the technology and state-of-the-art brushes, paints, and tools we have today. Just shows that today’s advantages are helpful but not necessary for the creation of beautiful art; you can go a long way with basic supplies, lots of practice, and perhaps a touch of good fortune.

I’ll cover:

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1596-1601
Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1596-1601

The Subject

The painting depicts the humble still life. Caravaggio took a realistic, gritty approach, showing wilted leaves, sagging grapes, and even signs of infestation (see the wormhole on the apple). Perhaps this is symbolic of life’s imperfections. Or perhaps Caravaggio just painted what he saw. We can only speculate.

Regarding the types of fruit, there’s some interesting discussion in this article: Caravaggio’s Fruit: A Mirror on Baroque Horticulture (found via Wikipedia). Here’s an extract:

The uppermost fruit is a good-sized, light-red peach attached to a stem with wormholes in the leaf resembling damage by oriental fruit moth (Orthosia hibisci). Beneath it is a single bicolored apple, shown from a stem perspective with two insect entry holes, probably codling moth, one of which shows secondary rot at the edge; one blushed yellow pear with insect predations resembling damage by leaf roller (Archips argyospita); four figs, two white and two purple-the purple ones dead ripe and splitting along the sides, plus a large fig leaf with a prominent fungal scorch lesion resembling anthracnose (Glomerella cingulata); and a single unblemished quince with a leafy spur showing fungal spots. There are four clusters of grapes, black, red, golden, and white; the red cluster on the right shows several mummied fruit, while the two clusters on the left each show an overripe berry. There are two grape leaves, one severely desiccated and shriveled while the other contains spots and evidence of an egg mass. In the right part of the basket are two green figs and a ripe black one is nestled in the rear on the left. On the sides of the basket are two disembodied shoots: to the right is a grape shoot with two leaves, both showing severe insect predations resembling grasshopper feeding; to the left is a floating spur of quince or pear.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Detail 1)

Caravaggio only painted one other pure still life, being Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (below). But in this case, he took a romantic approach, showing a smorgasbord of luscious, ripe fruit with no signs of imperfection.

Caravaggio, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, 1601
Caravaggio, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, 1601

Light and Color

Caravaggio was one of the first artists to explore the dramatic effects of light and shadow (known as chiaroscuro). When I think of his work, I see figures bathed in a powerful light against a stygian black background. The Calling of Saint Matthew (below) is one example. Basket of Fruit is different. It seems to be the only Caravaggio painting with such a light background. The contrast between light and shadow is also much more restrained; though it still plays an essential role in the painting.

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1600
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1600

Here’s a two-value notan of the painting I created using Photoshop. This is what the painting looks like after stripping away all the colors, details, and other intricacies. What’s left is the most abstract design of light and dark. And what a beautiful design it is!

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Posterize)

The main light source appears to be overhead and to the left. You can tell by the positioning of the highlights and shadows. (It’s always a good exercise to consider where the main light source comes from in a master painting.)

The highlights are small but powerful, as they should be. They play an important role in:

  • Setting the light end of the painting’s value range (highlights tend to be the lightest light);
  • Reiterating the forms (highlights convey information about where forms are positioned in relation to the light);
  • Giving a sense of identity to individual grapes (without highlights, the grape clusters would look like one large mass).

There’s a subtle transition between light and shadow (refer to the grayscale image below). This is what gives the painting such a realistic finish. But be careful when painting with this level of rendering, as it can compromise the integrity of your lights and darks (if the transition between your lights and darks is so subtle, it can be difficult to tell where the light stops and where the shadows begin).

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Grayscale)

Caravaggio’s use of color plays into the idea of aging fruit. Rich yellows, reds, and greens depict ripeness, whilst drab browns depict the wilting leaves and sagging fruit. There’s also a feeling of warmth about the painting, which suggests warm interior lighting.

Repetition and Pattern

Basket of Fruit is a beautiful display of repetition and pattern (refer to the image below). Notice the circular fruit, the natural leaf patterns, the leaf clusters, and the woven basket. This is very pleasing on the eye as it creates a sense of sequence throughout the painting.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Draw Over)

Perspective

Still lifes are typically painted from a downward-looking perspective. Which makes sense as that’s how we naturally encounter most still life arrangements-on tables or shelves around the house, usually below eye level. Caravaggio took a different approach with Basket of Fruit, painting from a “flat” perspective with his eyes lining up with the bottom of the basket.

It’s challenging to capture the illusion of depth and form from this perspective. Imagine for a moment the basket is nothing but a basic cylinder form. From this perspective, we are unable to see the top or bottom planes, and the curved edges look more like straight lines. The cylinder looks more like a flat rectangle than a three-dimensional form. The image below shows what I mean.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Perspective)

At the bottom of the painting, we can see just a hint of the surface holding the basket. Again, only the side plane is visible. Without the context of the basket, it would look like a flat, rectangular shape.

Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601
Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601

The Background and Its Role in Simplification

The background is nothing more than a broken wash of color (refer to the close-up below). Yet, it appears realistic-a reminder that realistic does not necessarily mean complex.

From a composition standpoint, the background plays the all-important role of simplification, giving our eyes a place to rest from Caravaggio’s intricate detail work on the basket of fruit.

Cracks are starting to show (the painting is centuries old after all), but this seems to add to the idea of an old, weathered wall. As I once heard about great architecture, great art only seems to get better with time.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, c.1599 (Detail 2)

Key Takeaways

  • Today’s technology and state-of-the-art brushes, paints, and tools are by no means necessary for the creation of beautiful art.
  • Like great architecture, great art seems to get better with time.
  • If you want to paint everything with intricate detail, try to incorporate simplification at the composition level, as Caravaggio did with the background.
  • Highlights are small, but reveal an incredible amount of information about the subject (or reveal glaring mistakes). Get them right and don’t overdo them.
  • If you paint a subject from a “flat” perspective, you need to rely more on other methods for capturing depth and form, such as the rendering of light and shadow.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

79 comments on “A Closer Look at Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Caravaggio”

    • Very interesting! I know very little about art except that I like some paintings better than others. I started drawing with a #2 pencil in October 2019 due to having some medical issues which inhibited my mobility. I started out with pumpkins, ghosts and witches with my grandchildren. I watched videos and practiced until my hand and arm hurt. I did see some improvement. I the middle of March I attempted my first watercolor , an all green shamrock. It was sad. I kept going and have not stopped following different artists on Youtube. I focus on flowers and trees but have tried a little of everything. Have been doing easy seascapes. Painting water is a challenge! I am competing with my own progress, month to month and so see some improvement. It has been good therapy for me, especially confined with the virus. I so bring a background of nursing and being a biology teacher over my adult life and find that it helps me to know some of what goes on “behind the scenes” in nature. Again, I really enjoyed your impressions of these classic paintings. I did now understand what you were saying and greatly appreciate that these artists worked without youtube!

      Reply
  1. I just learned so much just reading your analysis of Basket of Fruit. Thank you! Very insightful and thoughtful writing.
    Cherilyn

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  2. Lovely tour of the painting, Thank you, Don. Also thank you for teaching such details to look far in appreciating paintings by great masters and learn from them. keep up the good work of being a friendly guide in art appreciation.

    Reply
  3. I have always believed that Caravaggio’s inclusion of the rotten and the imperfect fruit was an important metaphor for his life, that was troubled and at times extremely poverty stricken. The influence of the Catholic church as his major benefactor also plays into this, as Caravaggio, whilst accepting the monetary instalments for his religious works, did not respect the Vatican and thought of the entire institution as rotten.

    Reply
  4. Find your emails informative and inspiring, thank you. Your discussions have made me aware of what a painting actually can portray…

    Reply
  5. An interesting description of your way of observing this painting. To ‘erase’ color and just keep the left over black and white as the basic “bone” of a complex stillife adds a new way of simplifying the observation. It was a nice prescription of your way of looking.

    Reply
  6. Thanks again Dan. Learning some of the basics is a good start but finding it a little bit at a time keeps my sketches refreshed even if I can’t bring it right out to my canvas the first time.
    Look forward to some more of your insights.

    Reply
  7. They say “paint what you see.” But the finer details are often so elusive as I found out in looking back at my early paintings. Art is a journey. Thanks, Dan.

    Reply
  8. Dan for being in a slump these past few months, I’d say this is an excellent affirmation of the passion and knowledge you house within. I loved your side bars about the Horticultural and finding the same basket in the dinner scene. I also very much liked reading your way of observing the whole “organic” process of studying the master. Keep sharing your incites and breakdowns if you don’t mind. Thanks

    Reply
  9. Thanks, Dan! Really great analysis. I live in Italy, love Caravaggio. I hope you get to see his paintings in person, they are amazing. Thanks for including him in your series.

    Reply
  10. Dan, I love these lessons. Since I never studied art history they bring the awesomeness to the forefront. Where are these masterpieces hanging?

    Reply
  11. Thank you for a detailed analysis shared with us. It makes the viewing experience much richer. Also you formulated valuable lessons for artists. Great job! Look forward to your new art reviews.

    Reply
  12. Your description of the artwork presented is, as always, informative and interesting. It gives readers like myself, so much more knowledge and strategies for appreciating fine art. These are lessons in Art History that we can savor, mull over, and enjoy. The comments you receive also give information in regards to the painter and the time he/she was living and painting. Thank you so much for the time, effort, and interest you take in researching the artists you choose, sharing this information with us, and providing a breakdown of important skills they used in their paintings. Great stuff!

    Reply
  13. This article was brilliant and elaborate sir. I learned a lot from it. Thank you so much. Looking forward to your future emails.

    Reply
  14. Thank you for enlightening us with such great details about this painting. Looking at the basket of fruits from an untrained eye, at first glance I failed to see the imperfections in the fruits, thanks to your well trained perception and as well as explanations we are benefiting from it. Really appreciate your post Dan.

    Reply
  15. Very interesting. I learned to look at the various options in the artwork. I will try to see more in paintings now. Thank you for all the in depth info.

    Reply
  16. Wonderful explanation and details of the beautiful painting. Lots to learn and hopefully remember.
    Thank you for your time, you are a great teacher.

    Reply
  17. Thank you so much for sharing your deep understanding Of painting.you improve my skills and the way I look at paintings.
    You enrich and develop your readers
    Thank you so much
    Varda

    Reply
  18. The painting is aptly named as you can see Matthew, far left, speaking on his cell-phone. Though l am surprised that they has such phones in Biblical times! (HA-HA!)

    Reply
  19. Thoroughly enjoyed the analysis, I learned a lot from reading it. The basket painting is truly beautiful, it took my breath away. I could look at it for hours.

    Reply
  20. Thank you so much. Enjoyed looking. Very impressive. Very beautiful and will leave a lasting impression on my mind and eyes. So much to see and appreciate.

    Reply
  21. You too are a great artist! I had seen these pictures but did not notice all the facts you have presented.
    Thank a lot for your inspiring presentations. I am happy to be your disciple. I hope many will enjoy your insights. You have enlighten all of us. Again, a million thanks! – ( Lucas Myint)

    Reply
  22. You give such insightful tips that is so very helpful. Thank you so much . I really look forward to all your mails , worth every bit.

    Reply
  23. You give such insightful tips that is so very helpful. Thank you so much . I really look forward to all your mails , worth every bit. You truly is a great experienced artist and teacher. So glad to know you.

    Reply
  24. Loving these free analysis of art masterpieces modern and classic.
    Your blog appeared out of nowhere while I was looking up 🤔 Photoshop Brushes?
    Glad it did…
    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  25. Very insightful and informative . Never read an artist’s view and analysis before about a painting . Really enjoying it. Thank you

    Reply
  26. I am still in the copying stage in my art. With being shut in, I have resorted to Paint by Number. First I paint as shown. Then I redraw picture without the numbered areas and attempt to repaint from the photo. Slow going

    Reply

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