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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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 is coming 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'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.
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.
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.
Also, notice how the basket is protruding over the edge ever so slightly (you can tell by the cast shadow it's leaving on the table). This small but important detail makes it look as though the basket is extending out from the picture frame. Caravaggio did a similar thing in The Supper at Emmaus, with what appears to be the same still life arrangement as in Basket of Fruit.
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.
- 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.