Why is it that, nowadays, neither representational painters nor their admiring connoisseurs any longer characterize art of this mimetic persuasion as an “imitation of nature”? From ancient times until the dawn of the modern era, this was the traditional way of discussing what’s now called “realist” or “figurative” or “representational” painting, drawing and sculpture. Yet the very notion of describing a work of art as in any sense an “imitation” has now become invidious, for it carries an implication of something secondhand or merely imitative, and thus challenges cherished ideas of invention and originality.
The idea of art as “imitation” was already troubling to certain 19th-century masters, as may be seen in the following entry from the Journal of Eugène Delacroix. “As to the imitation of nature ,” he wrote in 1853, “that great point of departure for all the schools, the one on which they divide profoundly as soon as they interpret it; the whole question seems to come down to this: is the imitation made with a view to pleasing the imagination, or is it merely intended to satisfy a singular sort of conscience, one which permits self-content in the artist when he has made a copy, as exact as possible, of the model before his eyes?”
The question is worth pondering when visiting the exhibition called Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the myriad figures, objects and settings to be encountered in this dazzling survey, there’s hardly a button or a thread, a coiffeur or a bulging muscle or a display of drapery, that isn’t given its due-and sometimes, alas, more than its due-with a breathtaking feat of pictorial exactitude. At times, indeed, faced with the sheer abundance of such virtuosity in elevating “imitation” to an uncanny level of similitude, our eyes glaze over. Whether the subject is intimate or epic in scope, religious or secular in spirit, drawn from life or devoted to what Delacroix called “pleasing the imagination,” the quest for a semblance of unquestionable veracity in pictorial representation remains unabated.
This is not to say, however, that the respective legacies of Leonardo and Caravaggio are uniform, either in their interest or their quality. In the art of Leonardo, there’s a gravity, at once moral and scientific, that is not found in the art of Caravaggio; and in Caravaggio, there’s an insistent theatricality-even, at times, a vulgarity-that is not found in Leonardo. These differences can be seen as well in the work of their followers-though more subtly, perhaps, in the art of Leonardo’s disciples than in the paintings of the multitude of artists who took the histrionic flamboyance of caravaggismo as their standard.
Thus, in the beautiful series of drawings of Heads of Christ and the Apostles from “The Last Supper ” that are said to be ” After Leonardo da Vinci,” there is a delicacy and profundity of sentiment-and unfeigned piety, too-that’s as affecting as the work of the master.
With Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps , however, we descend from the realm of elevated piety to the imperfect world of earthly experience. As Keith Christiansen writes in his catalog entry for The Cardsharps : “Absent entirely is the sophisticated apparatus of Leonardesque painting, with gesture and expression used not only as narrative devices but also as a means of eloquently choreographing the action. What made Caravaggio’s treatment so influential-initiating a vogue that swept across Europe-was the novelty of the lowlife subject painted in a decisively naturalistic style …. The figures have the appearance of having been taken from the streets of Rome, posed individually, and painted from life.”
There wasn’t much about the lowlife of his time that Caravaggio didn’t experience firsthand, and it’s another aspect of his genius that he succeeded so brilliantly in making the subject not only acceptable, but a model for a great many other talents. Even today, as we can see in the Painters of Reality exhibition, he commands the lion’s share of attention wherever his work can be seen. He was flashy, impudent, even criminal at times-a rogue who became one of the saints of pictorial art. All that remains is for a great movie to be made of his life. It’s bound to be a smash hit.
Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Aug. 15.