LACMA’s Caravaggio for Kids: Dirty Toenails and All

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About the Exhibition:
You could say the Italian painter Caravaggio was the rock star of early 17th century European painting — both in terms of his artistic influence and his personality. He was rebellious, difficult, and given to violent outbursts. And like many troubled but gifted artists, he died young. LACMA’s Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy chronicles the extraordinary artistic legacy of Caravaggio (closing February 10, 2013).

The exhibition includes 8 Caravaggio paintings on display for the first time in California, plus 50 paintings by other artists of his time who adopted Caravaggio’s style of painting. The exhibition presents an exceptional opportunity to introduce children to Caravaggio. But with so many works on display, I wondered where to start.

Caravaggio with Kids:
So I asked Charlotte Eyerman of FRAME, one of the exhibition’s organizers and the mother of an 11 yr old, for some Caravaggio tips for kids.  She suggested two paintings at the very beginning of the exhibition including Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (below). Start with St. John’s toes, she said. Children can discover a lot about Caravaggio by looking closely at just a few details.

And that’s exactly what we did when my sons (ages 8 yrs and 10 yrs) and I went to LACMA last weekend.  Standing in front of St. John’s image, we marveled at how realistic his grimy toenails looked commenting, “you can almost smell how dirty they are.” This kind of realism was actually quite revolutionary at the time. Before Caravaggio hit the scene, most artistic renderings portrayed images of ideal beauty.

Then we noticed another striking element of Caravaggio’s style, the painting’s dramatic lighting. Strong contrasts between light and dark make the toes, and St. John’s figure, almost pop off the canvas. Sort of like a 3-D effect, I told my kids, but without the glasses.

In the second painting Eyerman suggested, Caravaggio’s “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” we explored the darkness of the dimly lit landscape. I don’t know much about St. Francis, I admitted. But I do know that he is the patron saint of animals, so we searched for animals in the painting.

Image Caption Below

We didn’t find any, but my kids discovered something even more captivating, a mysterious hooded figure in the shadows behind St. Francis’ robe. Later, my youngest son told me this exciting discovery was his favorite part of the show.

But for me, the magic was in Caravaggio’s gift for conveying powerful emotions in his painting’s subjects. As we studied their facial expressions, and looked into their eyes, we could feel what was going on, even though we knew very little about the actual stories. By the end of our visit my family agreed, Caravaggio (and the artists who followed in his footsteps) mastered not only the art of painting, but also the art of great storytelling. And what child doesn’t love a good story.

More Things to See:
A close look at the two paintings above may be enough for your children (especially little ones). But if your kids are up for more, there are lots of other amazing paintings to see in the exhibition. Parents take note, however, that a few paintings in the exhibition contain images which may not be appropriate for young children (i.e., a few nude figures and a beheaded Saint John, but not in the first and last galleries I mention here).

1. A Tale of Two Toothpullers: In the last gallery, two paintings depicting the agony and spectacle of Old World toothpulling practices grabbed our attention, one by Caravaggio, and a later one by the Atelier of Theodoor Rombouts. My 10 yr old son really got into exploring how the paintings are similar, but also very different (and all the gory details).

2. The 2000 Sculpture: Both kids loved Walter De Maria’s enormous The 2000 Sculpture located in the Resnick Pavilion outside the Caravaggio exhibition. We walked around the sculpture and noticed how different it looked from every angle. Then we took a close look at a few of the sculpture’s many polygonal shaped rods (2000 in total, hence the title). See if your children can figure out if all the rods are exactly the same shape and color.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, circa 1604-1605, oil on canvas, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, William Rockhill Nelson Trust.  Photo courtesy of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, by Jamison Miller.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasycirca 1595-1596, oil on canvas, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, photo © 2012 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Walter De Maria, The 2000 Sculpture, 1992, Collection of Walter A. Bechtler-Siftung, Switzerland.



One Response

  1. Richard Townsend

    January 24, 2013 1:46 pm

    Rowanne, really enjoyed your Caravaggio article, as seen from the viewpoint of a smaller viewer! I especially like that you use your own kids as guinea pigs! Keep up the good work, Richard Townsend, aka Culture Spectator


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