Caravaggism is a unique phenomenon, the man represented a disruptive force in an industry the saw an exponential rise in production due to the inspiration of his example. We can see the proliferation of chiaroscuro pictures, the export of new imagery to the four corners of Europe, and many of these have very little to do with the technique that was at the foundation of this artistic revolution. Much of this activity was indeed attributed to Caravaggio himself, in the form of blame, when the idea of choosing subjects from life came to be thought of as evidence of his being unable to be creative or to use imagery as a vehicle for narrative, a kind of carelessness that started with still-life, tavern scenes, lowlife and sordid scenes and went on to paintings of battles and other iconography that has little to do with his work itself. But the promotion that his dealers and friends undertook, when he was present and active, has hardly been addressed, still less the extent to which the replicas and copies had the impact of the inventions themselves. It had the force of advertising, and the promotion generated even more attention than the artist could have done by himself.
For most of modern interest has concentrated on the few originals themselves, and not so much on their impact in their own time. The Caravaggesque is a phenomenon that starts, it would seem, more in the second decade of the century, with the host of Northern artists to whom the idea of painting directly (without conventional preparation or even apprenticeship) from life coincided with a generation of patrons who were struck by the possibility of visualising stories from the Bible as if they had happened in front of them. They were also struck by the force of capturing impressions of surfaces and materials, both new and old, rather than inventing such effects from their imagination. The vagaries of Caravaggio’s existence did not always allow him to complete a task, and there some hints that another hand – likely Prospero’s – is behind some details, like the carafe of flowers in the Corsini Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, the comb and ointment jar in the Detroit Martha reproving Mary for her Vanity, the violin in the Metropolitan Musicians, even maybe features like the carpet in the National Gallery Supper at Emmaus [...]