Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

1.3 Artists' ‘Lives’

Helen Langdon's subtitle ‘A Life’ points to a very particular combination of literary and artistic sources in her biography. Catherine M. Soussloff suggests that the literary genre of artists' ‘Lives’ has led to the artist and his work being ‘inextricably entwined’ in a way that does not happen in the ‘Lives’ of poets or prose writers (Soussloff, 1990, p. 154). Although she overstates the case, as recent biographies of novelists, musicians, etc. demonstrate, artworks can illustrate biography in ways that texts alone cannot; ways that make artists seem more present in their art

When biography and commentary appear conjoined for the first time in the vernacular, the ‘Life’ serves as an introduction to and a comment upon the study of the textual or formal concerns of the poetry.

The ‘Lives’ of artists differ in one very significant way from this model. The separation of the discussion of the writer and his works into two genres does not occur in the case of the visual artist. The non-textual nature of the work of art required this, and other traditional literary forms, such as ekphrasis [‘Ekphrasis’ is a way of writing about art to bring what it represents to life. You can find out more detail about this rhetorical method from classical antiquity to the Renaissance in the entry in the Grove Dictionary of Art online at http://www.groveart.com.], were inserted into the Vita in order to deal with the work of art. In the early literature on art there is no parallel or equivalent of the textual commentary. Vasari is explicit about the necessity for the conjunction of the artist's life and works of art in his Preface to the second part of his Lives, where he starts:

  • … I have striven not only to say what these craftsmen have done, but also, in treating of them, to distinguish the better from the good, and the best from the better and to note with no small diligence the methods, the feelings, the manners, the characteristics and the fantasies of the painters and sculptors; seeking with the greatest diligence in my power to make known, to those who do not know this for themselves, the causes and origins of the various manners and of that amelioration and that deterioration of the arts which have come to pass at diverse times and through diverse persons.

Thus the life of the visual artist serves as the locus for a commentary on the works and a history of a life and the vicissitudes of art. It can be said that the genres of commentary and ‘Life’ are truly conflated in the ‘Life’ of the visual artist. No doubt, this conflation has been responsible, in part, for the confusion regarding the ‘Lives’ of artists which is present today in the secondary literature of art history.

(Soussloff, 1990, p. 158)

The confusion to which Soussloff refers concerns the nature of artist's ‘Lives’ as source material for art history, that is, as an explanation either of the artist or his works. We will consider this in more detail later in this section.

As a form, the biographical structure confounds the artist and his or her works to the exclusion of other factors: the narrative of the artist's life becomes part of the meaning of the artworks; these artworks are evidence of artistic – and sometimes ‘divine’ – genius; primary documentary testament, pictures and anecdote serve to reconstruct the appearance and presence of the artist. With the artist's life and work conflated, external influences become secondary: ‘the author … appears as a coherent and distinct individual whose coherent and distinct work derives from individual experience and genius, free of environmental influences’ (Thomas, 2002, p. 264). The myth of the artist as hero is reinforced through certain conventions of artists' ‘Lives’ (Kris and Kurz, 1979, pp. 13–60 and Thomas, 2002, pp. 262–6). In Renaissance ‘Lives’ the divine nature of the artist's gift is often described not only in his active career as an artist but in his birth and death as well. Vasari, for example, credited the very best artists with stories that apparently explained their later success. In Giotto's ‘Life’, for example, Vasari tells the story of the artist as a boy, aged ten, leading some sheep to pasture. At each place they stopped to graze, Giotto drew the sheep on a rock, from nature. Cimabue passed by and, impressed by his skill, took him off to his studio. Leonardo was a child prodigy, in everything from maths to music. Michelangelo, the epitome of the artist as divine master, was born under the constellation of Mercury and Venus, said to augur his great genius. (Immanuel Kant explains the origin of genius in his Critique of Judgement (1790) ‘… the word genius is derived from [Latin] genius, [which means] the guardian and guiding spirit that each person is given as his own at birth, and to whose inspiration … original ideas are due’ (Kant, 1987, p. 175).) He was also named after the archangel Michael because both he and, by implication, anachronistically, his artworks were considered divine. Even in death the best artists were like the saints: Vasari records that Michelangelo's body was still perfect and did not stink even twenty-five days after his death (Soussloff, 1997, p. 36).

If Helen Langdon's book Caravaggio: A Life is, then, part of this tradition, it is about a lot more than a sixteenth-century artist's working life.

Activity 3

Read the entire book quickly, noting the way that significant events and works of art are used to build the structure of the book. Identify which are the most significant chapters. You may like to make a table like this in your own notes to help you record the main features of each chapter. For example,

1 ‘Milan’
2 ‘Rome 1592’
3 ‘Flowers and Fruit’
… and so on.
  1. In her book, how does Langdon combine Caravaggio's life with his work?

  2. Which features of the book remind you of the traditional structure of artists' ‘Lives’?

  3. Make a list of the disadvantages and advantages of Langdon's incorporation of Caravaggio's work and life in analysing works of art by him.

  4. To what extent do you think Langdon is concerned with Caravaggio's personality in her book?


  1. The book is organised chronologically and each chapter takes up particular themes. Thus works of art are included chronologically and also in terms of the particular themes of the chapters they crop up in. Some chapters do not mention works of art at all and when they are discussed their inclusion depends on their appropriateness to the theme.

  2. There are both general and specific points to be made here. In general terms, the contextualization of art works within their creator's life span is typical of ‘Life’ writing. This approach dictates very largely what can and cannot be included about the artwork. Descriptions of particular images can depend on where they are introduced in the life.

  3. Advantages

    Chronological narrative overrides every other factor – it is a very convenient way to structure a lot of information.

    Events and works occur in the text at the right time so that relativities can be established.


    The fact that chronological narrative overrides every other factor is as much a disadvantage as an advantage – artworks take their place within the biography. But if, for example, a new document proposes a different date for an artwork, then the whole biography must be reordered accordingly.

    Themes that might help explain artworks are not necessarily chronological.

    Often later works throw light on the earlier, but if artworks are dealt with in the chronological order of the artist's life then this connection cannot be made without disturbing the strict linearity of the biographical structure.

    Because of this structure the causality of events can be overemphasised – connections are made where they did not necessarily exist.

  4. Although Langdon relies on primary source material wherever possible – something that gives the book an air of objectivity – nevertheless value judgements of Caravaggio and his art creep in. For example, you may have noticed that in some cases descriptive words – such as ‘isolated’ (p. 118), ‘sardonic’ (p. 217), ‘ignobility’ (p. 357), ‘bleak and desolate’ (p. 373) – can be applied as much to the artist as to his art.


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