The Caravaggisti (or the "Caravagesques") were stylistic followers of the 16th-century Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. His influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from Mannerism was profound. Caravaggio never established a workshop as most other painters did, and thus had no school to spread his techniques. Nor did he ever set out his underlying philosophical approach to art, the psychological realism which can only be deduced from his surviving work. But it can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt. Famous while he lived, Caravaggio himself was forgotten almost immediately after his death. Many of his paintings were reascribed to his followers, such as The Taking of Christ, which was attributed to Honthorst until 1990. It was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. In the 1920s Roberto Longhi once more placed him in the European tradition: "Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different". The influential Bernard Berenson stated: "With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence."
At the height of his popularity in Rome during the late 1590s and early 17th century, Caravaggio's dramatic new style influenced many of his peers in the Roman art world. The first Caravaggisti included Mario Minniti, Giovanni Baglione (although his Caravaggio phase was short-lived), Leonello Spada and Orazio Gentileschi. In the next generation there were Carlo Saraceni, Bartolomeo Manfredi and Orazio Borgianni. Gentileschi, despite being considerably older, was the only one of these artists to live much beyond 1620, and ended up as court painter to Charles I of England. His daughter Artemisia Gentileschi was also close to Caravaggio, and one of the most gifted of the movement. Yet in Rome and in Italy it was not Caravaggio, but the influence of Annibale Carracci, blending elements from the High Renaissance and Lombard realism, which ultimately triumphed.
In May 1606 after the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni, Caravaggio fled to Naples with a death sentence on his head. While there he completed several commissions, two major ones being the Madonna of the Rosary, and The Seven Works of Mercy. His work had a profound effect on the local artists and his brief stay in Naples produced a notable school of Neapolitan Caravaggisti, including Battistello Caracciolo, Bernardo Cavallino, Carlo Sellitto, Massimo Stanzione, and Francesco Guarino. The Caravaggisti movement there ended with a terrible outbreak of plague in 1656, but at the time Naples was a possession of Spain and the influence of Caravaggism had already spread there.
The Netherlands Institute for Art History lists 128 artists labelled "Caravaggisten".
In the early 17th century Catholic artists from the Netherlands travelled to Rome as students and were profoundly influenced by the work of Caravaggio. On their return to the north this group, known as the "Utrecht Caravaggisti", had a short-lived but influential flowering in the 1620s among painters like Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit van Honthorst, Andries Both and Dirck van Baburen. The brief flourishing of Utrecht Caravaggism ended around 1630, when major artists had either died, as in the case of Baburen and Terbrugghen, or had changed style, like Honthorst's shift to portraiture and history scenes informed by the Flemish tendencies popularized by Rubens and his followers. In the following generation the effects of Caravaggio, although attenuated, are to be seen in the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Gerrit Dou's "niche paintings".
Rubens was likely one of the first Flemish artists to be influenced by Caravaggio. During the period 1600-1608, Rubens resided in Italy. He settled in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga but also spent time in Rome. During his stay in Rome in 1601 he became acquainted with Caravaggio’s work. He later made a copy of Caravagio's Entombment of Christ and recommended his patron, the Duke of Mantua, to purchase The Death of the Virgin (Louvre). Rubens was after his return to Antwerp instrumental in the acquisition of The Madonna of the Rosary (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) for the St. Paul's Church in Antwerp. During his stay in Italy Rubens broadened his interest in Caravaggio’s work to include the 1606 Supper at Emmaus in Milan (Pinacoteca di Brera) and the 1600 The Calling of St Matthew as well as the more recent work in the Santa Maria in Vallicella and the Basilica of Sant'Agostino. Although some of this interest in Caravaggio is reflected in his drawings during his Italian residence, it was only after his return to Antwerp in 1608 that his works show openly Caravaggesque traits such as in the Cain slaying Abel (1608-1609) (Courtauld Institute of Art). However, the influence of Caravaggio on Rubens’ work would be less important than that of Raphael, Correggio, Barocci and the Venetians.
Rubens' contemporary Abraham Janssens was another Flemish painter who travelled to Italy (from 1597 to 1602) where he became acquainted with the work of Caravaggio. His work after his return to Antwerp shows the influence of Caravaggio. The composition Scaldis and Antwerpia of 1609 derives its expressive power from the use of strong contrasts of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) as was pioneered by Caravaggio.
It is mainly the Flemish artists from the generation after Rubens coming on the art scene in the 1620s who were most influenced by Caravaggio. It can even be said that there was a Caravaggist craze in Flanders from about 1620 to 1640. The artists are often referred to as the Ghent Caravaggisti and the Antwerp Caravaggisti after the city in which they were principally active. There is, however, no discernible stylistic distinction between these two movements other than individual ones. Among the Ghent Caravaggisti can be listed Jan Janssens, Melchior de la Mars and Antoon van den Heuvel. The list of Antwerp Caravaggisti is significantly longer reflecting the importance of this city as the pre-eminent artistic centre of Flanders. They include Theodoor Rombouts, Gerard Seghers, Jan Cossiers, Adam de Coster and Jacques de l'Ange.
What most of these artists shared in common is that they likely visited Italy where they had first-hand contact with the work of Caravaggio or his Italian and Dutch followers. The influence of Caravaggio and his followers on their work can be seen in the use of dramatic light effects and expressive gestures as well as the new subject matter such as card sharps, fortune tellers, the denial of St Peter, etc. Some of the artists focused on certain aspects of Caravaggio's oeuvre. For instance, Adam de Coster was referred to as the Pictor Noctium (painter of the nights) because of his preference for the use of stark chiaroscuro and the repeated motif of half-length figures illuminated by a candle which is covered.
Many of these artists such as Rombouts, Cossiers and Seghers later abandoned their strict adherence to the Caravaggist style and subject matter and struck out in different directions often under the influence of the older generation of Flemish artists who had such a dominant influence on Flemish art in the 17th century, i.e. Rubens and van Dyck.
One of the first French artists to studio in Rome during the Caravaggio Years was Jean LeClerc, who studied under Saraceni during the early 17th century. Simon Vouet spent an extensive period of time in Italy, from 1613 to 1627. His patrons included the Barberini family, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Paolo Giordano Orsini and Vincenzo Giustiniani. He also visited other parts of Italy: Venice; Bologna, (where the Carracci family had their academy); Genoa, (where from 1620 to 1622, he worked for the Doria princes); and Naples. He absorbed what he saw and distilled it in his painting: Caravaggio's dramatic lighting; Italian Mannerism; Paolo Veronese's color and di sotto in su or foreshortened perspective; and the art of Carracci, Guercino, Lanfranco and Guido Reni. Vouet's success in Rome led to his election as president of the Accademia di San Luca in 1624. Despite his success in Rome, Vouet returned to France in 1627. Vouet's new style was distinctly Italian, importing the Italian Baroque style into France. Other French artists enamored by the new style included Valentin de Boulogne, who was living in Rome by 1620, and studied under Vouet and later Boulognes pupil Nicolas Tournier.
Georges de La Tour is assumed to have travelled either to Italy or the Netherlands early in his career. His paintings reflect the influence of Caravaggio, but this probably reached him through the Dutch Caravaggisti and other Northern (French and Dutch) contemporaries. In particular, La Tour is often compared to the Dutchman Hendrick Terbrugghen.
Francisco Ribalta became among the first followers in Spain of the tenebrist style. It is unclear if he directly visited either Rome or Naples, where Caravaggio's style had many adherents, although through its Naples connection Spain was probably already exposed to Caravaggisim by the early 17th century. His son Juan Ribalta, Vicente Castelló and Jusepe de Ribera are said to have been his pupils, although it is entirely possible that Ribera acquired his tenebrism when he moved to Italy. The style garnered a number of adherents in Spain, and was to influence the Baroque or Golden Age Spanish painters, especially Zurbarán, Velázquez and Murillo. Even the art of still life in Spain, the bodegón was often painted in a similar stark and austere style.