Young Sick Bacchus  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Young Sick Bacchus, dated between 1593-1594, is an early self-portrait by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. It is also called Self-portrait as Bacchus and Bacchino Malato. According to Caravaggio's first biographer, Giovanni Baglione, it was a cabinet piece painted by using a mirror with grapes and some peaches.

The painting dates from Caravaggio's first years in Rome following his arrival from his native Milan in mid-1592. Sources for this period are confused and probably inaccurate, but they agree that at one point the artist fell extremely ill and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione. He is said to have done several paintings in thanks to the prior of the hospital for saving his life, but none survive. This work, however, unquestionably dates from the same time. It was later among the many works making up the collection of Giuseppe Cesari, one of Caravaggio's early employers, seized by the art-collector Cardinal-Nephew Scipione Borghese in 1607 together with the Boy Peeling Fruit and Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

Apart from its autobiographical content, this early painting was likely used by Caravaggio to market himself, demonstrating his virtuosity in painting genres such as still-life and portraits and hinting at the ability to paint the classical figures of antiquity. The three-quarters angle of the face was among those preferred for late renaissance portraiture, but what is striking is the grimace and tilt of the head, and the very real sense of suffering.

The still-life can be compared with that contained in slightly later works such as the Boy With a Basket of Fruit - where the fruit are much better condition, reflecting no doubt Caravaggio's improved condition, both physical and mental, after this, one of the lowest periods in his life - and the Boy Bitten by a Lizard. The painting shows the influence of his teacher, the Bergamasque Simone Peterzano, in the tensed musculature, and of the austere Lombard school in the attention to realistic detail, but the cold light bathing and isolating the subject against a dark background, and the psychological atmosphere this created, was Caravaggio's own.

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