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Why 'Boy With a Basket of Fruit' is much more than a boy with a basket of fruit

Why 'Boy With a Basket of Fruit' is much more than a boy with a basket of fruit
Getty curator Davide Gasparotto talks through "Boy With a Basket of Fruit," explaining why Caravaggio's painting broke the rules for 16th-century painting. (Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo — Galleria Borghese / J. Paul Getty Trust)

A hurried passerby might look at “Boy With a Basket of Fruit” and think the simple title says it all. But Davide Gasparotto looks at the painting, and he sees more. He sees revolution.

Gasparotto is senior curator of painting at the Getty Museum, where “Boy With a Basket of Fruit” is one of three remarkable Caravaggio paintings on loan from the Villa Borghese in Rome. The Times asked Gasparotto to play tour guide, narrating a journey across one canvas painted around 1593-94.

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“Boy With a Basket of Fruit,” on view through Feb. 18, was created during an early, particularly bohemian phase of Caravaggio’s life, Gasparotto said. Caravaggio had moved from Milan to Rome, taking shelter with a priest whom he dubbed Monsignor Salad because of the limited menu served in the home. Caravaggio needed to make paintings for the open market, not by commission, and “Boy With a Basket of Fruit” proved an early indicator of his subversive skill.

Caravaggi's "Boy With a Basket of Fruit," about 1593-94. Oil on canvas.
Caravaggi's "Boy With a Basket of Fruit," about 1593-94. Oil on canvas. (Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo — Galleria Borghese / J. Paul Getty Trust)

For starters, Gasparotto said, note the extraordinary way the basket and its contents are rendered in still life. The apples, the figs, the speckled pear — they’re all painted with near-photographic precision, the realistic detail also expressed in the brown-edged, bug-bitten leaves spilling from the bounty.

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The basket looks extraordinarily real and vivid, “but at the same time the painting is very artificial. It’s a totally staged scene,” Gasparotto said, noting the boy’s gaze toward the painter as well as his mouth. “The open mouth suggests he’s talking. That also was new — the suggestion of a little motion.”

Which brings us to yet another way Caravaggio rebelled against tradition: “Boy With a Basket of Fruit” is a still life, but it’s also a portrait.

The hierarchy of genres was important at the time. History paintings were deemed the most important, with landscape, portraiture and other genres occupying lower rungs on the painting ladder. Still lifes were at the bottom.

Caravaggio defied those boundaries, mixing portraiture and still life and history (with allusions to mythology in the fruit). He gave equal weight to the basket and to the boy, a painter friend named Mario Minniti who was 16 at the time.

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“Caravaggio used to say that still life required as much artistry as painting figures,” Gasparotto said. “Boy With Basket of Fruit” proved him right, rejecting tradition and giving a young painter his place in the history of Renaissance art.

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