The Musicians - Michangelo Merisi da Caravaggio - 1595
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Musicians (c. 1595) is a painting by the Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The picture shows four boys in quasi-Classical costume, three playing various musical instruments or singing, the fourth dressed as Cupid and reaching towards a bunch of grapes. The central figure with the lute has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti, and the individual next to him and facing the viewer has been recognised as a self-portrait of the artist.

This scene, however, is clearly secular rather than religious. The manuscripts show that the boys are practicing madrigals celebrating love, and the eyes of the lutanist, the principal figure, are moist with tears - presumably the songs are of the sorrow of love rather than its pleasures. The violin in the foreground suggests a fifth participant, implicitly including the viewer in the tableau.

In the painting there is a harmony of colors. All the colors in this work of art seem to blend flawlessly with one another. The whites and manilas blend in with the shade of peach of the boy’s faces. The brown color of the lyre and the violin capture each other’s beauty and bring a sort of harmonization to the painting. Also the one red sash around one of the musicians is the focal point of the entire painting and pulls the whole work of art together. Working with a limited light source, he shed the restraints of the typical views of art at the time. His models came off the streets - beggars, vagabonds, musicians, women. Caravaggio's style was also the expression of a sincere and humble faith. Depicting martyrs and saints in a bold, naturalistic fashion.

History of the Artwork:

Among the world's art mysteries, one of the most durable was the case of Caravaggio's missing Musicians. Seventeenth-century contemporaries glowingly described the masterpiece. But though modern experts looked high & low, they could find no record of the painting—much less the painting itself. Once in the early 1920s, an Italian thought he spotted it in the collection of Florence's Uffizi Palace; it turned out to be the work of an admirer. In May, 1952, Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art proudly announced that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's Musicians had turned up and been identified beyond a doubt. Furthermore, the museum had bought it and hung it on the wall for anybody to see: a masterly composition of four languid, toga-clad young men idling to lute music.

The first inkling that The Musicians was still in existence came in the mid '30s, when a north-of-England antique dealer named Joe Cookson spotted an interesting painting in a Cumberland country house. "It was very grimy," recalls Dealer Cookson, "and you could see that it had been painted over and over. The name 'Caravaggio' was on it, and the tag end of the 'Michelangelo da.''

But Cookson had never heard of the missing Musicians. He got the painting at a bargain when the owner died, then let it gather dust in his shop for ten years. After the war, he thrust it on an old customer, a retired British navy surgeon, Captain W. G. Thwaytes. "You can have it for £200," he told Thwaytes. The captain said he had never paid £200 for a picture. "Oh, go on," urged Cookson, "have it for £100 (about $400 at the time). I'm sure it's a genuine Caravaggio."

Thwaytes carted the old picture home but never bothered to have it examined. Last year a friend showed a snapshot of Captain Thwaytes's picture to an expert in London. The expert gasped, demanded to see the picture. Sure enough, despite flaking and repeated clumsy attempts at restoration, it was, as Dealer Cookson had said all along, a genuine Caravaggio. "Expert restoration established it as the long-lost Musicians. The Metropolitan Museum put in a prompt bid, got it from the delighted Captain Thwaytes for something more than $50,000.

Only one mystery remains: Where was the painting all those years before Dealer Cookson spotted it? The experts may never find out. The lone record of the family from which Cookson bought it is a 1933 inventory that reads: "No. 846—a musical party signed Helang da Caravaggio, 36 x 46 inches."

This was Caravaggio's most ambitious and complex composition to date, and the artist has evidently had difficulties with painting the four figures separately - they don't relate to each or to the picture-space, and the overall effect is somewhat clumsy. The painting is in poor condition, and the music in the manuscript has been badly damaged by past restorations, although a tenor and an alto part can be made out. Nevertheless, it remains one of the artist's most popular pieces.