Caravaggio's (1571-1610) distinctive qualities of clarity of design, intense light and a precise rendering of detail described in bright local colours are already apparent in his earliest works, principally of still-life subjects, painted after his arrival in Rome. His first public work there, the decoration of the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, caused the artist great problems in satisfying the commission given by Cardinal del Monte. The first altarpiece was rejected and the two canvases on the side walls had to be extensively repainted. It set a pattern of response that recurred in most of his religious commissions, which attracted much hostility and criticism largely on the grounds of decorum. At the same time the artist was the subject of much general comment and interest; and his rejected paintings were eagerly acquired by cardinals and noblemen.

Caravaggio's style consists of a rejection of idealization in favour of a seeming realism vividly depicted in contemporary costumes and settings. Solidly defined figures are represented with expressive and often violent gestures, in unusual and dramatically arresting groups composed within a shallow foreground space; his pictures are realized in a powerful chiaroscuro which emphasizes the three-dimensional form. His method of painting was regarded as revolutionary; instead of following the traditional procedure of working from drawings and sketches (no drawings by Caravaggio exist), he painted directly from the posed model on to the canvas, often making changes as he advanced. As a consequence, his works succeed in creating an immediate and sometimes startling effect on the beholder.

After fleeing from Rome in 1606, Caravaggio was constantly on the move, working briefly in Naples, Malta and Sicily. Despite his short life, and the fact that no artist was his pupil and few knew him personally, his impact throughout Europe, much of it at second hand, is one of the most remarkable features of 17th-century art. (The term 'Caravaggisti' is applied to painters - both Italians and artists from other countries - who imitated the style of Caravaggio in the early 17th century.) No artist understood or absorbed the totality of his conception, but each took the aspect of his art that personally appealed and for the most part re-created it in a watered-down manner. In Rome his influence was immediate; it is evident, for example, in Rubens' first religious commission painted immediately after his arrival in 1601. At first his effect was primarily felt in paintings of genre subjects of cardplayers, lute players and drinkers, and it was only in the second decade of the century that Caravaggesque painters started to receive commissions for religious works.

The most prominent of Italian Caravaggisti in Rome included Orazio Gentileschi, one of the few followers to have close personal contact with the master, Bartolomeo Manfredi, who popularized tavern and guard room scenes (subjects that Caravaggio himself had not painted), and Carlo Saraceni, who painted the replacement for Caravaggio's rejected Death of the Virgin. But the phenomenon had run its course by 1620 in Rome, when those influenced had either died or returned home. The latter, such as Simon Vouet, either reverted to a native style or continued to reflect something of the master's style, thereby creating new centres of influence.

In Italy, Naples remained the most lasting bastion of Caravaggio's influence; it was reflected in the work of both native artists such as Caracciolo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and foreigners such as Ribera, who followed the master's taste for violent subjects and strong chiaroscuro.

In Rome Caravaggism went out of favour in the 1620s, but it persisted elsewhere in Italy, and in other parts of Europe, particularly in Sicily (which Caravaggio visited), Utrecht and Lorraine, lingering into the 1650s in all three places.

In Utrecht an important centre perpetuating Caravaggio's achievement was established by artists, notably Dirck van Baburen, Hendrik Terbrugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst, who on their return from Rome retained the basic contrast of light and shadow; but they increasingly lightened the tone in their religious and genre pictures. Although none of them ever actually met Caravaggio (d. 1610), each had access to his paintings, knew his former patrons, and was influenced by the work of his follower Bartolomeo Manfredi, especially his half-length figural groups, which were boldly derived from Caravaggio and occasionally passed off as the deceased master's works.

Back in the Netherlands the "Caravaggisti" were eager to demonstrate what they had learned. Their subjects are frequently religious ones, but brothel scenes and pictures in sets, such as five works devoted to the senses, were popular with them also. The numerous candles, lanterns, and other sources of artificial light are characteristic and further underscore the indebtedness to Caravaggio.

Although Honthorst enjoyed the widest reputation at the time, painting at both the Dutch and English courts, Terbrugghen is generally regarded as the most talented and versatile of the group.

In Lorraine Georges de la Tour perfected perhaps the most personal and poetic interpretation of the style.

However, the most effectual and creative influence was felt in the work of those artists - Rembrandt and Velázquez - who probably gained their knowledge of Caravaggio's style at second hand from other followers rather than from direct contact with original works. Rembrandt, probably through his knowledge of paintings by Rubens as well as by the Utrecht School, eventually developed his own very personal chiaroscuro from his early absorption of the Caravaggesque lighting effects. Caravaggio may also be the source at one remove of Velázquez's early bodegons and religious pictures. Caravaggio had some passing influence on Guido Reni and Guercino.

Although by the middle of the 17th century Caravaggio's demonstrable influence had largely disappeared, he can be regarded as an ultimate source of inspiration for many artists of later generations.