A young man, allegedly Bacchus, looks out at the viewer. He is dressed in a toga, with vine leaves in his hair, usually a tell-tale mark of the god of wine. He has a bunch of white grapes in his hand which, upon closer inspection, appear to be less than fresh and perhaps overly ripe, if not a little rotten. The black grapes and two peaches in front of him on the table seem more appealing, but he seems to prefer the bunch in his hand. He’s quite pale – in fact, the shoulder he shows the viewer “is not that of a bronzed Adonis, as convention required, but pale as in the case of any man who normally wears clothes.”1 He is muscular, though not ridiculously so.
The colors of the painting are muted, featuring neutrals like the yellowish-beige of his skin, the black of the grapes, the pale yellow of the peaches, and dull greens like the leaves in his hair and the grey-green of the slab table in front of him. A hint of color emerges from the sash tied around his waist, but it seems like a faded red – as though it had been washed many times. That hint of red is echoed in the leaves of the grapes on the table, while the yellow of the peaches is echoed in the leaves in his hair.
The textures appear realistic – the grapes in particular look like if you touched them, they would feel like grapes. The peaches seem less realistic; one does not feel that they would feel fuzzy. The same applies to the leaves; they don’t seem as realistic. The young man’s skin seems unnaturally smooth, the folds of his toga seem real enough. The way the light strikes his figure gives it realism and takes some of the unnaturalness out of the figure. The scale and proportions seem appropriate; they are not grotesque. Like the textures, they reach for realism. The picture appears to be well-balanced, and the contrast is good, too, though – typically of Caravaggio – there is perhaps just a touch more dark than light. The rhythm, so to speak, of the piece, seems – like the colors – to be muted. He appears jovial, but he also appears to be “a sickly young man who may be suffering from the after-effects of a hangover.”2
The artist, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, used himself as model. Allegedly, after the artist left Milan following the end of his apprenticeship3 and moved to Rome, he experienced a prolonged illness, with the painting being completed somewhere around 1593.4 Experts observe of the painting that “the yellowish skin tones and sclera have been attributed to jaundice secondary to malaria.”5 In short, Caravaggio painted himself while sick as the god Bacchus. Bacchus seemed to be a favorite object for Caravaggio, though the object of the painting seldom showed a glorious god. Like “Young Sick Bacchus,” often Caravaggio represented the Roman god as “a pudgy, half-naked boy draped in a bedsheet, who is identified as Bacchus by the vine leaves in his hair.”6
So, what does all this have to do with money? As noted, the painting was completed while the artist was sick – a prolonged illness, likely malaria. Undoubtedly, until he began to properly recover, the artist was unable to work. He was, therefore, likely unable to support himself. This painting is a representation of the financial toll that illness can take on an individual. Even in the modern era, a long-term illness – even if the individual has health insurance – can drain a bank account, especially as medical bills pile up. Furthermore, it is known that during Caravaggio’s first year in Rome, “he was desperately poor,”7 meaning that even before the illness prevented him from working, he was already struggling financially. This was undoubtedly worsened by the illness. It’s likely the painting represented his efforts to not only get back on his feet physical, as his recovered his health, but also efforts to get back on his feet financially, since he would likely find a buyer for the painting, which would put money in his pocket. And that is how the painting “Young Sick Bacchus” is related to money.