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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Tooth Puller by Caravaggio is a striking depiction of a scene, the brutality of which will shock the observer.

His paintings were controversial and full of drama but would influence many future artists across the continent.

This 194.5 cm by 139.5cm canvas illustrates the dramatic lighting style employed by Caravaggio to help emphasise the struggles within the painting.

This was an oil painting technique called Chiaroscuro that used the contrasts between light and dark to suggest the volume of the form which enhanced the drama of the depicted scene.

Born Michelangelo Merisi in around 1571, Caravaggio lived a tempestuous life often mirrored by his paintings such as the Tooth Puller. The clever use of lighting covering not only the dentist and patient but the closely watching observers too, including a child, captures both the physical and emotional state of the scene.

From the intensity of the practitioner, the desperate pain of the patient and the sheer lurid fascination of the onlookers, the Tooth Puller brings to life a medieval practise unimaginable to most now.

The Tooth Puller was possibly painted towards the end of Caravaggio's short life. He died in 1610 having recently spent time in Malta and Sicily before returning to Naples.

The background to the painting is up for debate with one theory being that it may have been painted for the Maltese Knight's hospital. He had been inducted as a knight while living on the island, though his time here was to be short lived as he had to escape after being imprisoned, possibly after a brawl with a fellow Knight.

In 1523 Lucas Van Leyden produced a print known as The Dentist or tooth puller, also illustrating the brutal nature of this procedure at the time.

It is a print Caravaggio may well have been familiar with and his painting shows the same crude techniques and implements, but adds a whole new level of feeling and life to the depiction with his use of colour aided by light and dark shading.

The Tooth Puller was likely to have come to Florence by 1620 and can now be seen in all its unsettling glory at the city's Pitti Palace. It influenced artists of the time such as Gerrit Van Honthorst, and still provides an unnerving yet powerful look back in time.