Definition & Characteristics
In fine art, the word "tenebrism" (from the Italian word "tenebroso" meaning dark) describes a style of painting characterized by deep shadows and a distinct contrast between light and dark areas. In essence, it is a compositional technique (often confused with chiaroscuro) in which some areas of the painting are kept completely black, allowing one or more areas to be strongly illuminated - usually from a single source of light. These pictures are sometimes referred to as "night pictures" painted in the "dark manner." Tenebrism is most often used in connection with works created during the Mannerism and Baroque eras, notably by Caravaggio (1571-1610), as well as other tenebristi in Naples, the Netherlands and Spain.
Such was Caravaggio's influence, that his artistic methods spawned a whole group of imitators (Caravaggisti) and a European-wide movement (Caravaggism). However, there is more to Caravaggio's art than its manipulation of light and shadow, thus the term tenebrism is not synonymous with caravaggism.
What's Difference Between Tenebrism and Chiaroscuro?
At first glance, there may be a rather close similarity between the two painting techniques of tenebrism and chiaroscuro. Both involve the use of contrasting areas of light and dark. However, there is a clear difference. Tenebrism is used exclusively for dramatic effect - it is also known as "dramatic illumination". It allows the painter to spotlight a face, a figure or group of figures, while the contrasting dark areas of the painting are sometimes left totally black. In contradistinction, chiaroscuro involves the use of smaller amounts of shadow to increase the three-dimensionality of a subject. For example, in his painting Samson and Delilah (1609-1610, National Gallery, London) the Flemish artist Rubens employs chiaroscuro to highlight the muscular nature of Samson's body and the voluptuous curves of Delilah's chest. Chiaroscuro is commonly employed to enhance the modelling of human figures, not to focus the viewer's attention or blacken whole areas of the canvas for dramatic effect. Thus it is not uncommon for both tenebrism and chiaroscuro to be used in the same canvas.
Other Famous Tenebrists
Appearing during the Catholic Counter-Reformation which deliberately used art to promote Catholic orthodoxy, Tenebrism rapidly became a feature of Spanish Baroque art, being employed first by Francisco Ribalta (15651628) and after by painters like Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), while it was also employed by the Italian Baroque painter Artemesia Gentileschi (1597-1651), and the German-born Rome-based painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), whose nocturnal pictures occupied a kind of middle-ground between pure tenebrism and pure chiaroscuro. As it was, tenebrism reached new heights in the hands of Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) of the Dutch Baroque school, as well as Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666) of the Italian Baroque. Georges De La Tour (1593-1652) was the greatest exemplar of French tenebrism, of which the Le Nain brothers were also accomplished exponents; while Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) was the greatest master of tenebrism in England.
Famous Tenebrist Artists & Paintings
Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)
Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656)
Georges De La Tour (1593-1652)
Artemesia Gentileschi (1597-1651)
Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
Rembrandt, Harmensz van Rijn
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97)