Characteristics of 17th Century Tenebrist Painting Technique.

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Crucifixion (1636-38)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
A great example of dramatic
tenebrism, b
y Alonso Cano.


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.

For more details about caravaggism in the south of Italy, where the religious movement known as Quietism was especially strong, see: Caravaggio in Naples (1607-10) and Painting in Naples (1600-1700). For more detail, see: Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56) and, for later developments, see: Neapolitan Baroque (c.1650-1700).

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.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt
The Night Watch (1642)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
See how Rembrandt uses light to
focus the viewer's attention and
create dramatic effect.

Colour in Painting
Oil Painting


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.

For another illusionistic painting technique, see: Foreshortening.

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 (1565–1628) 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)
Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-7) Prado Museum, Madrid.

Caravaggio (1571-1610)
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600) San Luigi dei Francesi.
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) Rome.
Death of the Virgin (1601-6) Louvre Museum, Paris.
The Entombment of Christ (1601-3) Vatican Museums, Rome.

Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656)
The Denial of Saint Peter (1620) Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.

Georges De La Tour (1593-1652)
St Joseph the Carpenter (1635-40) Louvre Museum, Paris.
Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (1640) Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Artemesia Gentileschi (1597-1651)
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
Saint Francis of Assisi (1650-60) Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

Velazquez (1599-1660)
Waterseller of Seville (1618-22) Apsley House, London
Christ Crucified (1632) Prado, Madrid.

Rembrandt, Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669)
Nicolaes Ruts (1631) Frick Collection, New York.
The Anatomy Lecture of Dr Nicolaes Tulip (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague.
The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Susanna and the Elders (1647) Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) Louvre Museum, Paris.
The Return of the Prodigal Son (1666-69) Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97)
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) National Gallery, London.
The Blacksmith's Shop (1771) Derby Art Gallery.

• For related terms, see: Painting Glossary.
• For more about chiaroscuro and tenebrism, see: Homepage.

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