Is it Chiaroscuro or is it Tenebrism?

Years ago, early on in my love-affair with art, while I was still in my teens, I read a definition of tenebrism that I interpreted to mean it was just another word for chiaroscuro.

“Tenebroso (pl. tenebristi) — Name given to 17th-century artists in Naples, the Netherlands and Spain who painted in a low key, and emphasized light-shade contrasts in imitation of Caravaggio.” Encyclopedia of the Arts, Thames and Hudson, 1966

That definition is not wrong — but it is incomplete.

Tenebrism is a word surprisingly seldom used in discussions of Caravaggio and other 17th-century painters. When it is, it is typically subsumed into, or thought to simply be another word for, chiaroscuro. But it actually has a distinct characteristic that defines it.

I first came across the word years ago when I was reading about the Spanish Baroque painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682). Tenebrism locked into my thinking as the word used to describe the chiarocuro technique, specifically in discussions about Spanish art .

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window, c. 1655–1660.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

I’ve just learned what it actually is …

From the Italian tenebroso — meaning dark, gloomy, mysterious — tenebrism describes a compositional technique in which some areas of the painting are kept completely black, allowing other areas to be strongly illuminated, usually from a single source of light. There is no modelling involved, no attempt to include forms in the darkness which is a dominating feature of the image.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1610.
Oil on canvas, 49 in × 40 in. Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

The technique was developed to add dramatic impact to an image through a spotlight effect. Without the distraction of background features, the eye is concentrated on the focal essence of the image.

Sometimes referred to as “night pictures” painted in the “dark manner,” tenebrism is most often seen in Mannerist and Baroque works, including many by Caravaggio and Murillo, as well as other tenebristi in Naples, the Netherlands and Spain.

Rachel Ruysch  (1664–1750), Basket of Flowers, 1711. Oil on canvas 18.1” x 24.4″
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Chiaroscuro describes the distinct, but less extreme, contrast of light and shade, using shadow to create the illusion of three-dimensional form. Rather than a pure tenebrist blackness, chiaroscuro darkness holds some degree of light, making objects or figures detectible in the shadows, introducing the illusion of volume and depth to the composition.

Young Woman with a Glass of Wine, Holding a Letter in her Hand, c. 1665
Gerrit ter Borch (1617−1681). Finnish National Gallery
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, 1599–1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

Are we dancing on the head of a pin? Some would say so, I’m sure. But considering the distinction between tenebrism and chiaroscuro can be one more perceptual tool as you look at a painting, to interpret its composition, and perhaps to infer the artist’s intent.

Feature image: Jusepe de Ribera (Játiva/Valencia 1591 – 1652 Naples), St Paul the Hermit, c. 1647, oil on canvas, 130 x 103.5 cm., Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

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