Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato
Summary of Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato
The grandeur of the Renaissance was mirrored by its equally lush style of artwork, out from which evolutions in drama and depth were innovatively conveyed. The era's artists accomplished this through new techniques centered upon the manipulation of light and dark, the father of which was chiaroscuro. Combining two Italian words - chiaro, "light" or "clear," and scuro, "dark" or "obscure," it became an artistic method using gradations of light and shadow to create convincing three-dimensional scenes where figures and objects appeared as solid forms. Leonardo da Vinci was a chiaroscuro master who subsequently pioneered sfumato. Meaning "to vanish like smoke," it was a method that involved applying layers of thin glazes to inform a foggy, almost ethereal effect. Caravaggio would play a leading role as well with his creation of tenebrism, another style that focused on the intense contrast between dark and light elements of a painting. It would become a defining stylistic feature of the Baroque period and, as a result, in contemporary usage often identifies the era. Many offshoots born of these techniques remain today for painters involved in that long lineage of artists interested in illuminating visual narratives out from the shadows.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The Renaissance period brought a shift in modern thought toward Humanism, a movement that emphasized modern man as the center of the universe. A "rebirth" occurred in the arts and sciences and artists were elevated to genius status, subsequently becoming innovators of techniques such as linear and three-point perspective, sculpture in the round, and chiaroscuro. These techniques would inform the heart of some of the biggest artistic developments to occur over the previous 1,500 years.
- Chiaroscuro, tenebrism, and sfumato were used by artists for different purposes: to create an air of mystery, private intimacy, psychological complexity, to evoke nightmarish realities, to produce haunting dramatic encounters, or to suggest the metaphorical battle of light and darkness playing out in a variety of contexts.
- Many artists and iconic works were inspired by chiaroscuro, tenebrism, and sfumato including da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503) and Venetian artist Tintoretto's Last Supper (1592-94). Some Mannerists, particularly the Spanish El Greco, adopted the style. Other Baroque artists who were also masters were Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco de Zurbaran, and Diego Velázquez.
- In the 20th century, photography and filmmaking also strove for chiaroscuro effects as genres such as film noir naturally became new mediums upon which to explore the age-old concepts of light and dark.
Overview of Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato
Caravaggio's handling of light made him legendary - a prime example for future generations of artists that empragnated their works with drama and meaning.
The Most Important Art in Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato
This woodcut shows the Greek philosopher Diogenes, a short stick in his right hand holding open the page of a book, as if marking a relevant text, with another open book in front of him. With his cloak swirling around him, conveying the sweeping energy of his thoughts, the figure is muscular and dynamic, torqued in contrapposto stance. On the right, a featherless rooster stands upon a ledge, its presence and extended legs evoking Plato's description of man as a featherless biped, which Diogenes replied to with, "Here is Plato's man" as he pointed to a plucked chicken.
A leading Cynic philosopher, Diogenes rejected all the pleasures and comforts of earthly life for a life of meditation. He was described as living in a wooden tub or barrel in a public square, reflected here in the setting, as the philosopher sits on a covered barrel and works with his "studio" around him.
Considered to be one of Ugo's masterworks, the print was made with a series of blocks in darker tones, in order to reproduce the rich tonality and three-dimensionality of Parmigianino's wash drawing. It's thought by some scholars that the two artists collaborated on this print. Ugo also collaborated with other leading artists, including Titian, and his prints were widely influential throughout Italy through the 17th century.
This painting depicts the Virgin Mary with her right arm extended to embrace the child John the Baptist, while her left hand hovers in a gesture of blessing toward the Christ child, seated next to the archangel Gabriel. An effect of intimacy is conveyed, as the four seem to engage with the gestures and expressions of a lively sacra conversazione. The Madonna's mediating presence unifies the four, emphasized by the pyramidal but the subtle tonal transitions and blended outlines.
Here, da Vinci masterfully employs his signature style, combining chiaroscuro with sfumato to create three-dimensional space and naturalistic volumetric figures, animated with life. Chiaroscuro lends depth and mystery to the shadowy grotto in the background and the misty white landscape that extends in the distance, while at the same time the figures are illuminated as if from within, their faces and hands softly radiant. Dispensing with traditional halos, the artist conveys their holiness by means of light, and embodies the setting with precise observation, as seen in the specific species of plants growing at the edge of the water, and with anatomical accuracy, as seen in the dimples in the Christ child's arms.
This painting was immediately considered a masterwork and made da Vinci famous. It became a model for his contemporaries and subsequent artists and influenced the adoption of chiaroscuro throughout Europe.
This painting dramatically depicts the moment when Christ, standing on the right, calls Matthew, then a tax collector, to become one of his disciples. In a contemporary tavern, five tax collectors, foppishly dressed and seated at a table, react to the summons, embodied in a ray of light that seems to stream from Christ's beckoning hand and which illuminates their faces, emphasizing their expressions. The tavern's deep shadows, dark walls, and shrouded window suggest the mundane gloominess of the material world, as the man at the end of the table slumps over his arms, perhaps having drunk too much, or morosely staring at the few coins he has collected scattered on the table before him. The scene is almost theatrical due to the compositional effect of the intense contrast of dark and light.
Scholars debate whether Matthew is the figure at the end of the table or the bearded man, who points to himself with wonderment. Arguing for the latter explanation, Caravaggio depicted Matthew as similarly bearded in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600) and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602), also painted for the Contarelli Chapel. His first important commission, these three works, employing tenebrism's intense contrast of dark and light to create a dramatic composition, made Caravaggio well-known and established him as the leading artist of the emerging Baroque period.
Useful Resources on Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato
- The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance ItalyBy Naoko Takahatake, Jonathan Bober, Linda Stiber Morenus, et al.
- The four canonical painting modes of the Renaissance: sfumato, unione, chiaroscuro, cangianteArtful Videos
- The Calling of St. Matthew (Caravaggio)Spencer's Painting of the Week. Caravaggio's baroque masterpiece...exemplifies the utility of his signature tenebrism technique as an embodiment of "divine" light.