Research point: Chiaroscuro (part 1)

What is chiaroscuro?

As defined in our workbook: The term chiaroscuro originated during the Renaissance when it referred to a technique of drawing on coloured paper by building light tones with gouache and working down to dark tones with ink. It later came to refer to modelling of light in painting, drawings and prints. The extreme contrast between dark and light areas allowed subtle gradations of tone to create illusions of volume, most notably of the human form. Chiaroscuro became a common compositional device in religious paintings such as those of Caravaggio.

Research point

Explore the works of  some of the artists whose work exemplifies chiaroscuro effects such as Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Rubens. Look also at the candlelit studies of some northern European artists, most especially Rembrand and Joseph Wright of Derby. (Remember that until recently, life was lived in pools of candlelight or firelight after the sun went down).

Note For this research point I’ve chosen to focus on looking at the paintings rather than delving deeply into biographical detail about the artists but I have included a brief biography for each for context.

Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1519-1594, Italian

(Edited biography, source BBC Your paintings)

Second only to Titian, Tintoretto was the greatest Venetian painter of the 16th Century. His real name was Jacopo Comin, also known in his youth as Jacopo Robusti. The name Tintoretto is from the Italian ‘tintore’, meaning ‘dyer’, his father’s occupation.

His works feature complex poses and dramatic gestures. Bold, energetic brushwork and exaggerated lighting add to the drama.

Tintoretto created religious paintings for Venice’s churches and the charitable institutions known as scuole. Many are still in their original Venetian settings, including such masterpieces as The Crucifixion and many other works in the Scuola di San Rocco, and The Last Supper in San Giorgio Maggiore. He also painted numerous portraits and mythological scenes, including Origin Of The Milky Way.


The Crucifixion, Jacopo Tintoretto. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. 1592-94

In The Crucifixion (above) the eye is initially drawn upwards to the figure of Christ shining with a kind of mystical light source, shaped like angels wings, against a dark, sombre background. The ground below, blazing with white light, creates pathways around the picture to the areas of action highlighted by the light, in the foreground and to the left and right. Later I find myself myself peering into the shadows. This is an a enormous painting, 518cm x 1,224 cm, with a great deal of complexity and many figures. The chiaroscuro technique provides  drama, holds the composition together and helps the viewer to navigate their way around this complex scene.

tinto-last supper

The Last Supper. Jacopo Tintoretto, 1592–94. San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice

In The Last Supper (above) light blazes from halos and a lantern above  casting light and shadow down the length of the table which dissects the picture plane diagonally. The eye is drawn along the table to the figure of Jesus marked out by the brightest halo. Ethereal angels hover in the light above, In the foreground the serving folk are mostly in the shadows but the light on the arms and shoulders of the woman kneeling seems to point them out to us so that they become more than secondary figures.


Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1560, Gallery: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

In The Lamentation (left) the chiaroscuro technique adds intense drama to this scene of the dead Christ and Virgin Mary. The use of light and shadow  gives shape and form to the body of Jesus. Light picks out arms and legs all over the place and gives us the impression  the figures are closely entwined, wrapped up in each other’s fate.


080310-101035 Tintoretto's 'The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple'

The Presentation of the Virgin, Jacopo Tintoretto, ca.1556

In the Presentation of the Virgin (left), the light  is used as a compositional device to lead us, following the outstretched arm of the virgin, up the ornately decorated, staircase of the temple. Onlookers in the shadows have their gaze staring in the same direction as ours towards the high priest at the top of staircase, awaiting the virgin.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610, Italian

(Edited biography, source BBC Your paintings)

Considered to be the greatest Italian painter of his time, Caravaggio had a huge influence on his contemporaries – not just in Italy, but throughout Western Europe. In addition to his artistic achievements, he is famous for his violent character. He was born in Milan, but he grew up in the nearby town of Caravaggio, from where he takes his name, and worked mainly in Rome.

In 1599 he received his first commission for public religious paintings, three scenes from the life of St Matthew, and from this time he concentrated on such works. Caravaggio’s work was powerfully original. He imagined the familiar religious stories in a completely fresh way, bringing them to life by depicting solid, realistic, earthy people rather than the traditional beautiful, remote figures. He increased their impact by using dramatic contrasts of light and shade. Many painters imitated Caravaggio’s style, but few matched him in grandeur or depth of feeling.


Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1601

In Supper at Emmaus (left) light appears to bounce off the supper table illuminating  the face of Christ and the two figures either side. The background shadows make the key figures stand out and feel intensely real. Oh, and I’ve just noticed Caravaggio’s famous basket of fruit teetering on the edge of the table!


Christ at the Column, Caravaggio, 1607, Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen


Christ at the Column – also known as The Flagellation of Christ (left). This has to be a fine example of body shape and form modelled through the use of light and shadow. The almost unbroken black background creates a real sense of drama, intensifying the light and giving the figures great impact.The light on the hand of the torturer (top right) suggests that he is holding a whip. The  light falling on the arm of the second torturer leads the eye to the ropes that he is using to bind the figure of Christ.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 to 1640, Flemish

(Edited biography, source BBC Your Paintings)

The most influential Baroque artist in Northern Europe, Rubens’ sensual paintings of full-bodied women gave rise to the term Rubenesque.

Rubens painted many extravagant portraits of European royalty. One critic called him a “prince of painters and painter of princes”. But he also painted violent, audience-gripping war paintings, which critiqued European politics. He pursued his political interests as a diplomat, working for the Spanish. In the late 1620s, he brokered a treaty between Spain and England. During this time he befriended the great Spanish artist, Diego Velazquez.

Rubens married twice. His first wife, Isabella Brant, was a frequent subject of his paintings. She had three children before she died. Rubens was 53 when he married his second wife, 16-year-old Helene Fourment. Together they had another five children. Helene was extremely beautiful and her buxom figure inspired many paintings including versions of The Judgement of Paris where she appears as Venus, Minerva and Juno.

His only surviving ceiling painting still in its original setting can be seen at the Banqueting House in London. It was one of the last things that King Charles I saw before he was executed outside the front door.

Rubens’ most important works include Massacre Of The Innocents, The Horrors Of War and Venus And Adonis.


Samson & Delilah, Peter Paul Rubens, 1609-10

While the chiarascuro in Samson and Delilah (left)  is more subtle than in some of the images I’ve selected, it is still very effective. Light shines on the milky white skin of Delilah creating contrast with the darker,muscular form of the sleeping Samson. A sliver of light from the candle held by the old woman picks out the hand holding the scissors.That must be the Philistines lurking in the shadows of the doorway waiting to pounce on the soon to be weakened Samson; a flash of light from the hand held torch draws our attention to them. This is aniInteresting composition with the canvas divided diagonally into light and dark. I note the statute of Venus with Cupid, a reference to the love that got Samson into so much trouble!


BBC Your paintings

The Louvre

The National Gallery


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