Chiarascuo (part 2) Candlelit studies

Look also at the candlelit studies of some northern European artists, most especially Rembrandt and Joseph Wright of Derby. (Remember that until recently, life was lived in pools of candlelight or firelight after the sun went down).

Candlelit studies are exactly that, paintings lit by candlelight so that they feature contrasting areas of intense light and deep shade. The result is much the same as that achieved with chiaroscuro techniques and can bring  drama and depth to a painting.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, Dutch


Self portrait, 1659, Rembrandt. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

When I think of Rembrandt I immediately think of self portraits having researched them in Drawing 1. Rembrandt painted around 80 self portraits spanning 40 years of his life.  In this 1659 self portrait Rembrandt’s face emerges from the gloom of the background pulling  the details of his face, wrinkles and all, into well lit, sharp focus.





Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume 1635, National Gallery

Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612 – 1642), the daughter of a burgomaster of Leeuwarden in Friesland, married Rembrandt in 1634  Of their four children, only Titus was alive at the time of her death in 1642.

Rembrandt painted this portrait of Saskia as Flora, The Roman goddess of spring,  in the year after their wedding. As in this guise Saskia represents a fertility goddess Rembrandt has focused the most intense light on the pregnant body. I’m not really sure if this is a candlelit study as such but it certainly demonstrates chiaroscuro and ‘shines a little light’ on Rembrandt’s personal life.

Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 -1797

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 National Gallery, London,


Some of Wright’s candlelit paintings are deliberately disturbing and An experiment on  Bird in the Air Pump is this is one of them. A scientist is demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, which will die if the experiment continues.

The scene has plenty of drama with a range of different human responses. The children are horrified, and being comforted by a father figure, the young lovers are lost in each other and the remaining figures appear fascinated by the experiment. The figures are lit by a single candle, and in the window the moon shines. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.



Dressing the Kitten by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768–1797, English Heritage, Kenwood House

At first glance this looks like a chocolate box painting but look closer and it becomes much more menacing. The girls are playing with what the tail suggests is a male kitten. They are  dressing it up the poor creature and using it for their own pleasure. This is an act which may be likened to their future relationships with men. There is possible sexual innuendo in the ruffled skirts of the doll. Light  from a single candle shines on the kitten and the girls’ faces. The intense light and shade creates drama. Looking at the placement of the candle, I wonder if the little madams aren’t about burn the poor kitten alive?

BBC Your paintings

The National Gallery


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