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Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato Collage

Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato - History and Concepts

Started: 1480
Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato Timeline


Apollodoros and Skiagraphia

Trends leading to the development of chiaroscuro began in classical Greece where the artist Apollodoros was dubbed Apollodoros Skiagraphos, or "shadow painter." This was due to his invention of skiagraphia, or "shadow-painting," a technique that used cross hatching and gradations of tone. Unfortunately, as is the case with most classical Greek painting, his work has not survived, but the technique was widely adopted in Athens. Surviving in a more rudimentary form throughout the Byzantine era, skiagraphia was further developed by the use of incidendo and martizando, described by art historian Janis C. Bell as, "layerings of white, brown, or black in linear patterns over a uniform color," in the late Middle Ages in Europe. The technique was often employed in illuminated manuscripts.

The Renaissance

In Masaccio's <i>The Tribute Money</i> (1420), the light focuses on the central figure of Christ, surrounded by his disciples.

Emphasizing the revival of classic antiquity, Renaissance artists rediscovered and developed techniques that made it possible to create naturalistic but idealized figures inhabiting a convincing three-dimensional space. Masaccio's The Tribute Money (1420) was an early example of employing chiaroscuro to create volumetric figures, illuminated by a single light source outside the pictorial plane. However, it remained for Leonardo da Vinci to fully develop the technique, as seen in his Adoration of the Magi (1481) and The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86). His figures and portraits, which seemed fluid and alive with light and shadow, influenced subsequent artists and also informed the subsequent development of the chiaroscuro woodcut. Artists in the Northern European Renaissance also adopted the technique, particularly for religious art, in part due to the influence of the 14th century Saint Bridget of Sweden. Her famous vision of the Nativity of Jesus described the Christ Child, resting on the ground, his body emitting light, while a blonde Virgin Mary, attended by Joseph, knelt to pray to Him. The vision became the model for the popular subject, also called the Adoration of the Child.

Baroque Art

Caravaggio's <i>David with the Head of Goliath</i> (1610) includes his self-portrait as Goliath.

While Baroque art turned away from the asymmetrical compositions and extenuated, sometimes exaggerated, figuration of Mannerism to the classical principles of the Renaissance, emphasizing anatomically correct figuration and convincing three-dimensional space, it did so in order to emphasize dramatic scenes, almost theatrical settings, and intense individualistic expression. Rather than Leonardo's subtle transitions of color and light, Caravaggio took chiaroscuro further by developing tenebrism, using contrasts, as a gesture or a figure was intensely illuminated as if by a spotlight in a dark setting. In religious art, as seen in his ground-breaking triad of pictures, depicting the calling and martyrdom of Saint Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, the technique made visually clear moments when ordinary reality was interrupted by the illumination of the divine. In secular art, as seen in his David with the Head of Goliath (1610), the technique could convey a profound and often tragic psychological complexity. Caravaggio was known as the "most famous artist in Rome,” and his use of chiaroscuro so influenced artists throughout Europe that, subsequently, the term has often been used synonymously with the era. However, many Baroque masters not only employed the technique but found it an essential element in creating a distinctive individual style, whether it was Rembrandt's golden light in Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654), Peter Paul Rubens's delight in color and sensuality in The Disembarkation of Marie de Medici at Marseilles (1621-1625), or Velázquez where shadows and light become the mystery of perception itself as in Las Meninas (1656).

Concepts and Trends

Chiaroscuro Drawing and Woodcuts

Hans Burkmair's <i>The Lovers Surprised by Death</i> (1510) was the first woodcut to be printed in color and with three blocks.

In the Renaissance, artists developed chiaroscuro drawing, as they added white for light effects and black for dark effects. Many of these works, along with Renaissance paintings and wash drawings, were in demand as reproductions, and, in 1508, the German artist Hans Burgkmair invented chiaroscuro woodcut prints. He first printed with a line block, inked in black, for contour lines and crosshatching, and then used additional blocks, inked in tonal variations, to create shading. By cutting away part of the block and leaving an area unprinted, artists created highlights in the monochromatic prints, which primarily used brown, black, gray, or green. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Niccolò Vicentino, Nicolò Boldrini, and Andrea Andreani were just some of the artists who adopted the technique, which also engaged Raphael, Parmigianino, and Titian. Innovations often followed. Ugo da Carpi became the first Italian artist to adopt the technique around 1516, and Italian artists usually printed with a series of tone blocks, emphasizing color transitions and leaving out the line block's black contours favored by Northern Europeans


Leonardo da Vinci's <i>Mona Lisa</i> (1503-1506), perhaps the most famous painting in the world, is a masterwork of <i>sfumato</i>.

To show the effects of light upon curved surfaces and enhance the effects of chiaroscuro, Leonardo da Vinci perfected the technique of sfumato, which he described as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane." Meaning, "to vanish like smoke," sfumato involved applying multiple thin layers of glaze to create soft tonal transitions and gradations between light and shadow and added subtle transitions to chiaroscuro. Later, Giorgio Vasari credited its invention to Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden, two Early Renaissance Northern Europeans, but it was already identified with da Vinci, who mastered the technique in his Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486) and The Mona Lisa (1503-1506). The technique required significant expertise, as modern scientists have discerned that the artist's glazes were sometimes only a micron in depth, and made of lead white to which one percent of vermillion had been added.

Raphael's <i>Alba Madonna</i> (c. 1510) is a tondo, or circular painting, acclaimed for its <i>unione</i>, as seen in the subtle harmonies of the figures' skin tones.

Other artists adopted the technique, including Raphael, Correggio, Fra Bartolommeo, and Giorgione, and it also influenced the "Leonardeschi", the name given to the large number of artists who associated with Leonardo or worked in his studio. Innovation followed, as Raphael developed what contemporary art historian Marcia B. Hall defined as unione. Seeking to combine sfumato's tonal qualities and soft shadows with his bright color palette, he used gradual color shifts to create blended edges, as seen in his Alba Madonna (c. 1510) celebrated for its vibrant color and flowing unity.


Caravaggio's <i>Conversion on the Way to Damascus</i> (c. 1600-1601) uses tenebrism to depict the dramatic moment when divine light struck and unhorsed the Roman who was afterwards known as the Apostle Paul.

Tenebrism, derived from tenebroso, an Italian word meaning "dark, murky, gloomy," used dramatic contrasts between light and dark, as paintings with black areas and deep shadows would be intensely illuminated, often by a single light source. While tenebrism developed from chiaroscuro, unlike that technique, it did not strive for greater three-dimensionality, but was compositional, using deep darkness as a kind of negative space, while intense light in other areas created what has been called "dramatic illumination."

Though the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and the Mannerists Tintoretto and El Greco used the technique earlier, tenebrism is usually identified with Caravaggio, who not only mastered the technique but made its "spotlight" effect a defining characteristic of his work. Due to works like The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600) he became widely influential, so much so that tenebristi, groups of artists employing the technique like the Utrecht School, were found throughout Northern Europe, Italy, and Spain. The term tenebrism was often applied to the works of Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco Ribalta, and other 17th century Spanish artists. At the same time, it was associated with the 17th century "candlelight tradition," a term describing night scenes illuminated by a single candle, as seen in some works by Gerrit van Honthorst, Rembrandt, and Georges de La Tour.

Later Developments

Following the Baroque period, chiaroscuro was an established technique, employed by various artists in the centuries that followed. The leading Rococo artists Fragonard, Watteau, and Joseph Wright of Derby, employed chiaroscuro in conveying moments of private intimacy and reverie. In the Romantic period, Géricault employed it to convey the tragedy of The Raft of the Medusa, while Henry Fusilli's painted the haunting Nightmare, and Francisco Goya's The Third of May depicted the darkness of political terror. The technique could be turned to different purposes that made it an important tool for creating an individual style into the modern era.

In the 20th century, photography and filmmaking also strove for chiaroscuro effects. Modernist photographers, including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and W. Eugene Smith, often used chiaroscuro, as the contrast of light and shadow emphasized the formal qualities of the image. Other photographers who have used the technique include Joseph Koudelka, Lothar Wolleh, Annie Leibovitz, Garry Winogrand, and Ralph Gibson. Studio photography often employs Rembrandt lighting, a technique that, using one light with a reflector or two light sources, is meant to create the chiaroscuro effects of the artist's portraits, translated into a modern medium.

In film the German Expressionists emphasized chiaroscuro, as seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), as well as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

In Hollywood, cinematographer Gregg Toland first used chiaroscuro in The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928) and his innovations in the 1930s informed the film noir genre and made him one of the most sought after cameramen. He worked with most of the leading directors, but is particularly known for his work on John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Creating deep focus compositions, Toland used shadow as a dramatic and pictorial device, defining the background from the foreground. He influenced many other cinematographers, including Vittorio Storaro, Vilmos Zsigmond, and László Kovács.

Other Hollywood filmmakers known for their use of chiaroscuro include William Dieterle, as seen in his The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). The technique was equally prevalent in Europe. Sven Nykvist, who worked on many of Ingmar Bergman's films, used what has been called chiaroscuro realism, and the Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky used chiaroscuro in the black and white scenes he included in Stalker (1979).

Key Artists

  • Universally lauded as one of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci is known for his contributions to the Renaissance period in the form of portraits and religious paintings. Da Vinci was the eponymous "Renaissance Man," proficient not only in art, but also in mathematics, science, and technology.
  • Caravaggio was an Italian Late-Renaissance and Baroque painter who is considered a master of chiaroscuro. He is known for his hot temper and for making powerful portraits and religious scenes.
  • Tintoretto rose to prominence during the High Renaissance and is best known as a master of the Mannerist style, which idealized the human form rather than focus of naturalistic qualities.
  • The seventeenth-century Dutch artist is among the premier master painters in Western civilization. Rembrandt's art was characterized by his sweeping Biblical narratives, stunning attention to detail, and masterful use of chiaroscuro, the painterly application of light and shadow.
  • Regarded as one of the foremost masters of Dutch painting, Vermeer specialized in domestic interior scenes with balanced compositions, soft-focus elements, and luminous effects.
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Do Not Miss

  • Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
  • The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.
  • Humanism, the focus on individuals, not the centrality of the church, and on a rediscovery of the humanities, powerfully influenced the art of the Renaissance.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 05 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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