The Important Artists and Works of Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato

Progression of Art
Ugo da Carpi: Diogenes (c. 1524-29)
c. 1524-29


Artist: Ugo da Carpi

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.

Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from four blocks in grey-green ink - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Leonardo da Vinci: Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486)

Virgin of the Rocks

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

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.

Oil on wood transferred to canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris

Caravaggio: The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)

The Calling of Saint Matthew

Artist: Caravaggio

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.

Oil on canvas - Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Tintoretto: The Last Supper (1592-4)

The Last Supper

Artist: Tintoretto

This depiction of the Last Supper vigorously adopts chiaroscuro to create a surging scene where the walls become alive with swirling ghost-like apparitions, while illuminated angels surround a flaring lamp. Christ is the focus of the scene, intensely lit by a halo that surrounds his head and upper body as, standing, he offers bread to a disciple. Smaller halos identify the disciples seated at a long table, engaged in private conversations or sunk in solitary thought. Only a few are attentive to Christ, and the scene as if in a Venetian tavern resembles a kind of social gathering, chaotic and animated. The table's diagonal creates an asymmetrical composition, making the servants the central focus. Emphasized by the light above her, a woman, carrying a dish, draws the viewer's eye to the upper left hand of the canvas, while a kneeling woman, reaching into a barrel and holding out a plate to the man on her left, fills the foreground. The light, too, without a single source of origin is both chaotic and animated. With its asymmetrical composition, its rejection of a single light source and its swirling movement, the work reflects the Mannerist style, but at the same time signals the transition to the Baroque's emphasis on ordinary settings and dramatic scenes.

Oil on canvas - Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Rembrandt van Rijn: Man in Oriental Costume (1632)

Man in Oriental Costume

Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn

This painting depicts a stately monumental figure dressed as an Eastern potentate (monarch or ruler) in a gold robe, silk turban, and scarf adorned with jewels. The painting conveys a sense of stately and imposing grandeur, as the man calmly but commandingly faces the viewer, the empty background behind him almost atmospheric as the darkness at the top of the frame takes on a subtle golden radiance around him.

Using a limited palette, Rembrandt developed his own signature style of chiaroscuro, which emphasized golden light radiating in profound darkness. A Baroque master, Rembrandt brought a sense of psychological complexity to his portraits, so that, while, often meditative, a sense of the subject's internal struggles and history was conveyed and captivated the viewer.

The work has also been known as The Noble Slav, and was painted by the artist after he moved to Amsterdam in order to attract knowledgeable collectors. At the time, paintings of "Oriental" figures were widely popular, reflecting the expansion of the Dutch trading companies into the Middle and Far East, and it was common to show models, as here, dressed in such clothing. In a sense what has been called Rembrandt's "golden light" was a kind of visual metaphor of the wealth of the era, known as the Dutch Golden Age.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with the Pearl Earring (c.1665)

Girl with the Pearl Earring

Artist: Johannes Vermeer

This famous portrait depicts a young woman, standing before a dark background, as she gazes out at the viewer, her eyes luminous and her lips open as if she is just about to speak or has paused in mid-speech. Dressed in fine fabric, her dress soft with contrasting shadows and highlights of color, she wears an exotic blue turban while a large pearl, dangling from her ear, catches the light.

Viewed as iconic in the Dutch Golden Age, this work exemplified Vermeer's reputation as the "Master of Light," due to his mastery of chiaroscuro. The soft shadow that bathes the left side of her body and her turned face is subtle with variation, as, here, chiaroscuro is modulated by sfumato. Vermeer used very thin layers of sometimes almost translucent paint, applied with a brush of fine badger hair, to create the subtle transitions of skin tone, the pink and white highlights on her lips, and her bright gaze. The simplicity of the turban and dress focuses attention upon her face, modeled with great clarity, yet mysterious with feeling.

While the painting was a tronie, a genre that, popular at the time, showed a subject in foreign costume, it is also ambiguous, as her turban resembled no known Dutch or Oriental fashion of the time. The pearl, which is fabulously large, may also be made of tin. The luminous beauty and mystery of the painting has continued to fascinate both art historians and the general public into the 21st century.

Oil on canvas - The Mauritshuis, Amsterdam

Francisco Goya: The Third of May 1808 (1814)

The Third of May 1808

Artist: Francisco Goya

This famous painting, considered to be among the first modern depictions of war, shows a number of unarmed Spaniards as they are about to be executed by a firing squad of Napoleon's troops. Illuminated by a light box placed on the makeshift execution square, a man, raising his arms as if in exhortation, confronts the dark menacing line of anonymous soldiers, as he stands between an anguished group about to be executed and the bodies of those already killed, sprawled on the ground. His white shirt and yellow pants, the only bright colors in a dark and gritty palette, not only draw the viewer's attention but add political and symbolic meaning, as the colors represent the Pope's personal guard that remained independent when Napoleon conquered the remaining Papal States in 1808. That same year, Napoleon's invasion of Spain launched the Peninsular War, a conflict so marked by brutality that the term guerilla warfare was used for the first time to describe the uprising of the ordinary Spanish people.

The central figure's resemblance to Christ crucified, including stigmata on his open palms, and the night lantern associated with the Roman soldiers who seized Christ, along with the use of tenebrism, placed the painting within the tradition of Spanish Baroque depictions of Christian martyrdom. However, Goya subverts that tradition, as the lantern becomes not a dramatic light source representative of divine illumination, but a grim tool for the firing squad to carry out its work. Similarly, the pleading man is not elevated as an individual martyr but only one anonymous victim among many, helpless before the ruthless mechanism of the state.

The work influenced many later artists, including Édouard Manet and Pablo Picasso, in part because of its raw depiction that, eschewing painterly technical skills and theatricality, unified method and subject in an indictment of political terror.

Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Garry Winogrand: El Morocco, New York (1955)

El Morocco, New York

Artist: Garry Winogrand

This photograph, taken in Winogrand's pioneering snapshot style, shows a couple dancing at El Morocco, a hip 1950s New York nightclub. The image's confrontational style and close cropping emphasizes the woman's laugh, her teeth bared, her hand with sharp nails almost like claws along the man's shoulder. Here chiaroscuro, translated into the black and white photographic medium, heightens the effect, not only zeroing in on the intimate moment but blurring it so it becomes almost claustrophobic. The man, his back to the viewer, almost blends into the darkness, his reaction inscrutable, though the white line of his collar and the reflected light on the back of his head echo the skewed and off center composition.

The photograph captures the post-war era in the United States when a kind of relentless optimism, ignoring deeper social issues, was promoted in the media. Though working for mainstream magazines like Collier's, Harper's Bazaar, and Sports Illustrated, Winogrand had begun to question journalistic and artistic values. He sought to aggressively capture fleeting moments that registered a disturbing or dynamic impact while avoiding the ascription of meaning. His street photography and snapshot aesthetic were primary influences upon subsequent photographers.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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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]. .
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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