Art Term Tuesday: Chiaroscuro

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

There’s something odd about paintings created in the Middle Ages – all of them, inexplicably, are strangely flat in appearance. Figures appear stiff and cold, with almost no dimension. Part of this is because painters often utilized gold leaf to convey the holiness of their subjects, but it’s also because artists weren’t concerned with accurately depicting the human form. We can see this in Cenni de Pepo’s (also known as Cimbaue) late thirteenth-century altarpiece Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets. Madonna and Christ are front and center, surrounded by angels to the left and right and the four apostles below, all extravagantly gilded. There is some attempt to convey depth and dimension in their clothing, but as a whole, the painting is static – figures are stacked on top of each other rather than receding into the background. Painters created works like this for centuries until, suddenly, a new technique was “discovered” in the 15th century that allowed artists to capture soft dimension in their subjects. Who discovered or, I should more accurately say, perfected, this new technique? None other than the grandfathers of what we define today as Western art, the Renaissance Old Masters. What was this technique that afforded a soft realism to figures? Chiaroscuro.

Chiaroscuro is a technique used to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects; to put it in simpler terms, it’s the soft gradation of shadows and highlights. An easy way to see this without even looking at a work of art is to hold up your hand. Do you see the soft shadows and highlights as light wraps around your palm and fingers? As you turn your hand in various directions, you’ll notice that there aren’t any harsh lines as shadows transition to highlights, and vice versa. This effect is what artists began representing in their paintings. Chiaroscuro, which translates literally to “light-dark” in Italian, was the term coined by the artists who perfected this technique – and it revolutionized two-dimensional art.

Take Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks as an example. We see the soft shadows on the Virgin, Christ, John the Baptist, and an angel, giving depth and shape to their faces and bodies; they’re no longer flat and lifeless, as with artwork from the Middle Ages. (You may note that the figures’ skin is abnormally ghost-like and the background is especially brown: this is due to the pigment within Leonardo’s oils fading over time – the chiaroscuro effect would have been even more subtle and natural when the work was first completed). Leonardo himself is regarded as the first artist to truly master the technique, as his paintings appeared more life-like than any who preceded him.

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci shows the Virgin Mary sitting on a rocky outcrop near a body of water. She is surrounded by Christ, John the Baptist, and an angel. The use of light and shadows to create a realistic scene was pioneered by the artist. His bright colors of blue and orange spotlight the people and mirror the water beyond.
Leonardo da Vinci and his workshop, Italian, 1452-1519. Virgin of the Rocks. Oil on panel and transferred to canvas, ca. 1500. Located in the National Gallery, London, UK. Public Domain.

There is still the question though, after centuries of artists being content with the medieval approach to painting, why this sudden shift to realistic representation occurred? This, as with many advancements within the Renaissance era, can be attributed to the growth of humanism. For scholars and artists in the Renaissance, they strove to emulate the thinkers of Antiquity, who believed that nature held the key to perfection. As many Renaissance humanists were religious, this translated to perfection in nature being a symbol for perfection of the soul or spirit, allowing one to be closer to God. In art, this translated to artists striving to portray figures and the natural world not only realistically, but perfectly. Thus, chiaroscuro, once perfected, was here to stay.

However, that’s not to say that chiaroscuro didn’t itself evolve as the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque era. Baroque artists, responding to the growth of the Protestant Reformation in central and northern Europe, began creating works of art that were more dramatic and theatrical in composition, allowing for an even stronger and clearer narrative. No artist took advantage of this more than Caravaggio, as seen in his painting Calling of Saint Matthew. Below, we can see how chiaroscuro has been turned up a notch, creating a theatrical scene. This theatrical use of light and shadows came to be known as tenebrism by later art historians, which, while using the principles of light and shadow of chiaroscuro, isolated figures and key elements of the composition to turn up the emotional and narrative tension of the work of art. Essentially, the soft gradation of traditional chiaroscuro had to move over for drama necessitated by the crisis of the Catholic Church at the time. Dramatic, narrative lighting allowed artists to create dramas that captured the imagination and left little room for misinterpretation by audiences.

A dramatic, theatrical scene is created via lighting. Five men sit around a table, just off to the side of a window. Near them, another man stands next to a men pointing to one of the sitting men. In fact, one of the sitting men is pointing to his colleague, too! Dressed in similar fashion of doublet, hose, and cap, it shows the scene of the calling of St. Matthew.
Caravaggio, Italian, 1591-1610. Calling of St. Matthew. Oil on canvas, 1600. Located in San Luigi dei Rancesi, Rome, Italy. Public Domain.

While we’ve seen how chiaroscuro was utilized in painting, it was also a key technique for printmakers. Printmakers have to rely on highlights and shadows even more so than painters, especially if they restrict themselves to black as their only pigment – which is what many printers did for hundreds of years. One of the etchers best at utilizing chiaroscuro in his prints may come as a surprise, as he’s traditionally thought of as a revolutionary painter: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, commonly known today as Rembrandt. It can be argued that Rembrandt’s understanding of light, most notably discussed through his painting, was just as masterfully employed in his printmaking. This can especially be seen in his masterpiece Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves. In this etching we see how chiaroscuro can be employed in both a soft and dramatic manner within one composition. While Christ, centrally placed, appears to be lit via a spotlight a la Caravaggio, Rembrandt has also softly rendered the less-dramatic shadows of those gathered just outside the central light source – we can pick out bits and pieces of hats and cloaks covering the crowd clustered to the left, huddling together in the presence of the scene before them. While there are other printmakers who were expertly skilled in capturing detail and depth in their compositions, Rembrandt was one of the first to fully bring a masterful understanding of light and shadow, chiaroscuro, into his compositions.

Chiaroscuro would eventually fall out of popularity during the eighteenth century with the advent of bright, cotton-candy-esque compositions of Rococo. It continues to be employed by artists who seek to instill a sense of reality and drama to their compositions, however, and sees a resurgence time and again throughout art history – most notably in Romanticism. There are a number of works of art in FWMoA’s permanent collection that display skilled use of chiaroscuro, and two of them can currently be seen in A Year of Making Meaning: New Additions to the Collection 2020. Kevin Haran’s 2004 work, Painting History XVIII, demonstrates how readily watercolor lends itself to the soft nuances of chiaroscuro. In this work, below, we see a group of artillery men crouched around a cannon preparing to fire. Note the deftness with which Haran has handled not only the smooth metal of the tank, but the innumerable folds and creases of the soldiers’ uniforms. We can tell it’s a sunny day due to the white-hot highlights and the deep shadows created by arms, legs, hats, and gear; and, Haran has handled the transition between lights and darks with exemplary skill. The same can be said of Kerr Eby’s Stuck (Heavy Artillery, Mud, and Dawn), a lithograph from around 1919. Lithography already lends itself to soft gradations, much more so than other printmaking techniques, due to artists being able to freely draw directly on the stone, and we can see Eby’s utilization of this feature. We know it’s dawn by the way Eby has rendered the soft light peeking over the horizon, capturing a fuzzy, dreary scene of soldiers stuck in the mud. The highlights aren’t as prominent as those in Painting History XVIII, but that’s due to the time of day in which Eby has set his scene. If you think of the early morning light, it’s not characterized by the harsh sunlight of midday, but is soft and secretive.

Now typically seen as a rudimentary understanding of light and dark in a composition, it’s clear that chiaroscuro was a revolutionary catalyst for artistic representation as we know it today, and is revisited by artists who seek to create a sense of reality within their compositions.

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