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Allegory, Boy Lighting Candle in Company of Ape and Fool by El Greco

Allegory, Boy Lighting Candle in Company of Ape and Fool by El Greco

El Greco (1541 – 7 April 1614)

This painting was inserted in my last post and was supposed to grow larger when one clicked on the picture.  It didn’t.  So I have reintroduced El Greco’s “Allegory” as it is a fascinating example of candlelight chiaroscuro.

Movements and Techniques

The above painting, by El Greco, born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, constitutes in fact an instance of the successful use of both chiaroscuro and the Golden section, but it is also an example of mannerism in painting.  Mannerism follows the High Renaissance painting of Leonardo da VinciMichelangelo and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) and it is a movement.  Chiaroscuro is not a movement.  It is a technique.

El Greco’s manneristic paintings are characterized by elongated and occasionally distorted elements, such as somewhat mishapen body limbs.  His paintings are also busy, which is not case with neo-classical works.  Moreover, in the painting featured above, El Greco uses a form of chiaroscuro, but mannerism, a movement, does not have to feature chiaroscuro.

Caravaggio (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610)

Caravaggio (le Caravage) is the artist who introduced chiaroscuroand there are degrees of chiaroscuro.  Tenebrism is its strongest expression.  I suspect, however, that the historical importance of Caravaggio lies more in his effort to give objects relief or dimensionality, which was a chief concern of Renaissance realism and which situates the introduction of chiaroscuro at a specific moment in history.

The moment is the Renaissance.  The Renaissance is its birthplace, as it is the birthplace of the point de fuite or the vanishing point.  But it remains that, as a technique, chiaroscuro will be a lasting legacy, as will the vanishing point and perspective in general, whereas movements will follow the whims of fashion.  To a large extent, chiaroscuro will in fact be a matter of choice, which differentiates it from perspective, a more permanent feature.  Yet, it remains a technique.

Other artists are associated with the use of chiaroscuro (light-dark, or vice-versa). The following is a quotation from the Encyclopædia Britannica: “The single most important painter in the tradition was the Frenchman Georges de La Tour, though echoes of Caravaggio’s style can also be found in the works of such giants as Rembrandt van Rijn and Diego Velázquez.” [i]

So there are forms of chiaroscuro.  There are paintings where a light emanating from a candle makes an area of the painting light.  Georges de La Tour uses this technique frequently, but he is not a mannerist.

Georges de La Tour (1593 – 1652)

The Newborn by Georges de la Tour (Photo credit: WikiArt.org)

The Newborn by Georges de La Tour
(Photo credit: WikiArt.org)

As indicated in the Encyclopædia Britannica, the use of chiaroscuro is prevalent in the paintings of Georges de la Tour (1593-1652).  But La Tour is a realist.  Moreover, here we are looking at the above-mentioned candlelight chiaroscuro.  On an excellent internet site devoted to La Tour’s realism, Misty Amanda Vandergriff, writes that La Tour is also considered “to be a follower of Caravaggio [29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610] due to his dependency on specific elements of the Caravaggesque style (most notably the use of chiaroscuro and tenebristic techniques).” [ii]


Also associated with the use of chiaroscuro are Italian artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593–1652), Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera and Dutch artists Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen.  Honthorst and Baburen were Utrecht artists.

Judith and her Maidservant  (1613-14) by Artemesia Gentileschi

Judith and her Maidservant
(1613-14) by Artemisia Gentileschi

In other words, the history of Fine Arts presents similarities with the history of literature and with history in general.  When Caravaggio introduced chiaroscuro, he was innovating.  Renaissance imperatives called for as faithful a depiction of reality as could be achieved.  This led to the development of certain techniques, some of which ended up overriding the moment and movements.

We have long left the Renaissance, but the use of chiaroscuro has lasted.  Moreover, we still have the grisaille, a monochrome, chrome meaning colour, form of chiaroscuro But, the time has come to close this post.  So let’s look at David’s use of chiaroscuro and also look at one of his grisailles and then walk away from the computer.

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825)

Jacques-Louis David‘s (30 August 1748 – 29 December 1825) “Death of Marat” does indeed demonstrate the enduring usefulness of chiaroscuro.  “The Death of Marat” dates back to 1793.  The years had therefore made chiaroscuro one of many tools used by artists to achieve an aesthetic goal.  In the case of Jacques-Louis David’s depiction of the “Death of Marat,” chiaroscuro lends drama to David’s painting and serves to explain why “La Mort de Marat” is considered a masterpiece.  But, I am also including “Patroclus,” a grisaille by David, where chiaroscuro is achieved to a large extent by the use of a beam of light, another form of chiaroscuro.

Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

La Mort de Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793 (Photo credit: WikiArt.org

La Mort de Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793 (Photo credit: WikiArt.org)

[i] Caravaggio,”  Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.
[ii] Misty Amanda Vandergriff, “The Realism of Georges de la Tour” http://www.students.sbc.edu/vandergriff04/georgesdelatour.html


Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) 
Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791)
Requiem K 626


© Micheline Walker
April 21st, 2012