What Is Tenebrism in Art? (5 Key Artists)

Tenebrism is an Italian art term for describing artworks that are dominated by black, with sharp accents of directional, raking light.

Mar 20, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what is tenebrism in art key artists


Tenebrism is an art historical term derived from the Italian word ‘tenebroso’ meaning dark, gloomy or obscured. Closely related to the term ‘chiaroscuro’, the term tenebrism is reserved for the darkest, most theatrical examples of art, in which figures or objects emerge from entirely black backgrounds, as if lit by a spotlight. This style of art creates a feeling of distinct separation between the subject and their backdrop. Sometimes art historians call the style ‘dramatic illumination.’ Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio is known as the father of tenebrism, because he took the art of chiaroscuro to new heights, emphasizing a new kind of stark theatricality that had never been seen in art before. But Caravaggio wasn’t the only artist to experiment with the technique. Below are some of the most celebrated artists who explored the chiaroscuro technique. 


1. Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-2


The great Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was the undisputed father of tenebrism, leading an example that many hundreds of artists would go on to follow. In his paintings he experimented with how stark, high-contrast lighting effects could aid in the telling of uneasy, macabre, or even truly terrifying stories. He created a dramatic contrast between black, or near-black backgrounds, from which his ‘spotlight’ figures emerge, as if caught mid-scene by harsh theatre lights. We see his tenebrism playing out at its finest in paintings including The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-2, and David with the Head of Goliath, 1610.


2. Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)

Saint Jerome, 1626, by Jusepe de Ribera


Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera was one of the finest artists of his generation, who painted Biblical scenes filled with great expanses of black, from where figures emerged mid-narrative, caught up in moments of mental anguish or physical suffering. His painting style was crisp and bright, contrasting the pale peach or near-white of human flesh with flashes or red and white against these dense, dark backdrops, drawing us into the heart of the story. In Saint Jerome, 1626, the Saint is surrounded by black shadow, while he lifts his arms to the sky to greet an angel descending from the dark clouds above.


3. Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)

The Flight into Egypt, 1638-40, by Francisco de Zurbaran

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The great Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran spent much of his career painting martyrs, monks and nuns, although he also visited the subject of still life. He explored tenebrism as a masterful storytelling device, drenching his paintings in deep black shadows, from where figures, animals and objects partially emerge, lit dramatically by strong, directional light. In The Flight into Egypt, 1638-40, the Holy Family make their way through the darkening landscape, while the darkness seems to close in around them.


4. Alonso Cano (1601-1667)

St John the Evangelist on Pathmos, 1646-50, by Alonso Cano


Spanish painter, sculptor and architect Alonso Cano was known as the Spanish Michelangelo for his virtuoso artistic abilities. His paintings often centered around the telling of deeply spiritual, Biblical subjects, and he adopted tenebrism to invoke the atmosphere of otherworldly, ethereal experiences. In The Penitent Magdalene, 1652-7, Mary Magdalene kneels in prayer, hands clasped in quiet desperation, while the scenery behind her seems to disappear into a void of unknown darkness, suggesting the shadowy recesses of the spiritual world. Meanwhile in St John the Evangelist on Pathmos, 1646-50, he creates a stark contrast between the deep black of the shadows, and the white, spiritual light of the sky beyond, from where angels emerge.


5. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Self Portrait Aged 51 Years by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657, via Sotheby’s


Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt van Rijn had a real knack for conveying dark, gloomy, and brooding scenes from which accents of light emerge. His subjects varied widely, ranging from self-portraits and paintings of the many women in his life to sprawling Biblical tableaus. But people were always his central focus, and his ability to paint soft, graduated light and shadow as it moved across human flesh made him a true master of tenebrism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rembrandt’s vast series of self-portraits, which he painted throughout his life, as his face, and fortunes, shifted through the years.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.