Tenebrism is a form of artistic expression that uses dramatic lighting, often to create a sense of darkness or gloom. It is an extension of the Italian word tenebrae, which means shadows.

The term was coined by the French playwright Jean-Baptiste Racine in 1667 as an attempt to describe a particular type of theatrical performance.

Soon after, painters and artists began to take up the term to describe a style that was dark and gloomy in tone, but still capable of portraying light and shadow in dramatic ways.

What Is tenebrism

What Is tenebrism art?

Tenebrism is a painting technique which involves the use of strong chiaroscuro effects, where there is a hard contrast between light and dark, usually achieved by painting in oil paint on a dark surface.

Tenebrism is often said to have been invented by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), a Spanish painter active in Naples and Sicily, who used the technique to show dramatic religious scenes.

However, tenebrism was made popular in 16th-century Italy through the works of Caravaggio (1571–1610) and his followers.

Their influence was such that the Italian word “tenebroso” (“dark”) came to be virtually synonymous with “Caravaggesque”.



What Is Tenebrism?

Tenebrism is not necessarily about creating images that are entirely dark or complex, although it can be. 

Typically, artists are able to convey a sense of deep despair through strong emotions like sadness or anger.

They might also use dramatic effects such as chiaroscuro (a technique that makes use of contrasts between light and dark) in order to create images that are more compelling and moving for the viewer.

The term tenebrism is used mostly with reference to art forms — including painting, architecture, and literature — but can also apply to photography.

In fact, many photographers have been influenced by this artistic style over time.

Tenebrism is most often applied to depictions of religious or mythical themes. 

The paintings usually use either a single source of light, like the sun, or two opposing sources (e.g. light from above and below).

The effect of Caravaggio’s tenebrist style was so influential that many artists painted in this manner even though they had not seen his work.

The term is also applied to other uses of stark contrasts, such as in photography and music.

Caravaggio also played with natural light by using candles or lamps as a source of illumination, further strengthening the contrast between light and dark elements in his paintings.


Famous Tenebrism Examples

Tenebrism is a style of painting, developed during the Renaissance, in which dramatic contrasts between light and dark are employed to give the subject a sense of volume and weight. 

Though most commonly associated with Caravaggio, he was not its only practitioner. 

His work in this style influenced many other artists.


The term can be applied more broadly to any painting from approximately 1600-1630 which shares similar characteristics. 

The word tenebrism is sometimes confused with tonalism, a term sometimes used to describe paintings that rely on contrasting areas of light and dark tones rather than color.

The confusion arises because certain artists, such as Goya and El Greco, used both techniques. Tenebrism is a style of painting in which only the shadows are painted realistically while areas that are not in shadow appear very dark or even black.

What Is Tenebrism’s Origin?

Tenebrism is a style of painting that uses a very dark palette, with the use of dramatic light effects and chiaroscuro. 

Tenebrism was practiced by the Caravaggisti and Rembrandt, among others. It was a way for painters to achieve dramatic lighting in their paintings without having to resort to the chiaroscuro technique.

This style usually involved painting directly from the subject and using strong contrasts of light and shade. 

There are some common themes in tenebrism such as showing Christ’s suffering on the cross, death, and scenes from Hell.

Many baroque painters used this technique in order to avoid religious persecution. 

The idea behind tenebrism is similar to chiaroscuro in that it involves using dark shadows and bright light, but it differs because instead of using shades of gray or brown, it uses extremely contrasting colors such as white and black.

This was done so that artists could create more contrast between their paintings’ subject matter – whatever they were trying to convey to their audience. 

Artists like Andrea Sacchi, an Italian painter and architect, were influenced by Caravaggio and Tintoretto. He moved to Rome in 1598 and became an assistant to Domenichino.

During that time, his artistic style changed from being Mannerist to Baroque, and he started using tenebrism. 

Sacchi’s style became popular among artists after he won a competition against Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1616.

Tenebrism In Art

Tenebrism literally means “darkness” and in this sense, it refers to painting in which light and dark areas are strongly contrasted. 

It differs from chiaroscuro in that there is no strong middle-value contrast between light and dark areas.

Instead, there is dramatic contrast achieved through bright highlights and very deep shadows, usually with a restricted range of colours.

The overall effect has been likened to a sculpted relief or a stage set.

 In Tenebrist works, the shades of grey are typically obtained by using black and white paint together, so that they create what appears to be different grey tones when viewed at different angles.

Here are some characteristics of tenebrism:

  • Dramatic use of light to create strong contrasts between light and dark
  • Use of few colours, often restricted to grey tones 
  • Concentration on simple tone/colour shifts rather than complicated modelling or other techniques 
  • Absence of shadowing or modelling in the backgrounds 
  • A sense of drama created through exaggeration 

Tenebrism is an extreme and highly-subtle lighting technique in art.

Chiaroscuro vs Tenebrismo

Both terms refer to the use of strong contrasts of light and dark, but there are differences between them. 

Both techniques are used in oil painting, and both are based on the same principles, but where chiaroscuro uses light to create form and volume, tenebrism uses darkness to create form and volume.

Tenebrism is a technique that was popularized by Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera in the 17th century. 

He and his followers painted mostly in shades of black, white, gray, and brown and used dark colours in their paintings to create the illusion of forms and shapes.

Chiaroscuro artists on the other hand-painted mostly in browns, yellow ochre, and white with just a hint of black to define the shadows. 

Both methods were used extensively by Caravaggio (1571-1610), the famous Italian Baroque artist who is considered to be one of the fathers of tenebrism as well as chiaroscuro.

The name chiaroscuro is commonly used for a painting made using this technique.

Tenebrism Art & Techniques

The Tenebrism technique has often been used for portraits, but also for other subjects. 

Among these, the most notable is Caravaggio, who used it for religious subjects.

The term Tenebrism was first coined by art historians to identify a perceived movement in seventeenth-century Italian art that featured dramatic contrasts between light and dark. 

Painters associated with this movement include: Carlo Saraceni, Orazio Gentileschi, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Gerrit van Honthorst and Bartolomeo Manfredi.

It was later applied to artists, like Gerard Seghers and Adriaen Brouwer working on similar principles outside Italy.

The style may be seen as a reaction to the previous one of Renaissance humanism.