In the first of these two articles exploring examples of ‘compositional’ chiaroscuro in painting, I showed some early examples from the Renaissance before a selection from its heyday between 1590 and 1650. With Caravaggio and those influenced by him gone, chiaroscuro returned to occasional use for special effects rather than lapsing into obscurity.
It still appeared in nocturnes, such as Antoine Watteau’s The Foursome from about 1713, which I like for its subtlety, and the details half-hidden in its darkness.
With the Age of Enlightenment, one of its most devoted artists spent much of his career using chiaroscuro to express revelation and discovery. Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is Put in Place of the Sun from 1766 is one of the best examples of his use of light and darkness, which is both visually stunning and appropriately symbolic.
Chiaroscuro was resurrected by the Romantic and ‘Gothic’ painters who arrived in the late eighteenth century. Their use of it to intensify the mysterious and sometimes scary is in complete contrast to Wright.
Henry Fuseli used chiaroscuro extensively, particularly in his many paintings of the night. One fine example is in The Shepherd’s Dream from 1793, which tells a story of fairy elves bewitching a peasant, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Later ‘faerie painters’ of the nineteenth century also used chiaroscuro frequently.
Just three years later, the young JMW Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy: a maritime nocturne which features brilliant use of chiaroscuro.
Turner’s Fishermen at Sea from 1796 shows small fishing boats working in a heavy swell off The Needles, on the Isle of Wight, on a moonlit night. Although an outstanding work for such a young artist, Turner was following a vogue for nocturnes which had been established by British and French painters during the late eighteenth century.
Chiaroscuro remained a favourite of more traditional artists during the nineteenth century. Here Karl von Piloty uses it for the scene of an infamous murder in his painting of Seni at the Body of Wallenstein from 1855. This shows the body of the murdered High General Albrecht von Wallenstein in 1634, discovered by his astrologer, Giovanni Battista Seni.
Ary Scheffer used it to great if conventional effect in his painting of Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855). These two adulterous lovers are seen in Dante’s second circle of hell, providing good grounds for the use of chiaroscuro.
More modern paintings during the latter half of the nineteenth century seldom used traditional chiaroscuro, with its near-black shadows and dazzling highlights. Instead the shadows are more murk than black, and the highlights more modest too.
Jean-François Millet’s L’Angélus (The Angelus), which he completed around 1857-59, reverses the convention of highlit figures against a dark background, to instil sombreness and emphasise the poverty of the couple seen at the end of a day digging potatoes from the poor soil.
Petrus van Schendel combines the romantic glow of candles with haze and murk in his Market by Candlelight of 1865. This has a much narrower tonal range than Caravaggist chiaroscuro, giving great softness.
Vincent van Gogh’s early social realist painting of The Potato Eaters from 1885 makes effective use of reduced contrast chiaroscuro, in depicting a poor peasant family eating inside their dark cottage.
Of Pierre Bonnard’s many paintings exploring light and its effects, The Lamp from about 1899 stands out for its full-blown chiaroscuro lighting and his elaborate use of reflection in the globe below the light.
Another continuing use of chiaroscuro to the present day is in portraiture, particularly insightful self-portraits.
Torajirō Kojima’s Self-Portrait painted in about 1917 makes him look old, care-worn and anxious, in contrast to Gerard van Honthorst’s scenes of revelry in the seventeenth century.
Returning to my opening discussion of scotopic vision, it’s interesting to note how few artists reduced chroma in their chiaroscuro paintings. By my reckoning, only five depicted scotopic vision with any degree of accuracy. They are El Greco, Gerard van Honthorst, Georges de La Tour, Rembrandt and JMW Turner. The remaining twenty-one paintings didn’t accurately reflect what we see in such low luminance, rather they show what we might wish we could see.
I conclude with Goya’s self-portrait in which he reveals how he coped with low levels of lighting in his studio, by fixing metal clips to hold candles around the brim of his hat.