Hard reality: 3 Cast shadows in figurative painting

Rembrandt (1606–1669), Man in a Gorget and a Plumed Cap (1626-27), oil on oak wood, 40 x 29.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By the Renaissance, the depiction of shade and attached shadow was relatively common and uncontroversial. Although there was good understanding of those and cast shadows falling on other surfaces and objects, cast shadows usually weren’t shown in paintings. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, made careful diagrams showing how different types of shade and shadow are formed, but in his didactic writings advised painters not to depict cast shadows in their paintings. History has shown that was and remains a good general recommendation; this article considers why it should be true for figurative painting.

The reasons I’ll discuss here include:

  • relevance;
  • models and studio technique;
  • lighting;
  • misinterpretation;
  • perception.


There are remarkably few figurative paintings, or underlying narratives, in which cast shadows play any significant role. As I showed in two of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro paintings in the last article, even he successfully dispensed with them when he felt fit.

Masaccio (1401–1428), St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (c 1425-8), fresco, 232 x 162 cm, Brancacci Chapel, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the few motifs that require the depiction of cast shadows is that of Masaccio’s St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (c 1425-8). In the shadow of the saint as he walks through a street in Jerusalem is a line of the sick: closest to the viewer, and only now in the saint’s shadow, a man is low down on the ground, crippled. Just behind him, and being healed as we watch, an older man is half-risen. The two men standing behind him have already been healed, and the nearer holds his hands together in praise at his miraculous recovery.

However, it’s worth noting that Masaccio has simplified the cast shadow, and it has been omitted from the face of the man in the left foreground.

Models and studio technique

Models usually have to be paid for their time, and have most commonly been painted individually. When an artist has to depict even small groups, time with all the models together in the group is limited, expensive, and often not feasible. The artist therefore is seldom in a position to observe and study shadows cast by one figure on another.

There are some notable exceptions, though. Rembrandt made his reputation painting portraits of groups, some of which were almost certainly based on detailed studies he made of the whole group.

Rembrandt (1606–1669), The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

He painted this Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in 1632, a decade before his most famous and vast Night Watch. An early commission soon after his arrival in Amsterdam, it’s unmistakably a group portrait of distinguished members of the Surgeons’ Guild in their working environment. Several of the figures show shadows cast over them, although Rembrandt has kept each of the faces, and the hands of Dr. Tulp, in the light.

Cast shadows on the wall behind the three figures standing at the back imply that one light source was behind the artist as he painted the group. However, the shadow cast by the left hand of Dr. Tulp on the same wrist, and highlights on the faces and the cadaver, imply another light source high and to the left of the artist and viewer.

Rembrandt (1606–1669), The Night Watch (1642), oil on canvas, 363 x 437 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The Night Watch (1642) may also have been based on the full group, with carefully adjusted lighting, but accomplishes the same effect with their faces. There are also some puzzling discrepancies, such as the small woman to the left who is shown in a spotlight.

Rembrandt (1606–1669), The Night Watch (detail) (1642), oil on canvas, 363 x 437 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

There is one notable cast shadow, that of Frans Banning Cocq (red sash) in the front, whose outstretched left hand casts its shadow on the lower tunic of Willem van Ruijtenburch (white clothes and hat) to the right. To some viewers that may appear slightly odd. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Rembrandt took three years to complete this painting, and that its canvas was far too large to fit in his studio, so it must have been painted in another location that was probably not lit as well.


The modern artist’s or photographer’s studio has a wealth of bright lighting that can be used to create many different effects. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the only two substantial sources of light available to most painters were sunlight and oil lamps. Some paintings might help to illustrate this.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles (c 1740), oil on canvas, 42.5 x 54 cm, Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Tiepolo’s Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles (c 1740) shows an imagined studio in classical Greek times, that may also reflect ideal conditions in studios in southern Europe.

Horace Vernet (1789–1863), The Artist’s Studio (c 1820), oil on canvas, 52 x 64 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Horace Vernet’s studio may seldom have been quite as chaotic as he shows in this painting from about 1820, it shows lighting typical of a dedicated studio in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most daylight comes through a glazed roof, with the addition of the window shown. To minimise the problems posed by direct sunlight, including the constantly changing direction and altitude of the sun, this will have been facing north.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Bazille’s Studio (The Studio on the Rue La Condamine) (1869-70), oil on canvas, 98 x 128.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Frédéric Bazille’s Studio on the Rue La Condamine, from 1869-70, shows the diffused light that most painters preferred.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Self-Portrait Painting The Ball Player (c 1902), oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm, Musée Georges-Garret, Vesoul, France. The Athenaeum.

In about 1902, Jean-Léon Gérôme painted his Self-Portrait Painting The Ball Player in another north-facing room.


Although we’re used to seeing cast shadows in everyday life, even in the countries of northern Europe, seeing them in paintings is different. This is something Rembrandt experimented with early in his career.

Rembrandt (1606–1669), Man in a Gorget and a Plumed Cap (1626-27), oil on oak wood, 40 x 29.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1626-27, Rembrandt painted this portrait of a Man in a Gorget and a Plumed Cap, demonstrating the strange effects that cast shadows can have on perception of the face.

Rembrandt (1606–1669), Self-portrait with Dishevelled Hair (1628-29), oil on oak wood, 22.6 x 18.7 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

A year or two later, in 1628-29, he painted this Self-portrait with Dishevelled Hair, proving the point.

Shadows cast on clothing can readily be misinterpreted as marks or stains, or set the mind of the viewer wondering what they’re supposed to represent.


Cast shadows are the least constant feature in visual perception. In seasons when there is plenty of daylight and long periods of sunshine, cast shadows change in size and direction. But we’re also well used to more diffuse daylight, when shade and attached shadows may be weak. Thus, the convention of not showing cast shadows in most figurative paintings seldom strikes the viewer as being unreal in the slightest.

Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), Madonna of the Meadow (1505-06), oil on wood, 113 x 88.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Raphael’s famous Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John) from 1505-06 is one of few in which figures are shown to cast shadows, but within strict limits. Those cast on the ground by the two infants are quite true to nature, but stop the moment that they would have changed the tone of the Madonna’s blue robe. Her cast shadow is shown as a notional blur, and is probably less visible than it would have been in real life.

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi Rossi (1517-19), oil on panel, 155.5 x 119.5 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In Raphael’s exceptionally realistic Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi Rossi, painted in 1517-19, there’s abundant shade and attached shadow, but almost no cast shadow at all. Yet it looks thoroughly real. Cast shadows aren’t needed to produce the illusion of reality.

In the next article, I’ll consider shade and shadows in landscape paintings.

Further reading

Michael Baxandall (1995) Shadows and Enlightenment, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 07272 4.
Roberto Casati and Patrick Cavanagh (2019) The Visual World of Shadows, MIT Press. ISBN 978 0 262 03958 1.
EH Gombrich (2014/1995) Shadows. The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 21004 0.
Franck Leibovici (2023) What Time Is It? Stories About Painting, Shadows & The Sun, JBE Books. ISBN 978 2 36568 070 7.