Rembrandt and the Technique of Chiaroscuro

The term chiaroscuro refers to a strong, self-conscious juxtaposition of light and shade which results in a stunning visual effect in a work of art. The technique was initially pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci, further developed by Caravaggio, and finally perfected by Rembrandt. Over the course of his career, Rembrandt consistently deployed chiaroscuro to produce some of the most visually arresting and psychologically evocative paintings in the history of art. By way of this technique for contrasting and manipulating light and shadow, Rembrandt was able to achieve three specific effects which have become trademarks of his style: dramatic intensity, rhythmic visual harmony, and psychological depth.
The use of chiaroscuro to achieve a dramatic intensification of action or atmospheric mood is something that Rembrandt learned from his study of da Vinci and Caravaggio. By placing the point of greatest illumination on a central, active figure, and simultaneously muting elements of the background, Rembrandt and his Italian predecessors could focus the viewer's attention onto a specific action in a manner similar to the way in which stage-lighting functions in the theater. Furthermore, Rembrandt's calculated manipulation of light and shadow frequently creates atmospheric moods surrounding his figures, thereby imbuing them with a sense of glowing enthusiasm, or (more often) a sense of gloom and mystery.

Rembrandt's Two Scholars disputing, 1628


Rembrandt's Nightwatch, 1642
At the same time, the rhythmic visual harmony of light and shadow that is characteristic of many of Rembrandt's best known subject paintings can create a sense of pattern and a sense of movement. In such paintings as The Nightwatch, Rembrandt's canvas is rippled with contrapuntal rhythms of lighting, giving rise to a visual poetry of deep shadows alternating with rich and luxuriant highlights of color. Here, the viewer is not so much urged to read meaningful content into the dynamic patterns of light and shade, but rather simply to delight in the formal, quasi-musical arrangements of such patterns.
Finally, regarding the dimension of psychological depth evoked by Rembrandt's use of chiaroscuro, we come to appreciate the high-point of this artist's unquestionable mastery of this technique. Turning to Rembrandt's portraits, we find that his brilliantly rendered faces are deeply marked with shadows. This makes them into a kind of text to be deciphered by the viewer. The expressive shading in these portraits tends to converge around the eyes and other facial hollows (i.e., cheeks, mouth, etc.), giving the paintings a spatial as well as a psychological sense of depth. The eyes, in particular, seem especially remote and detached from the rendered scene of the portrait, creating the suggestion that they are focused inwardly upon some particular idea or emotion that is powerfully, if ambiguously, conveyed by the work. Furthermore, the facial shadings tend to pick up on the shadows ordinarily surrounding the figure in Rembrandt's portraits, visually connecting these shadows to the figure's air of introspective detachment. The result is that the portraits appear to offer us a glimpse into the mind of Rembrandt's figures, even though the contents of their thinking remain shrouded in shadow. Thus the psychological depth opened up by Rembrandt's chiaroscuro is seemingly bottomless. That is, we get a strong sense of something serious going on in the mind of these figures, but the precise nature of their thoughts and feelings is, at best, only darkly implied.

Rembrandt's Self Portrait as St. Paul, 1661
Taken together, Rembrandt's achievement in rendering dramatic intensity, visual rhythms, and psychological depth--all by way of chiaroscuro--effectively signals his absolute mastery of this technique. It is therefore with a great deal of justification that art lovers today regard Rembrandt as "the master of light and shadow."

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Copyright 1999 Jeffrey A. Netto, Ph.D. All rights reserved.