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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso ("murky"), (also called dramatic illumination) is a style of painting using violent contrasts of light and dark. A heightened form of chiaroscuro, it creates the look of figures emerging from the dark. The term is less used by art historians in recent decades, and lacks a clear definition; it is most often applied to Spanish painters, especially of the 17th century, when it is capitalised by some art historians, and not by others.

The difference between tenebrism and chiaroscuro is perhaps best expressed by Rudolf Wittkower:

"With Caravaggio light isolates; it creates neither space nor atmosphere. Darkness in his pictures is something negative; darkness is where light is not, and it is for this reason that light strikes upon his figures and objects as upon solid, impenetrable forms, and does not dissolve them, as happens in the work of Titian, Tintoretto and Rembrandt."Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750, 3rd edn 1973, Penguin.

The term is usually applied to artists from the seventeenth century onwards, although Tintoretto and El Greco are sometimes described as tenebrists. El Greco painted three versions of a composition with a boy, a man and a monkey grouped in darkness around a single flame. Among the most well-known tenebrist artists are: Caravaggio, who is generally seen as the popularizer of the technique, his Italian and Dutch followers (the Utrecht School), and in particular Francisco Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera and their Spanish followers. It is sometimes applied to Georges de La Tour, who painted many images lit by a single candle, and Rembrandt.

The term is not often used of Adam Elsheimer, although he was an important innovator in painting night-scenes with a few lighted areas. His dark areas are always full of detail and interest.

Later, similar compositions were painted by Joseph Wright of Derby and other artists of the Romantic Movement, but the term is rarely used to characterise their work in general.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Tenebrism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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