What are Tenebrosi?

Tenebrosi or Tenebrism can be used interchangeably, and the term traces its origins to the 17th Century. Tenebroso was the name given to the artists in Naples (the Netherlands and Spain). These painters were practicing a low key along with emphasizing on light-shade contrasts replicating the technique of Caravaggio.

There is evidence suggesting Caravaggio was the one who invented and propagated this technique. That is why the name of the famous painter is often attached to the concept of Tenebrism, and also why his name pops up in every discussion.

Before getting into the details of Tenebrosi or Tenebrism, let’s clarify that chiaroscuro is not another word for Tenebrism. Some might also think that the Spanish style chiaroscuro is referred to as Tenebrism. But this is not the correct picture of Tenebrism.

In this article, we will talk about the Tenebrosi, its inception, technique, and its expression in different paint forms.

Tracing the Inception of Tenebrosi

Tracing the Inception of Tenebrosi

Caravaggio is the first painter to use this technique. But tenebrism was not used in a vacuum, rather initially, Caravaggio used tenebrosity in combination with chiaroscuro. In a few words, the concept of tenebrism is seen when the characters of the scene are set against a dark background, but the characters are illuminated.

The illumination of the characters is created by shining a bright and infusing light on them. This illumination makes the characters stand out in a three-dimensional form, but the 3D expression is further controlled by chiaroscuro.

For those who don’t know, chiaroscuro is the technique that represents the mingling of light and shadow in a picture bringing out a 3D effect. So, in tenebrism, the illumination, shadow, and lighting effects are mixed to create a visually bright and 3D form of the art.

Caravaggio invented tenebrosi and further his disciples and students including Georges de La Tour, Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrik ter Brugghen, and Francisco de Zurbaran took it forward.

Tracing the Inception of Tenebrosi 2

Tenebrism V/S Chiaroscuro

Tenebrism V S Chiaroscuro

Due to the involvement of pronounced light in both the painting techniques, Tenebrism and Chiaroscuro, they can be confused as being similar to each other. Second, Caravaggio used both concepts, which also gives a hint that both of them are carbon copies of each other. But they are different.

In Chiaroscuro, the artist uses shading to create a three-dimensional effect. But in Tenebrism, the artist is using the natural disposition of light striking a dark area which also creates the same effect.

In his painting, The Night Watch, Rembrandt also uses Tenebrism to bring out the detail of the painting while keeping other characters in the darker tones of the painting. So, in Tenebrism, the perspective of the way of showcasing the scenario is entirely different.  The artists are creating a dramatic effect to highlight the scene which can also be called dramatic illumination.

The Key Concepts, Techniques, and USPs of Tenebrosi

The Key Concepts, Techniques, and USPs of Tenebrosi

Darkness is the most important and defining trait of Tenebrism. In other painting styles, any sort of darkness that is shown in the picture has lighter shades of darkness. But, in tenebrosi, the background of the character is tenaciously dark.

This is done to make sure that the illuminated part of the painting is exposed and looks like there is a spotlight focussing on the same. Ergo, to ensure that the viewer does not get distracted by other details of the painting and focuses only on the highlighted part.

It is said that every painting has a story and an exclusive perspective. With Tenebrism, the painters were able to shift the focus of the viewers from divinity to ordinary reality which was not very well represented before.

The best part is that not only Caravaggio’s disciples and students found Tenebrosi to be a great technique, but other contemporaries and succeeding famous painters used the technique. We can see the expression of Tenebrism in Rembrandt’s painting, Bathsheba at her bath, or Ruben’s The Disembarkation.

Painters and Art Forms that Used Tenebrosi

Painters and Art Forms that Used Tenebrosi

The community of Tenebristi (painters who used this technique) is large. Several baroque painters were not only familiar with this technique but also used it expeditiously in their paintings.

Besides Caravaggio, Murillo was also heavily invested in using this form of art to depict the authenticity in the painting. The spotlight effect of these paintings was the defining aspect of all the Caravaggio paintings made under the tenebrosi principles.

Another form of art that is often correlated with tenebrism is the candlelight tradition. Here too, the principal character of the painting was highlighted with the light of the candle falling on the area. The 17th Century artists like Rembrandt and La Tour were using this candlelight tradition in the paintings which were later decoded as tenebrism.


Tenebrism survived and thrived in the hands of a few painters and artists. But the contribution they made to the evolution and popularity of this technique has been monumental. But, after the 17th Century and towards the 18th Century, the usage of this technique reduced.

But, even today, when we see recreated Caravaggio artworks hanging around the houses, offices, or even the original pieces in museums, Tenebrism still stands out from other techniques. With the 1st Art Gallery, you can get the replicated works of Caravaggio representing the original form and structure.