Word Gallery: Chiaroscuro

Throughout art history, scholars have devised a special vocabulary to talk about art. These terms are very useful, but they are not always self-explanatory. Enter into the art historical word gallery, where we provide some definitions commonly used to describe artistic styles, techniques, or movements in art.


Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Giorgione. Youth with an Arrow, ca. 1508–1510. Oil on panel. Gemäldegalerie of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The technique known as chiaroscuro is one of the diagnostic characteristics of Italian Renaissance painting. A composite of the two Italian words—chiaro, light or clear and scuro, dark—the method was perfected by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione.

Originating in Italian art theory in the 15th century, the term chiaroscuro refers to the gentle gradation between light and dark shades of color used to intimate a figure’s form, enabling the artist to create the illusion of volume. The technique can also be applied across the entire surface of a composition as a unifying trope, which results in greater drama and a heightened expressive quality.

With the introduction of oil painting, 16th-century Italian artists were finally able to communicate the nuances of light in two dimensions. In this context, the designation of chiaroscuro came to reflect the imitation of light and shadow in addition to the illustration of formal contour.

The artists included in the special exhibition Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna utilize chiaroscuro with a mastery that is unique in art history. Don't miss your opportunity to learn more about this incredibly beautiful style of painting!

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