Chiaroscuro and La Tour

Chiaroscuro is a fancy Italian term that means the use of light and darkness in a way that makes the contrast between light and darkness in visual composition a point in itself. I don’t like the Italian term that much, probably because I don’t speak Italian as well as I would like to and random words like that force me to remember the fact, but the French term clair-obscur is much friendlier. It also uses the hyphen to make the division between clear and obscure within the term itself, so that works out great. Clair-obscur is why Silence of the Lambs, for instance, looks so good — the dialog probably also helps to create the wonderful tension that’s present in the film. It creates focus, depth, and makes faces and other important elements of the picture pop out from a mysterious darkness that seems to be filled with things unseen even when it’s clearly just a sheet of very dark paint with no significant texture.

My sources tell me that this technique was pioneered and refined by a Renaissance painter called Polidoro da Caravaggio and, this is where it gets a bit confusing, perfected by the better-known Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi. After the latter had had great success with the technique, there seemed to be a period when everybody wanted to be a bad-boy Caravaggio and paint like he did. Later, clair-obscur was exported to the north and further explored by the Dutch masters. Incidentally, the Dutch halls were closed for renovations or something when I was making my brief tour of the Louvre and I was really pissed off when I found myself standing what I thought was just meters from a Vermeer, unable to see the blessed thing in the flesh.

One of the masters of this technique, Georges de La Tour, however, was prominently displayed. And why not: his work with light, especially with candles and such, is breathtaking. St Joseph, a picture of the carpenter working in candlelight is a good example of his skill and craftsmanship.

Source: Wikipedia

Anyone who has ever worked with graphics and light — say, in a 3D environment with light sources — will look at this picture with admiration if not tears of frustration. It seems like La Tour is saying “This is how it’s done!”, and he should know. He knew his Renaissance stuff, his Caravaggio, and the northern styles of the Dutch equally well. He knew light and darkness better than just about anyone and that’s why he is worthy of our full attention even if and especially when his performance is just a way of showing off. That’s Jesus on the right, by the way.

La Tour painted a number of Mary Magdalens and apparently really loved the scene because it is the perfect setting to make into a study of silent solitude and contemplation.

Source: Wikipedia

In this version, Magdalen seems to be looking at the light, or the little bundle on the table consisting of a lamp and a few books and other stuff.

Source: Wikipedia

Of course, after a while looking at the painting it becomes obvious that she couldn’t care less about the light. It shines beautifully and creates an intimate ambiance, but it is nothing special. The real action is looking inward, in Magdalen’s thoughts and her imminent conversion. The light is just light, the shadows just shadows, the mystery something that cannot be illuminated by light or obscured by shadows.

Like Caravaggio, La Tour was not the sort of person you’d want attending your dinner parties. His quiet scenes tell of a seriousness that combines the violence and drama of inner turmoil with the everyday subjects of his northern acquaintances. The end result is an intensity that does not require much action or metaphysical creatures flying about in order to keep you nailed in front of the screen. There is technical mastery alright, a stupefying manipulation of light and darkness, but, and this is La Tour’s genius, there is more to these understated compositions than mere chiaroscuro. There is what is revealed by the light and seen, what is in the shadows and unseen, and then there is that which does not conform to the categories of seen-unseen. As I write this, I’m beginning to think that the latter is related to that which is and always has to be left unsaid.

1 Response to “Chiaroscuro and La Tour”



  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:38

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