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Rembrandt and Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro, a valuing technique that employs the bold use of lightness and darkness of tones and colors, is a powerful modus operandi to convey a sense of drama and intrigue in a work of art. When utilized in an effective manner, the disparity between the highlights and shadows in any piece of art is one of the first things to catch a viewer’s attention. It can stir up an aura of peculiar enigmatic energy upon gazing at the piece, leaving the viewer in a state of fascination, hungering to know more about the story behind it. Few artists have accomplished this more successfully than Rembrandt Van Rijn, one of the most prolific Baroque artists in history. In his work The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), Rembrandt masterfully captures the essence of chiaroscuro.

One of the first things that the eye is drawn to when taking an initial look at the painting is the cadaver. It is the largest highlighted part of the image; however, the other most notable highlighted features are all the men’s faces and collars. Having a stark object, person, or feature basked in the light is a vital part of what makes an artwork successful when analyzing the painting based off its chiaroscuro merits. Because the body is in the very center of the painting, it causes the doctor and his students, who are huddled around it, to appear to be creeping out of the shadows to observe Dr. Tulp’s examination of the cadaver’s left arm.

The subjects of the painting, enveloped by a sea of shadowy dimness, would have their darkly-clothed bodies practically disappearing into the aphotic background if it weren’t for the highlights of their white collars and pale faces. A noteworthy notion to consider is how the amount of darkness greatly outweighs the amount of lightness. This fact substantially adds to the slightly unsettling atmosphere of the already macabre subject matter being depicted. The painting’s ambience is almost voyeuristic, which could also be attributed to the fact that the viewer of the painting is observing medical students, whom are observing an anatomy lesson conducted by their professor, adding yet another, more meta layer to the lore of the painting.

The overall composition of the painting is not uncommon for a Baroque-era chiaroscuro painting. The idea of several figures huddled and/or surrounding another person’s body, a table, or some other somewhat miscellaneous object was standard for that period and style in art history. However, there are a few seemingly small details that prove to be notable, making Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp a truly unique work of art. One unusual feature is that the two figures in the very back of the cluster are peering straight at the beholders of the painting, or, more likely, at the painter himself, given the fact that this painted during an actual demonstration in a lecture theater in Amsterdam. (Noe) The leftmost student is staring at the face of the professor, and the last four students seem to be engrossed in the textbook propped up in the bottom right corner of the frame. Ostensibly, not one of the students are looking at the arm of the corpse, but rather are occupied observing nearly everything else in the scene. This creates an anomalous setting that, with the use of chiaroscuro, is executed prodigiously.

Chiaroscuro is one of painting’s most compelling techniques to create a scene with dynamic subjects that, on the contrary, can almost seem like they are frozen in time as well. With the use of strategically and sparingly placed highlights, it draws attention to the most important facets of the painting. Divergently, the intense shadows help to heighten this contrast, as well as obscuring other interesting idiosyncrasies within them. The more one examines Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the more one picks up on the calculated details placed inside of it, ultimately achieving what many artists strive to do in their work: the creation of a captivating image that both fulfills every expectation as well as leaves room for contemplation.

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