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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the use of extremes of light and dark in a painting or artwork

painting of a man in armour

Another artistic term popped up on HH this week: tenebrism is a word for the use of extremes of light and dark in a painting or artwork.

As art terminology goes, that’s a relatively recent invention: the OED has no record of tenebrism any earlier than the 1950s, while the word from which it’s descended, tenebroso, was only adopted into English from Italian in the the late nineteenth century.

Literally meaning “dark”, in the late 1800s tenebroso came to be used as a noun referring to any one of a number of Italian painters who incorporated these extremes of light and dark in their work. These Tenebrosi, as they became known, were greatly influenced by the Baroque artist Caravaggio, whose paintings often featured highly detailed and illuminated figures against featureless, near pitch black backgrounds.

Bonus fact: a more familiar name for this technique is chiaroscuro, which literally means “light-dark” in Italian—and, as such, joins the likes of sophomore (“wise-foolish”), preposterous (“before-after”), and pianoforte (“soft-loud”) as an example of an oxymoron bundled up into one single word.


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