Carpenters use plane and saw to shape wood and not-wood to requirement. Photographers use shutter, aperture and studio kit or off-camera flash to shape light and not-light. Which is why two painters hold special significance for shutterbugs. Rembrandt was four when Caravaggio died so we know the Italian never saw a Rembrandt, while the odds are against the Dutchman ever having seen a Caravaggio. But Rembrandt was undoubtedly influenced by Dutch painters returning from Italy in the early seventeenth century, and both men are defined as Baroque artists known for their approach to the chiaroscuro falling away of light to dark within a scene.
But mark the difference between Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro in Judith Beheading Holofernes …
… and Rembrandt’s use in Bathsheba …
It’s not just the subject matter. As Blinding of Sampson shows, Rembrandt was hardly averse to gore himself. But Caravaggio’s inability to pass on a good decapitation (check his various takes on Goliath and John the Baptist) does leave a dense trail of clues to a violent life; not only as a street fighter who more than once escaped capital justice by skin of teeth and high born patron, but in all probability as a murderer too. Rembrandt led a more respectable carry on. His work netted top dollar and, unlike that other Dutch genius two and a half centuries later, he didn’t have to die first or part with an ear. While extravagance and ill judged investments in later life certainly put a dent in his finances (and presumably his mood) we see in the totality of Rembrandt’s themes a steadier psyche.
More to the point for a photographer is that these differences of disposition and temperament are also reflected in technique; specifically, in the way each allows light to fall away. Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro is the dramatic form known as tenebrism, while the man himself has been referred to with conscious anachronism as a ‘cinematic realist’. See how intensely he lights Judith. We don’t need Freud’s prompting to deduce a fixation on sexualised violence. See too how he lights both the unfortunate Holofernes and the stony maidservant waiting to bag the severed head. All heightened by that binary opposition of light and not-light in a painting either intensely lit or intensely dark.
Now look at Bathsheba. Eschewing the high drama, the film noir of tenebrism, Rembrandt offers something altogether more painterly. Bathsheba is highlighted, yes, but softly. Ditto the patch of sky. In place of stark binality we get something more spectral, a graduated calibration from warm light to a friendly gloom in which things are murkier (‘murky’ gives us the Italian origin of chiaroscuro) but still discernible. There’s less melodrama, more balance and harmony.
Here endeth the lesson, except to say that, seven or eight years ago, the Van Gogh in Amsterdam hosted a comparison exhibition of the two artists. It drew many reviews, including this and this: both short, punchy and worth a read. I’m instinctively drawn to Caravaggio (make of that what you will) but the more I return to a Rembrandt, the more I see in it.
Which just might point to a shift in the way I position my lights and manage depth of field, next time Kate or Naomi ask me to do a shoot.