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A Single Candle to Tell a Story

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop, Georges De La Tour, c. 1640

The Baroque period was the immediate follow up to the Renaissance and although the origins of the word Baroque, in an artistic context at least, are disputed, the general origin is translated as misshapen or irregular. The Baroque marked a change in style and storytelling across art and architecture as the cannon of depiction was broken and a heavy emphasis was placed on decoration and emotion. This emotional emphasis altered art differently across mediums, however, where sculptors and architects did their best to decorate and elaborate on every aspect of their work, painters did almost the complete opposite. Instead, painting shifted to this dramatic style of harsh lights and darks that guided the viewer through the work and established a distinct and deliberate narrative.

Tenebrism, as it’s known, is a dramatic style of chiaroscuro that was popularized and refined by artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the 17th century. The style relies on minimal light, with scenes lit entirely by a single candle or nearby window. The lack of light represented how things really were in 17th century Europe as artificial light was fleeting. So, tenebrism not only added a level of drama but reality as well. The painters of the Baroque were masters of capturing a solitary moment in their work like few others had before them. Where a lot of paintings in previous periods felt like set pieces made to act out a story, these works felt like a snapshot of the actual event.

This brings us to the subject of today’s discussion, Saint Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop by Georges De La Tour c. 1640. This piece doesn’t feel like it’s out to tell a story, in fact, the moment that the painting captures feels like one of overwhelming silence. The two characters of the painting are Joseph, husband of Mary and step-father to Christ, and a young Jesus Christ. The only light source in the painting is a candle in Christ’s hand and the dispersion of light from that candle is crucial in setting the scene of the work. The dim light barely illuminates Joseph as he leans over a plank of wood to drill, yet his gaze is toward Christ which shows that he’s either not yet started drilling or is in a momentary pause. This stillness of character shifts the eye to the brightly illuminated Christ. His hand blocks the flame of the candle and guides a majority of the light to his face. While Joseph’s expression is clear through the lines and shadows of his face, Christ appears to be at the start of a thought, his face brightly illuminated and his expression not yet defined. The entire work feels like the deep inhale before Christ addresses Joseph and speaks, Joseph stopping his work along with the bright light on the face of Christ makes him a focal point and places importance on what he’s about to say. This subtle element of storytelling is not only important to the piece visually, but also conceptually. The painting puts importance on the word of Christ, even at such a young age. Perhaps the age is to show that even when he was Young, Christ’s word mattered.

Subtle things like this are what make Tenebrism such a brilliant painting method. The scene of this work is almost irrelevant, a snapshot of everyday life for Joseph and a young Christ, but the way that it places importance on Christ’s word is a universal message (in the religious context that this painting was done in, I’m not preaching. I promise). Classical paintings are often so deliberately laid out to tell a full tale, but scenes so often come across artificial with deeper study. The beauty of paintings like this is that they’re so subtle, further study is required to even start to understand what they’re saying. Sometimes the “voice” of a painting is so loud and trying to say so much that it just gets tiresome, too much to take in. But works like this are the opposite, there’s a heavy silence to them. The viewer is almost tempted to hold their breath as they await Christ’s words. The silence of the work makes the viewer want to analyze it, find a deeper meaning in the story, if there even is a story.

The drama of tenebrism and the Baroque is one that could be studied extensively, it’s a style of masterful storytelling. There are more extreme examples of how this method of painting could tell stories in different ways but this work is an amazing example. It shows how simple things like dispersion of light can illustrate importance in a scene, or how the scene may not matter at all but instead the message that the scene conveys. The little things went a long way in Baroque painting, while architects and sculptors were tacking on every little detail that they could, painters were portraying snapshots of events that felt extremely real and dramatic. Therein lies the beauty of the Baroque.

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