Role of Shadows in Art History


Role of Shadows in Art History

"Where the light is brighter, the shadows are deepest" – Goethe said. The authentic meaning of this quotation, at first sight, appears mysterious, but it parallels our human experience so closely and therefore is so understandable, so relatable. This is because the concepts of brightness and darkness, day and night, black and white, light and shadow are deeply symbolic. They are archetypes that touch our emotional strings as human beings. They are metaphors to which we spontaneously give the task of representing our fears, feelings, and moral qualities.

When the light is intense, the cast shadow becomes darker and thicker. But which are the non-literal meanings of light and shadow? And what is a shadow? What significations have this concept assumed over the centuries? Once again, the favorite tool to venture into this path is Art History.

In this article, we will use art as a compass, to understand how humans have represented and consequently interpreted and lived the theme of shadow. Shadow Art is just one of the contemporary declinations of this allusive element, in truth, shadows have fascinated mankind starting from Ancient Greece, and its suggestive qualities still resonate today.

 Woman Walking through Shadows and Lights, via Unsplash

Light and Shadow are two sides of the same coin and their binomial has been always perceived as something indissoluble. The concept of double is the base of their antithetical metaphor. Often associated with the moral sphere, Good and Evil are the first embodied meanings, but there is more to tell in this story. Light and Shadow have also symbolized truth and falsity, reality and representation. The darkness cannot be seen clearly, it obscures our senses and perceptions, and shadows cannot be completely trusted.

In Plato’s Myth of Cave, for example, mankind has access merely to the shadow of Truth. The authentic, reliable, immutable meaning of things is inside a dark cave. Only shadows are visible outside. The shadow is therefore told as a deceptive and fallacious copy, the instrument through which illusions can take form, just like in the shadows puppetry. The truth will never be attainable by observing the shadows; you have to enter the cave, locate the source of light, immerse yourself in real things to understand them. 

However, the shadow is not entirely negative. It makes you curious, it invites you to look beyond. It forces us to ask ourselves: who does it belong to? What is it representation of?


Shadows in the Cave, via Unsplash


Reality and representation, truth and fiction, good and evil, yin and yang… this is the black and white imagery that art drew on when it started painting shadows. But let us try to shift the focus. What if light and shadow were not in what we look at, but they were inside us?

If we conceive our psyche as a totality, we must be ready to face the brightest but also its darkest part. Lights then become the conscious, aware, positive side of our personality, and shadows its latent aspects. Shadows are transformed into chaos, instinct, unconscious impulses, to which it is difficult to listen, according to social norms but also individual values. They are the unacceptable part of ourselves, equal to us and parallelly so opposite. Like the shadows of Plato's cave, we hardly trust it. But we should.

Dark Side, via Unsplash

The one who is able to walk in a way of shadow is the artist. Artists draw with light, but also deal with shadows in their practice, concretely and metaphorically. They draw from the shadow that chases them, from the unacceptable part of themselves, an inexhaustible source of inspiration and creativity. Mr. Hyde is not abhorred in the art world, he is not, like his name said, hidden. Through art it becomes the main character.

There are several art examples where shadow became the protagonist, albeit from different perspectives. But why are shadows important in art? And how are they used in paintings through ages?  In this article, we will investigate how artists tried to integrate this obscure archetype in their artworks, how they transformed this symbolical element in a potent source of renewal; aware that only through the shadow, the gaze begins to be prepared for the light.


“Wait no More”, via Reshot

1.      Drawing Shadows to Mimic Reality

Let us try to imagine that the shadow is not the direct consequence of the light, but the defined, primary, subject of the artwork. In this case, drawing shadows becomes more important than light drawing, and light is consequently manipulated to forge them. What we will see will be a painting based on obscurity, created in negative, which depicts something that does not exist, the absence.

This is what characterized, according to Classical sources, the birth of painting. According to a legend written by Pliny the Elder, a painter tried to delineate the shadow of his beloved one, circumscribing in this way her figure, to capture her forever. Her presence then appears under the sign of her absence. Pliny praises the importance of shadow drawing as an activity which allows mimesis, to mimic the exact aspect of things. 

This technique of tracing the silhouette of the shadow of an object in order to represent it became common also in portraiture, realized by painting shadows of the sitters. Painters traced the shadow to delineate their entire figure.

Shadow, like it happens with Plato’s concept of copy, is once again merely a simulacrum of something that exists or that was alive. It has a mimetic function; it magically recreates the presence of something that is about to disappear.


Woman and her Shadow Silhouette, via Unsplash

2.      Shadows as Spatial Elements

The concept of shadow detaches itself from the classical and philosophical idea of ​​mimesis and its magical function only at the end of the 15th century. With the first studies on perspective and space, shadows began to have a geometric and spatial definition function. Studying types and shadows, how cast shadows and occlusion shadows project into space, becomes a topic of relevant interest for artists. Representing the space as faithfully as possible was the main concern of the Renaissance artist and shadows became another problem of structure and spatiality to be solved through techniques.

Leonardo da Vinci, interested in optical effects, dedicated a treatise to the study of the shadows’ projection. He scientifically defined the differences between core shadows (the darkest part of an object), cast shadows (the shadow that results from the light), occlusion shadow (that happens when an object blocks the light).  The Italian genius used the word ombra semplice (umbra shadow) to define the full shadow of an object, and ombra composta, for the partial shadow or penumbra shadow.

Regarding the light source drawing techniques, Italian Renaissance paintings were characterized by a single source of light, while the Flemish ones from different light entrances, which made the scene extremely brilliant and complex from the enlightenment point of view. 

During Renaissance, the shadow loses its symbolic meanings, to become purely reflection, a natural element to be considered in a perfectly structured, measured, painted space.

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome in his Study, ca 1475, via Wikimedia Commons


3.      Shadows and Dramatic Effects

The violent contrasts between light and shadow in painting also manage to create powerful effects of drama. The undisputed master of this technique was the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, whose school - the Caravagesques - at the end of the 16th century revolutionized the concept of dramatic illumination in art. In the 17th century, this research on chiaroscuro and spotlight effects, has been covered by other Italian, French, Dutch artists, gathered under the label of tenebrism, which focused on night scenes and gloomy atmospheres.

Caravaggio’s emphasis on dark narrative is characterized by his indefatigable research of psychological realism; shadows became loaded with spiritual, emotional meanings. They say something about the characters represented.

A great example of dramatic shadow painting is detectable in Caravaggio's Calling of Saint Matthew. It is the moment when Matthew, one of the future twelve apostles, first realizes he is being called by Christ, who surprises him in a gambler's or money lender's den. The biblical scene is completely transformed by the artist and his use of lighting drawing: the entrance of Christ is accompanied by a beam of light across the wall that geometrically illuminates the seated figures.  

It is a painting of great technical virtuosity; Caravaggio modulates tone definition of his colors; through the shadow he changes the psychological perception of the space. But above all, it is a painting with a strong expressive and symbolic power. The light (whether of Christ, of reason, of self-awareness, any interpretation is allowed) penetrates the darkness, challenging it. It's interesting how you can enhance the role of shadows in some of paintings using a simple picture light.

It is a calling for Saint Matthew, but also for everyone. That diagonal shadow seems to ask us to question about the struggle between light and shadow, good and evil sides of existence. Like the tax-gatherer Matthew, we also feel involved, and with a theatrical gesture we ask ourselves: “who, me?”.

Caravaggio,  La Vocazione di Saint Matthew, 1599-1600, via Wikimedia Commons


Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859, via Wikimedia Commons

4.      The Darkest Part of a Shadow: Symbols and Mystery

Painting shadows also represents and symbolizes sensations that go beyond the moral and religious struggle between Good and Evil. It is in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the advent of psychoanalysis and a new conception of human nature, that the shadow also acquired new metaphorical meaning in painting.In the well-known Kiss by Francesco Hayez, for instance, a shadow on the wall warns us of the presence of someone beyond the romantic scene. The couple - probably an Italian patriot who greets his girlfriend before leaving for the Second War of Independence - does not notice anything, but an obscure presence is observing them at the top of the stairs. We do not know whether it is a spy, considered the political symbolism of the painting, an enemy or merely a maid. Once noticed, only the feeling of disturbance and fear that the shadow evokes remains in the viewer.

And what about the shadows in Edvard Munch's paintings? The cast shadow in his art is an omen of death. The state of penumbra shadows symbolizes a condition of existential restlessness, panic, the same that tormented the artist during his long-lived life, always terrified by illness and diseases.


Edvard Munch, Puberty, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 20th century the shadow has also become a symbol of mystery, silence, a metaphor for the unknown. Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical painting of deserted squares, through their representation of architectural shadows and statues, evoke a sensation of loneliness and enigma.

Similarly, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, represents in La Réponse Imprévue  a dark shadow, beyond a torn door.

Each of them tells us something that goes beyond the literal representation of the shadow. They are suspended spaces, in which the shadow becomes more important than the light, it has the right to freely expand. They are the spaces of our unconscious -hidden behind a door, relegated to a deserted city- which comes out unexpectedly. The shadow is then the place of repressed instincts, a vital and necessary face that is part of us, that is taking back its space.







René Magritte Silhouette by Wolleh, via
Wikimedia Commons

5.      Contemporary Shadow Art

Contemporary Arts know the potent, creative quality of the unconscious, not only its destructive power. Draw with light and drawing shadows then start becoming independent art practices. Shadow becomes an element itself, which tells something just with its intrinsic existence. It becomes an autonomous symbol, in a search for integration of the shadow, of the negative side, in modern everyday life.

Shadow Art embodies all these investigations. The artist Kumi Yamashita, for example, sculpts using both light and shadow. She creates sculpture with a material object and a correlated immaterial figure, created through its cast shadow.

Also, the artist Rook Floro is extremely interesting in his use of shadow sculptures and reflection. Inspired by Jungian theory of Shadow Archetype, he questions the conscious and unconscious part of human beings.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster are the masters of the shadow art, with a strong sense of humor. They create sculptures made of trash, debris, mess, that combined together reflect unexpected scenes on the walls. Their artwerks question our perception of rubbish, once again challenging our idea of artistic monuments. What is artistically sculpted is just a pile of waste, what is projected is an interesting portrait, with human figures. But what is real, between these two?

Laurent Craste is another contemporary artist capable of employing shadow. The artist realizes ceramic sculptures and porcelain vases, but they become extremely unusual thanks to the wise use of industrial light. Like in shadow plays, sculpture’s shadows start dancing on the walls, transforming the whole artwork in a kinetic, cinematic, surprise.

Shadow and Architecture, via Unsplash

In this exploration among shadows and lights, it is clear how art searches for a reconciliation, between these two antithetical but reciprocal sides. Shadow can be perceived as a secondary entity, defined by negation with the use of light. It is immaterial, grey, impalpable, illusory. It acquires value just with the enlightenment, the gesture of bringing light, rationality, knowledge.

But at the end of this path, a question naturally arises: isn’t it the shadow that gives us the perception of depth? Isn't it through shadow that painters emphasize their forms and their space? In an ideal world, everything would be flat, sprinkled with light. Fortunately, in our reality the shadows, the depths, exist. Art teaches us to integrate the shadow, to trust its complexity.

Shadow Portrait, via Unsplash


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Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specialized in History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communication and Sociology. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin and wherever you can go with the power of the Internet.  She works as guide in Museum Education Departments and as a freelance writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, mostly about them at the same time, in an inclusive, feminist, transnational perspective.