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Light and shade contain by nature a very strong element of movement….a mass of light tends to a movement of dispersal, leading the eye to and fro; it has no bounds, no definite break in continuity, and on all sides it increases and decreases. This, basically, is how the painterly style evokes an illusion of constant change.
Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945)*

During the Baroque period artists sought for ways to make art emotionally relatable to their viewers. Grand scenes that focused on dramatic events graced center stage. The painterly style that Wölfflin mentions utilized dynamic contrasts in light and dark in order to make artwork so visually engaging and full of movement that it almost seemed to come alive. Look at Adoration of the Shepherds from the period of Louis XIV and compare this to Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus. What techniques do these artists use to draw attention to the most important elements of the composition? How might the size and medium of these artworks reflect the religious leanings of these regions?

Eustache Le Sueur (1616–1655) Adoration of the Shepherds

Purchase/gift of Gloria Teichert with funds provided by Jack R. and Mary Lois Wheatley


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Adoration of the Shepherds is set against a dramatic backdrop of a ruined building scattered with broken columns, growing plant life, and a dark cloud-covered sky. Visitors to the Christ child include not only mortal shepherds, but two chubby, winged putti descending from billowing clouds.

The figures in Adoration of the Shepherds are all in the midst of an action, giving movement to the painting. The shepherd in the bottom right corner, whose back is to the audience, leans forward in an unstable crouched movement, his rear foot extended toward the viewer as if to invite them into the scene.

Note the large abundance of folding drapery in Adoration of the Shepherds, especially the swaddling cloth held by Mary in which she will wrap the Christ child. The variety of colors and folds in the clothing provides highlights and shadows that enhance the drama of the painting.

Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus shows the Savior dramatically lit with bright highlights on the front, and dark shadows on the back of his body. His dramatically uplifted hand not only calls forth Lazarus from the grave, but also forms the apex of the composition. Below, a heavenly shaft of light rests on the lifeless figure of Lazarus, while an onlooker in the bottom right corner draws back in shock. Others, balanced so precariously along the sides of the open tomb, appear to be on the verge of falling into the tomb. Many lean forward or draw back in dramatic gestures that characterize the drama of the Baroque period.

Although both of these works are from the same time period, you may note that The Raising of Lazarus is much smaller in scale. Unlike the luminous oil painting of Adoration of the Shepherds, this is a small print that could be mass produced and widely distributed to the middle classes of the Dutch Republic.

*Heinrich Wölfllin, Renaissance and Baroque, transl. Kathrin Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966).