Veronese–the Painter of Light

Paolo Veronese was a painter of light. What does that mean? He didn’t make a light-dark picture the way all the others did. He rounded out his figures with more color, not dark shadows.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese,  666 cm × 990 cm (262 in × 390 in),   Louvre, Paris

Ever since Apollodorus had invented shading and shadows– to give the objects in a picture the look of roundness and depth– painters had made very heavy use of them. Pictures were light on one side and dark or darker on the other. Some painters went very far in contrasting the light and the dark. Chiaroscuro is what the Italians called the technique. Leonardo toyed with it, Raphael toyed with it.

La Perla by Raphael Sanzio   Oil on wood, 114 x 115 cm.   Prado Museum, Madrid.

Caravaggio later made it the hallmark of his pictures. And Rembrandt……..

Man with a Golden Helmet by Rembrandt , Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

“Rembrandt,” wrote the British art critic John Ruskin, “Rembrandt darkens five-sixths of his picture just to give you the not very important truth of the gleam on a helmet or a sword.” Ruskin thought the Dutch painter’s dramatic effects were achieved only by sacrificing color in most of his painting.

Veronese painted pictures without a strong contrast—almost without shading and without shadows. Most painters couldn’t even do that: they NEEDED the contrast to give their figures weight and depth. Their very choice of colors depended on a strong shine of light from one side of the picture. The object in their picture was one color. Its unlighted side was a darker version of that same color. And the shine of light on it was a third. That was how painters had learned to paint and it had always come out very well.

Veronese painted as though his scenes took place outdoors in full daylight (but not direct sun). The scene was all color. “Veronese is the one man who achieves clarity without big contrasts….,” the French painter Delacroix wrote in his journal, “and that was always considered impossible. In my opinion he is the only one who has known how to catch the complete secret of nature.”

Feast in the House of Levi by Veronese, 555 x 1280 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

This painting got Veronese  into trouble with the Inquisition. See Clowns at the Last Supper? to get the story.

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13 Responses to Veronese–the Painter of Light

  1. iom danu says:

    Indeed, achivieng clarity (simili contrast) withought value contrast it’s something extraordinary. Maybe the degree of saturatiom played a part also… but seeing The Feast of levy’s I wouldn’t say there are quite strong contrasts there… Maybe he achived mainly with color the “contrast” but he did use also value contrast. Probably I should study more painting of Veronesse before concluding…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Maybe it IS a great achievemant to paint scenes without that usual light-dark contrast but I always missed it in Veronese and Tintoretto too. Many of their works seem to have no color focus. Everything seems of equal importance. I used to think of some of his paintings as faded tapestries, where all the colors have the same magnitude. Color seems too abundant, too diverse, too cheap.

  3. Graybum says:

    You’re right about Veronese’s use of colour and light – a wonderful artist. Art should nver be reduced to the merely mechanical. In regards to this painting the artist’s ingenuity in dealing with the Inquisition, and resultant transcripts of his interviews, add several layers of depth beyond the mere technical.

    • 100swallows says:

      Graybum: Thanks. Veronese did answer those judges cleverly. Of course he tried to sound more ignorant, modest, and innocent than he was. I’d like to read the full transcript.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    You sure have to think he loved color, and probably light as well, as you say. My guess is that his love of light bolstered his love of color and vice versa.

    Either way it’s a pleasure to look at his paintings again. I for one much prefer this to the melodrama of chiaroscuro.

  5. Rich says:

    Beauty’s festival, truly! That wedding is in the Louvre; countless painters must have honoured the grand painting there over the centuries almost; Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet and of course Delacroix.
    As far as I know, Veronese’s magic of colour also had to do with many layers of glazing he applied – up to thirty or so at times. A technique some painters disapproved. I think Wilhelm Leibl was a dogmatic chap in this respect.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I had never heard about Veronese’s layers. In the close-up photos I have of, for example, the Feast in the House of Levi, it looks like very accurate alla prima work. And Ruskin used Veronese as the supreme example of an artist who, with one masterly stroke, could apply just the right color in just the right amount at just the right place on the picture. But of course that doesn’t mean he didn’t use transparencies. It took me some time to get to like Veronese’s profusion of colors. It seemed there were too many of them in a painting and so none really stood out. Thanks for sending me to see Leibl’s paintings. I liked a couple of his group portraits of peasants.

  6. wrjones says:

    While those very dark backgrounds can produce some beautiful work, it does seem artificial after a while. Leffel does the same thing over and over. VERY dark background with strong light on subject. My problem with this is that it is unnatural. And to me it says the painter does not think much of the natural fall of light. Or he/she can’t handle it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Bill: I wonder if there aren’t simply too many colors in the Veronese. One thing is clear daylight and another is the whole rainbow. Rembrandt is so stingy with color that any little gleam of red or blue looks like heaven, and you remember it.

  7. wpm1955 says:

    It never occurred to me to think about the light-dark thing until you mentioned it. Looking at Veronese’s two pictures here with all the color strikes me as looking very MODERN (other than the scene, of course).


    • 100swallows says:

      wpm1955: Thanks, Mary. I should warn you that in the Louvre the big wedding picture won’t look like this enhanced photo of it. Remember, it is enormous–one of the largest pictures in the museum. All those colors are spread out, not so concentrated and (as I remember them) not nearly so bright. Maybe the painting has since been cleaned.

  8. Rich says:

    Looking at such perfect monumental paintings as the Veronese ones, for instance, I sometimes ask myself: Which was the place of the last brush-stroke? – where had it been applied? Where was the point when the master said: “O.K., let’s leave it at that. Let’s consider it finished!”?

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: A good question. I see in a close-up I have of his Feast in the House of Levi that there are very precise master-strokes on the figures, such as skilled painters add last to their paintings–the highlights and touches of brightest color. I’d guess that he left the background–all that architecture–to assistants. When I have time to scan the fragment I’ll put it here. But deciding when a work is finished is really a problem, even for some masters. I can’t recall now which other painter said of Whistler that he didn’t know when to stop.

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