5 European Art History Terms to Know

Written by Kathryn Cooperman. Edited by Morgan Moore.

Cover image courtesy of James Deavin, The Telegraph.

When studying European art history, five terms in particular – impasto, tenebrism, sfumato, foreshortening, and trompe l’oeil – are essential for art historians to know. All of these techniques refer to how artists of this time chose to model their subjects, and in doing so, how they conveyed their desired message. At the end of the Medieval period and the rise of the Renaissance, religion was no longer the only driving force of art. Painters and sculptors now entered more of a secular realm, in which they focused on rendering subjects with a high degree of naturalism and showcasing their skills as artists. As the Renaissance era progressed and at the rise of the Baroque period, artists sought to convey drama through their work, with richly decorated ornamentation and striking portrayals of light and dark. Impressionist and Expressionist canvases, in a way, continued the Baroque drama by showcasing light and color in an intense way. 

Below, I describe the techniques in question and provide famous examples. A knowledge of these terms – and the history behind them – help us describe the groundbreaking paintings and influential movements in the history of European art.


This term refers to a heavy application of paint onto a canvas, often employed by using a palette knife. The result is a thick encrustation of paint, and the viewer can see the individual brushstrokes. Impasto gives life to a painting – it helps to emphasize its elements and evoke a specific mood. The Baroque period marked the rise of impasto as a technique, in which artists used it to define the textures of opulent clothing and jewelry. Then, in the nineteenth century, the Impressionists and Expressionists utilized impasto in their depictions of nature and natural elements, imbuing them with life. A particularly successful portrayal of impasto is shown in Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Expressionist painting The Starry Night – the thick layering of paint creates the feeling of a turbulent, swirling sky, and as a further extension of this, it showcases Van Gogh’s chaotic, unsettled mind.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. Oil on canvas. 1889. Museum of Modern Art. Image per Wikimedia Commons.


This means a stark, harsh contrast between light and dark. Tenebrism falls under the category of chiaroscuro, which refers in general to the modeling of light and dark, but it is a more dramatic expression of that technique. Artists use tenebrism to emphasize a central subject, which creates a sense of drama – it almost looks like the subject is illuminated by a spotlight. The Baroque artist Caravaggio is a master of tenebrism, with many famous examples of this technique. His painting Calling of Saint Matthew is a beautiful application of tenebrism – the light streaming through the window at the right brightly illuminates the saint at the center, representing the pivotal moment in which Jesus Christ calls upon him to become his disciple.

Caravaggio. Calling of St. Matthew. Oil on canvas. 1599-1600. Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi. Image per Wikimedia Commons.


An artist employs sfumato when they blend forms and colors together in a soft manner rather than with a harsh delineation of lines. The result is an almost smoky, hazy effect that appears naturalistic. A notable example is Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Her facial features and hands are modeled with subtle gradations of color, imbuing the sitter with life and making her appear realistic. The feeling that the subject is present and alive makes the painting highly relatable and one of the most iconic images in Western art history.

Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. Oil on panel. c. 1503-1519. Louvre Museum. Image per Wikimedia Commons.


This technique refers to depicting an object at an angle. Objects shown in this way draw the viewer into the scene because they create a distortion of space, almost eliminating the boundary between the viewer and the subject matter. For example, Dutch Baroque painter Judith Leyster employs foreshortening in her Self-Portrait. Her arm resting on the chair is foreshortened, as are her brushes and palette at the lower right of the canvas, and her painting is turned outwards to face us. These decisions create a sense of intimacy between the spectator and the artist, almost as if Leyster wants us to join her in the scene. This intimacy is a hallmark of Dutch Baroque paintings.

Judith Leyster. Self Portrait. Oil on canvas. c. 1633. National Gallery of Art. Image per Wikimedia Commons.

Trompe L’oeil

This is an optical illusion in which artists make subjects appear three-dimensional to such a degree that they seem to transcend the border between the canvas and the observer. The result is images that seem to pop out at you – they appear lifelike and can create an element of surprise. A notable application of this technique is Spanish nineteenth-century painter Pere Borrell del Caso’s Escaping Criticism. In this work, a young, wide-eyed boy grabs the edges of the painted frame, and places his foot at the bottom. The result of this is that he appears to leap out of the painting and enter the viewer’s space, creating a definite shock and reinforcing the idea that he is trying to get away from something. 

Of course, there are hundreds of other applications of these techniques, but knowing a couple of key Renaissance, Baroque, and Nineteenth Century paintings gives art historians a strong baseline knowledge and only makes other examples easier to spot. When we make an effort to learn and understand these techniques, we capture the very essence of the naturalism, drama, and intimacy that these artists sought to portray.

Pere Borrell del Caso. Escaping Criticism. Oil on canvas. 1874. Bank of Spain. Image per Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think about this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.