No colour, just nuance ! Trompe l’œil and grisailles from Rubens to Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse, Musée des Augustins, from 15 March to 15 June 2008

Strangely enough, grisaille, the technique by which an artist works without colour, using only the resources of white and black, has been rarely studied. And yet the subject is fascinating, raising many questions about the very act of painting. Why does one deliberately choose to do without colour ? What was the purpose of painting these grisailles ? How important are they in the artist’s work as a whole ? Why do certain artists make it their specialty...? The exhibition tries to provide some of the answers.

The introductory essay by Axel Hemery in the catalogue, after a quick description of the main uses of grisaille, provides a concise history of this technique throughout the centuries and the different schools. This contribution should be read with careful interest although the subject deserves no doubt to be developed much further. Each period, each painter is touched upon briefly and we hope that the author might, perhaps in another book, elaborate more extensively upon a field which he obviously knows quite well.
The exhibition could not treat some of the aspects of grisaille, for obvious reasons such as in the case of décors for façades painted in the Renaissance (few originals have survived) or for reasons related to their conservation. We particularly appreciate the fact, at a time when works are transported for no good reason, that the organizers were scrupulous enough (no doubt also due to the high cost of transporting them) to avoid the useless shipping of large Flemish retables of the 15th and 16th centuries illustrating the way in which the panels were usually painted in grisaille, a practice linked to the liturgical period of Ashes.

1. Giacomo del Po (1652-1726)
Cadmus Fighting the Dragon
Oil on canvas - 72 x 104 cm
Amiens, Musée de Picardie
Photo : Amiens, musée de Picardie / Marc Jeanneteau

The explanations are very detailed, placing each painting in the context of the exhibition theme. In most cases, at least for the 17th and 18th centuries, grisailles are done in preparation for a painting or engraving. Even the large Christ by Antoine Dieu which the Musée de Toulouse has just acquired (see news item of 15/3/08) is no doubt a preliminary study for an engraving, maybe a sculpture. As for Alexandre-François Desportes (cat. 26), this is a study for a silver platter which he painted in grisaille (the term is in fact not really correct since the monochrome chosen here is golden). But there are obviously exceptions to this rule. An artist may also choose to execute final works in this technique. This is the case for Cadmus Fighting the Dragon, an oval canvas (ill. 1) which transposes, as indicated in the catalogue, an antique cameo. The grisaille scene stands out from a blue background which delicately highlights its beauty and transforms the painting into a veritable “objet d’art”. A painting such as the one by Jacques Stella (cat. 18) representing the Massacre of the Innocents, although no doubt a preparation for a painting, is so accomplished and in such a convenient format for a private owner, that it can be considered a finished work on its own.

2. Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818)
Fauness and bacchant children, after Clodion, 1774
Oil on canvas - 21 x 35 cm
Private collection

In the 18th century, grisaille is also used to paint trompe-l’œil on fake bas-reliefs for decorating walls. Piat-Joseph Sauvage made it his specialty (to the point that any painting in this style is usually generously ascribed to him). There is a study by this artist in Toulouse (cat. 45 ; this is a grisaille study just like the final work) and a painting of the same style by Anne Vallayer-Coster (ill. 2) after a relief by Clodion. But it is in the 19th century that the status of grisailles becomes even more diversified. Although many studies were still executed in this manner (several are shown at the exhibition including ones by Puvis de Chavannes, Jean-Batiste Carpeaux and Benjamin Constant), artists made more extensive use of the technique. At times, such as in the case of Eugène Carrière, the painter appropriates it entirely even if the work shown here is indeed a study. This “notion […] is rather relative in [his] case” as is wisely pointed out by Axel Hémery. A more striking example is that of Heraclitus by Théodule Ribot, a veritable drawing executed in oil, a very original final work acquired by Amiens in 2006 or the copy by James Tissot of the Portrait of Madame de Senonnes by Ingres which entered the Musée de Nantes in 2004 (ill. 3).

3. James Tissot (1836-1902)
Portrait of Madame de Senonnes,
after Ingres

Oil on canvas - 102 x 81 cm
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMN / G. Blot

In the introductory text, Axel Hémery points out that Thomas Couture described a preparation method for compositions with a “kind of sepia oil”. This observation can be linked to the recent acquisition by the Musée de Senlis of an unfinished painting by this artist, The Offering to Saint Peter’s (not present in the exhibition), where he applied the technique (see news item of 12/1/06 on La Tribune de l’Art, in French). As a matter of fact the artist is represented in the exhibition with a study of the head of a young girl named Juliette.

4. Giovanni Baglione (c. 1566-1643)
The Resurrection of Christ
Oil on canvas - 86 x 57 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN / H. Lewandowski

5. Pierre-Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The Resurrection of Christ
Oil on panel - 25 x 20 cm
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts /
Hugo Maertens

Among the works assembled here, we would like to comment on some that are not very well known or are particularly remarkable (or even both). A preliminary study by Pietro Sorri, held in a private collection, is published here for the first time (cat. 6). In the same section of the exhibition, the museum goer can admire the very beautiful Resurrection of Christ by Giovanni Baglione (ill. 4), which the artist called a “brunaille” rather than a grisaille (since it was painted in shades of brown). The masterpiece of the exhibition is one of Rubens’ most beautiful studies, a preparation for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp (ill. 5). Rubens, the colorist, uses only white on a brown background to suggest with just a few brush strokes the Resurrection of Christ.
We would like to end this review by mentioning the two studies by Benjamin West held in Bordeaux, a rare painter in French museums (the Louvre recently acquired one of his canvases, see news item of 29/7/07). They are at the same time studies because of the location for which they were intended (they are a preparation for an unfinished décor at Windsor), final works because of their size and their accomplished style, elements for a wall decoration, and thus symbolize the ambiguous and multiple status of grisailles as revealed by the exhibition in Toulouse.

Axel Hémery, Pas la couleur, Rien que la nuance ! Trompe-l’œil et grisailles de Rubens à Toulouse-Lautrec, Musée des Augustins, 180 p., 35 €. ISBN : 2-901820-37-9.

Visitor Information : Musée des Augustins, 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse. Phone : +33 (0)5 61 22 21 82. Open daily 10.00 to 18.00 (Wednesday through 21.00). Admission charge : 3 € and 1,5 €.

Didier Rykner, dimanche 25 mai 2008

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : Poussin and Research. A scholar day at the Met

Next article in Exhibitions : Camille Claudel