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Repoussoir-To Push Back

Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?

A powerful trick that so many paintings employ

Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, United States.

It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.

On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.

The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?

Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna (c.1639) by Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.

Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…

Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.

The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.

So what’s happening in all of these paintings?

Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.

The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)

In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.

Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. Kunst Museum Winterthur.

Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.

The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.

(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.

Detail of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.

Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.

The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.

In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.

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