Repoussoir is a term you’ll see bandied about in writing about art, particularly landscape painting. It’s French for pushing back, and refers to compositional techniques used to make the distant parts of an image look further away and deeper into the picture. In this article and its sequel tomorrow, I look at repoussoir to get a clearer idea of what is meant by the term, how it works, and how it has been used and developed by the masters old and newer.
The ancient painters in classical Greece and Rome were very keen on realism. Although they never quite discovered linear perspective projection, they valued the ability to make a two-dimensional image appear to have physical depth, its third dimension.
When there are buildings and people around, as in Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Spring from 1897, there are rich visual cues which give depth to a painting. Among them are occlusion of distant objects by nearer ones, relative size, height in the picture plane, texture and detail gradients, aerial perspective, and formal projection in linear perspective – all of which are seen here.
But away from buildings, particularly in the flat North Sea coast seen in Willem Roelofs’ Seascape at Heijst from about 1868, many of those cues are lost. Without further visual information, our brains can struggle to gauge the depth – an effect Roelofs was presumably exploiting here.
Anton Mauve followed traditional teaching in his Morning Ride Along the Beach from 1876 by adding foreground objects, and augmenting cues for depth. But most of those rely on the details which are lost as you look further into the distance.
One compositional solution to the problem, repoussoir, is shown clearly in Richard Parkes Bonington’s sketchy watercolour of Les Salinières near Trouville (1826). At the left side of the painting – the most conventional location for it – he plants a tree, straggly enough not to obscure the landscape, but high enough to rise much of the height of his paper.
This repoussoir tree adds a remarkably rich set of cues which make the painting have palpable depth.
In the paintings of these two articles, you’ll see a variety of objects used in this role. Some may never have existed at all, and been put there purely to provide repoussoir. Others have been slightly ‘adjusted’ from nature, perhaps, to gain their full effect.
Trees are the most common among landscape artists, and they are normally seen on either or both sides of the painting. Sometimes they arch over towards the centre of the view, but they’re subordinate additions to the view, and generally the approach taken is to keep them in their place, rather than letting them vie for the viewer’s attention.
After the Romans, there was a long period during which paintings seldom tried to imitate reality. It was in the Renaissance that artists resumed painting what they saw in the world around them – and with it came the importance of depth again.
At the dawn of modern landscape painting, Giorgione’s The Tempest from about 1504-8 uses trees on both left and right to frame the buildings and lightning in repoussoir, an extremely early and innovative use.
At around the same time, Fra Bartolomeo used a ruined building for repoussoir in The Holy Family with St John the Baptist (1506-07). Some refer to the framing object leading the gaze of the viewer, and here that is easy to imagine, with the pillar taking the eye to the distant ox and ass, and on to the far Italianate town.
The greatest of the early landscape painters in the south of Europe, Poussin and Claude, were fine exponents in the use of repoussoir. My favourite example is Poussin’s magnificent and pure Landscape with a Calm from about 1651. Here the forms of the trees fit so well with the landscape beyond, because this is but an idealised composite landscape.
There’s no shortage of repoussoir among the landscapes of Claude either. Above is his Coast Scene with the Rape of Europa from 1667, in which the dark and heavy tree at the left is his frame. Below is a chalk and sepia sketch made slightly later for Perseus and the Origin of Coral (c 1671), with its repoussoir tree again on that side.
Repoussoir had already been widely adopted by the great landscape painters in northern Europe too. By the time that Jacob van Ruisdael painted this view of a Landscape with a Church in about 1645, his repoussoir trees were threatening to take over the whole view.
Thomas Gainsborough took a lighter touch in his Wooded Landscape with a Cottage and Shepherd from 1748-50: on the left is a thin sliver which hints gently that there’s a tree just beyond the edge of the canvas. Its twin on the right is further into the motif, but makes up for that in its engaging character.
In the next article, I’ll consider how repoussoir fared in the nineteenth century, when so much of painting was questioned and re-examined.