Pushing it back: depth and repoussoir 2

Samuel Palmer, The Shearers (c 1833-5), oil and tempera on wood, 51.4 x 71.7 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

In the first article of this pair yesterday, I explained and showed how trees to one side of the foreground of a painting strengthen the cues for depth, a compositional technique known as repoussoir, pushing back. This had become quite widely used by the end of the eighteenth century, and an accepted part of the artist’s repertoire.

Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), oil on canvas, 90.5 × 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.
Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), oil on canvas, 90.5 × 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Caspar David Friedrich used it from an unconventional angle of view in his Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818). Here the viewer’s gaze is directed down towards the sea below and beyond the white pinnacles. To make this appear even more vertiginous, Friedrich adds classical repoussoir from a couple of trees perched on the clifftop, then leans two of his figures against their feet.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Pope’s Villa, at Twickenham (1808), oil on canvas, 120.6 x 92.5 cm, Private Collection. WikiArt.

Inspired by Claude Lorraine, JMW Turner’s early view of Pope’s Villa, at Twickenham from 1808 is a good example of the left-sided repoussoir convention in all its glory.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Crossing the Brook (1815), oil on canvas, 193 x 165.1 cm, Tate Britain, London (N00497). EHN & DIJ Oakley.

A few years later, Turner used even stronger repoussoir to make the city of Plymouth seem even more distant as we look down on it in his Crossing the Brook (1815). He draws our gaze deep into that distance by continuing the trees diagonally downwards from the right, leading us to the river which then meanders into the haze.

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Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Circle Dancing (1910), tempera on wood, 79 × 84 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Franz von Stuck included two young birch trees as repoussoir either side of six young women dancing in a ring, in his Circle Dancing of 1910. This demonstrates again how the foreground figures alone don’t have as much effect on depth as they do in conjunction with the repoussoir: try covering the trees with your hands.

View of the Piazzetta near the Square of St Mark, Venice 1827, exhibited 1828 by Richard Parkes Bonington 1802-1828
Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), The Piazzetta, Venice (1827) (231), oil on canvas, 44.2 x 36.7 cm, The Tate Gallery, London (Presented by Robert Vernon 1847). Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bonington-view-of-the-piazzetta-near-the-square-of-st-mark-venice-n00374

I showed in the first article an example of Richard Parkes Bonington’s use of traditional repoussoir in a watercolour landscape sketch. In The Piazzetta, Venice painted in oils the year before he died tragically young, he uses a column placed close to the centreline of the picture, in a radical departure from convention which works very well.

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Richard Bergh (1858–1919), Nordic Summer’s Evening (1899-1900), oil on canvas, 170 x 223.5 cm, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Gothenburg, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Berg tried another variation using figures and pillars moved out from the edges, in his Nordic Summer’s Evening (1899-1900), then adds to the recession with trees behind them in the middle distance.

In the early nineteenth century, taking a lead from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a woman standing by a window, windows, balconies and other structures were used to frame distant landscapes, recalling the windows used in many Renaissance and earlier paintings to afford far landscape views. As the century passed, painters steadily closed in on these frames, until Pierre Bonnard returned again and again to views through the window.

Samuel Palmer, The Shearers (c 1833-5), oil and tempera on wood, 51.4 x 71.7 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Samuel Palmer, The Shearers (c 1833-5), oil and tempera on wood, 51.4 x 71.7 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

Samuel Palmer’s The Shearers from about 1833-35 uses the massive beams of a sheepshed to frame the dazzling external landscape.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Earthly Paradise (1916-20), oil on canvas, 130 x 160 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard was no stranger to the conventional use of trees for repoussoir, as shown in his spectacular view of Earthly Paradise from 1916-20. In some of his paintings, he moved the trees into the centre instead.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Breakfast Room (Dining Room Overlooking the Garden) (1930-31), oil on canvas, 159.7 x 113.98 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s The Breakfast Room from 1930-31 uses thin slivers of figures at its edges for its first plane of repoussoir, beyond which are one of the artist’s favourite repoussoir structures, French windows. Although others have used figures for repoussoir, this reverses convention.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Morning, or Cathedral of Mantes, with a Fisherman (c 1865), oil on panel, 52.1 x 32.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Rheims, France. Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Morning, or Cathedral of Mantes, with a Fisherman (c 1865), oil on panel, 52.1 x 32.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Rheims, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Impressionists, particularly landscape specialists such as Pissarro, used repoussoir occasionally. But some took their lead from Corot, who so often extended what you might have thought were perfectly good repoussoir trees to cover much or all of the view, isolating foreground and background altogether.

My last artist, though, leaves me more puzzled than when I started: Paul Cézanne, who apparently wanted to control the viewer’s perception of the geometry of the painting, in particular with the aim of losing depth.

Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire au grand pin (1886-7) Rewald no. 598. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 72.5 cm, Phillips Collection, Washington DC (WikiArt). Framed by the repoussoir pines, the distant mountain shows marked aerial perspective.
Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire au grand pin (1886-7) Rewald no. 598. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 72.5 cm, Phillips Collection, Washington DC (WikiArt). Framed by the repoussoir pines, the distant mountain shows marked aerial perspective.

I therefore find it puzzling that Cézanne used repoussoir quite traditionally. In his painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire with a large Pine from 1886-87, he frames the view with two straggly pines which reach out to one another at the top of the canvas.

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Paul Cézanne, Le Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) (1896) (R805), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) (P.1932.SC.60). Wikimedia Commons.

Cézanne’s Le Lac d’Annecy is generally taken as the inception of his most radical style and approach to painting, during his late career. When compared to modern satellite images, the distance between the artist’s point of view and the Château de Duingt on the opposite side of the lake is 800 metres (just under half a mile), but it appears to be far closer than that despite the very traditional repoussoir of a tree trunk on the left.

Cézanne was perhaps the first painter to use repoussoir to make a distant object look closer.