The Art of Grisaille

10/06/2020     Old Master Paintings

NEW YORK, NY -- Grisaille is the art of painting in shades of gray. Similarly, painting in shades of brown is called brunaille; and in shades of green, verdaille. Artists have worked in grisaille and its variants for centuries, both for its subtle elegance and as a technique to represent architecture and sculpture. Although examples of painting in gray can be found both in manuscripts and stained glass from the high Middle Ages, grisaille enjoyed a sudden burst of popularity when it was embraced by major artists in the early 1300s. Foremost of these artists was Giotto di Bondone, whose grisaille trompe-l’oeil frescoes completed in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua around 1305 offered a monumental example that was soon imitated by other artists throughout Italy. At roughly the same time, book illuminators in France were increasingly introducing grisaille elements into their work. In the 1320s the French master Jean Pucelle created an exquisite book of hours almost entirely in grisaille for no less a patron than the Queen of France herself. This tiny prayer book, known as the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, is a miracle of rich detail and delicate execution. Its refined virtuosity brought a new aesthetic both to courtly art and to book illustration in general -- one that emphasized the quality of the draftsmanship rather than the brilliance of the color.

In the following century, artists working in Flanders used grisaille to depict both architecture and sculpture. On folding altarpieces – triptychs and polyptychs – it became the convention to feature grisaille representations of sculpture in architectural settings on the outer panels, creating an illusion for viewers of standing outside the door of a Gothic church. Since altarpieces were normally kept closed, that subdued front was what lay worshippers normally saw. However, on holidays and other festive occasions, the doors were opened to reveal the paradise of splendid color within. In the sixteenth century, the contrast of grisaille and intense color was presented in a different way by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here heroic figures in full color are shown seated amid illusionistic grisaille architecture and sculpture, which frame the central scenes from the Old Testament. Like Giotto’s trompe-l’oeil figures, the Sistine Ceiling’s elaborate program gave rise to numerous repetitions both in Italy and Northern Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and well into the eighteenth century.

As grisaille was increasingly used for architectural decoration, artists began to create movable wall panels, overdoors, and overmantels for private homes. These were painted on canvas for easy installation, which also allowed them to be changed periodically or moved to other locations at will. The subjects of these panels were often light-hearted, featuring animals, children, or interesting objects such as musical instruments, gardening tools and hunting gear. One important master of this new decorative style was the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit (1695-1754). Although he began his career as a painter of religious subjects, he soon developed a sideline in architectural decoration, mostly in grisaille. Some of his paintings depicted moral allegories or Roman gods, but his favorite theme by far was adorable little children playing with grown-up accoutrements. A classic example of this new style is de Wit’s Allegory of Hunting, signed and dated 1733, from the collection of Joseph Cicio. In this large wall panel we see four toddlers playing with what has been left at the end of a stag hunt: a hunting horn, bow, quiver, two eagerly watchful hunting dogs and the felled stag. Although the pride a patron might have taken in killing a stag is less commonly felt today than in the early 18th century, the charm of this imaginary episode is still irresistible.

The last important master who specialized in grisaille painting was the Franco-Belgian artist Piat Joseph Sauvage (1744-1818). As he came of age in the era of Neoclassicism, it is not surprising that Sauvage’s paintings often depict antique subjects, portrayed as illusionistic sculptural reliefs. Venus, Apollo and other Greco-Roman figures make frequent appearances, as do mobs of little children reminiscent of Jacob de Wit’s. These paintings were immensely popular in the late 18th century and were emulated often. Two examples by one of Sauvage’s followers are Mercury and Ceres, wall panels probably from a larger mythological program. To fit these figures into elongated architectural spaces, the artist has cleverly posed them as half-recumbent, not only solving his spatial problem but giving these handsome gods an added air of aristocratic relaxation.

Although Sauvage had worked for many princely patrons and even for the royal family, he supported the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sometime around 1800, he produced several trompe-l’oeil profile bust portraits of the young Napoleon as First Consul, painted in imitation of antique marble reliefs. These were an instant sensation, copied so often and so skillfully that it is often very difficult to say for certain which are by Sauvage and which are by others. A particularly fine version of Sauvage’s Napoleon portrait is featured in The Collection of Joseph Cicio. This is an exceptionally striking example, with Napoleon’s handsome profile painted in dark gray against a pale gray background. This portrait thus offers a surprising twist in the story of grisaille: rather than the delicacy and understatement that characterize so many works in this vein, what we see here is sheer drama. It is a harbinger of the Romantic Movement just beginning to dawn.

The Collection of Joseph Cicio
The October 14, 2020 auction of The Collection of Joseph Cicio offers a selection of works executed in grisailles.