by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Metropolitan, New York
Odalisque in Grisaille by Ingres, 1824-34

Painting in Black and White

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 16 February 2018


Ingres' 'Odalisque in Grisaille', his monochrome version of his famous 'Grand Odalisque' - which anticipates Andy Warhol's such experiments by a century and a half - is the poster girl for this splendid exhibition. Why exactly the French artist painted it remains a mystery, but he kept it in his studio till his death and it remained in the family until 1938.

Surveying the phenomenon over a long period suggests that monochrome was often used by artists to develop, test and perfect their skills and frequently was most fully appreciated by their fellow artists and their inner circles of friends, patrons and connoisseurs.

The Cistercians were the first actively to promote monochrome dÉcor in their monasteries, reflecting the austere rules of the order. A statute of around 1134 by Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux forbade the use of colour in their surroundings and surviving examples of their stained glass are regarded as the earliest grisailles in Western art.

But during the middle ages monochrome images took on a wider symbolic significance. A lovely 'Nativity' by the Flemish artist Petrus Christus of about 1450, in the first room of the show, has richly coloured rendering of the event, but is framed by an elaborate monochrome sculpted arch featuring Adam and Eve and Old Testament scenes. This not only illustrated the notion that the world was shadowy and incomplete before the birth of Christ but also gave the artist the opportunity to demonstrate, in his trompe-l'oeil rendering of the stone-work, that he was a master of illusion.

Jan Van Eyck's 'St. Barbara' here is the first known entirely monochrome panel. And his stunning 'Annunciation Diptych', depicting statues in niches of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, further demonstrates his monochromatic and illusionistic skills, in the rendering of the stone and of the shadows the figures seem to cast.

This was the period that marked the beginning of a lively debate, known as the 'paragone' (the comparison) as to which of the plastic arts was the noblest. As a series of masterpieces here by Renaissance and Baroque artists - Mantegna, Giandomenico Tiepolo, Jacob de Wit, Marten Jozef Geeraerts, Bernardino Nocchi and others - demonstrates, it was frequently through their representations of sculpture that painters strove to display the superiority of their calling. Titian in his 'Portrait of a Lady (La Schiavona)' stylishly offered his contribution to this discussion by providing a realistic front view of his subject with her hand resting on an idealized trompe-l'oeil classical stone relief of her in profile.

The 17th-century Dutch painter Adriaen van de Venne was the first to abandon polychrome completely and produced monochrome pictures for most of his career. And Jacob de Wit's astonishingly effective grisailles imitating 3-D stucco work, such as his 'Jupiter and Ganymede' of 1739, became popularly known as witjes, punning on the Dutch word for 'white' and his name.

The next challenge to painters came in the form of mass-produced prints. Some artists, like Rubens and Van Dyck, painted their own monochrome versions of their works to be copied by the craftsmen who made the prints. Rembrandt's 'Ecce Homo', the only known oil sketch he produced that was indubitably preparatory to a print (the largest he ever had made) was an astonishing work in its own right. Prints were typically limited in size by technical considerations, but a remarkable new genre of 'pen painting', pioneered by the 16th-century printmaker Dutch Hendrik Goltzius, melded the arts of drawing, painting and printmaking, to create incredibly detailed, hand-made larger format images that looked like prints.

This kind of illusionism reached even more exotic heights in the 18th century. One of the most popular genre images of the era was Jean-Siméon Chardin's 'Back from the Market' (La Pourvoyeuse), of which he produced at least four painted versions and which was mass-marketed as a print. Étienne Moulinneuf playfully responded by painting a monochrome version of the print 'framed' in a trompe-l'oell mounting under a sheet of seemingly cracked glass with jagged fragments missing.

No less arresting is Louis-Léopold Carpenter 'A Girl at a Window', another breathtaking fake print, which achieves a wonderful depth of visual field and is also artfully set in what turns out to be trompe-l'oeil mounting.

Black-and-white photography and film - the monochrome nature of which was the result of technical limitations rather than artistic choices - ushered in a century-long era during which monochrome images became ubiquitous in daily life to an unprecedented degree. And, while photography was initially strongly influenced by painting, in due course painting was much affected by photography.

Among the most interesting early examples of the latter process, both from the 1860s, are the miniature monochrome paintings produced by the Norwegian Peder Balke, such as 'The Tempest', and a 'Head of a Girl' by the Frenchman Célestin Joseph Blanc that eerily resembles a photo studio portrait.

After the feast of absorbing images from earlier centuries, the selection of 20th-century abstract and other works is surprisingly uninspiring. But while the absence of leading contemporary artists who work in monochrome is regrettable - the Italian artist Marco Tirelli, who has developed extraordinarily complex painting techniques to produce haunting sculptural images, springs to mind - this is a small criticism of such a thought-provoking and revealing show.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White; National Gallery, London; 30 October 2017 - 18 February 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023