Shades of grey
What, next, are some of the still-broader implications of Adam and Eve’s stoniness? The apparent contradiction between grey’s seeming simplicity and intrinsic complexity is at the heart of grisaille’s expressive potential. At once inert and allusive, grey reveals itself to be anything but neutral in its perceptual associations, from bone, ash, and stone to death and the sobrieties of Lent to the black-and-white vividness of dreams. The potential aspects of grisaille are manifold: as austerity and ornament, trompe l’oeil, underpainting, preliminary studies for paintings or reproductive prints, three-dimensional form (beautifully manifested in enameled porcelain), as non-color and a nuanced, even revelatory color in its own right. The history of grisaille must be charted, therefore, not only as a formal or technical but, moreover, a conceptual continuum. Implicitly, monochromy also served as a demonstration of painting’s superiority over sculpture’s brand of naturalism in the longstanding discourse on the paragone. To this point, our understanding of the phenomenon of grisaille, both north and south of the Alps, has been greatly altered by a number of exciting exhibitions that have asked new questions and made fresh connections among and between a variety of media and epochs.
The French term “grisaille,” or monochromatic painting in shades of the same color but most often grey in grey, was first coined in 1625 by Peter Paul Rubens, who mentions a significant commission “en grisaille e non en couleurs.” Prior to the seventeenth century, grey-scale painting, though bespeaking a negation of color, was nonetheless commonly described by a set of terms that were especially evocative, verging on colorful: color lapidum ( “painting in stone” in Latin), cendré (“ashen” in French), steinfarben (“stone-colored,” an expression attributed to Dürer, who especially embraced grisaille effects in the last decade of his life) (fig. 47). Also appearing occasionally in the sixteenth century, is a term of negation: “dead color.” At the time of its beginnings in the medieval period, however, grisaille painting simply went by “painting in black and white,” a description repeated in the inventories of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, on three occasions between 1401 and 1416. “Item unes petites heures de Nostra Dame … enluminées de blanc e de noir,” one reads. Long before the groundbreaking figural displays of grisaille by Netherlandish masters to come in the later fifteenth century, the oldest manifestations of the technique in the Western tradition arrived in the early twelfth century the form of stained-glass design.
In response to the Cistercian Order’s prohibition on color in 1134 – aimed to focus the mind, ridding it of distractions – craftsmen in Cistercian monasteries were restricted to producing interlaced windows in clear glass with black lead stripes and drawing in black enamel; eventually, however, small amounts of colored glass were inserted to break the severity of the aesthetic asceticism. One of the few surviving early examples of figural glass painting in grisaille serving as a larger part of a composition is a strip that appears in the lower part of a window located on the west side of the south transept in Chartres Cathedral, donated by a Canon Thierry in 1327. By Pontormo’s own time, stained glass work featured especially impressive use of large-scale figural grisaille. Especially striking examples north of Italy include the Meeting at the Golden Gate of 1530 from the church of St. Nizier in Troyes; Daniel in the Lions’ Den of 1531, now ascribed to Grégoire Guérard, a Dutch-born master active in Burgundy and Champagne, in the church of St. Pantaléon, also in Troyes; the spectacular window in Gisors, St. Gervais et St. Protais, of 1545, based in part on Dürer’s designs; and, here showing Cupid himself hopelessly in love, the elaborate Story of Cupid and Psyche windows, commissioned in ca. 1542–44 and now housed in the Musée Condé in the Château de Chantilly (figs. 48-49).
One must look to the seemingly disparate art forms of wall painting and manuscript illumination to trace the next advances in monochrome figure painting. Incomparably pioneering for its time was Giotto’s series of fourteen Virtues and Vices, conceived as stone-colored niche statues in the dado register of his fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The original effect of this painted row of reliefs – I am tempted to call them “actors” – must have been akin to a kind of early modern immersive, simulated 3-D environment. At once engaging and unsettling, there is a sense throughout of precarious instability that characterized what should otherwise be ostensibly stable sculptures (a contradiction best captured by the figure of Inconstancy atop a wheel) (fig. 50). Particularly innovative was Giotto’s use of different pigments to counterfeit the stony material of which each personification is carved, certainly complicating the meaning of “monochrome.” The figures thus appear varied in the hue of their skin tones, grey being but one color among lime white, vegetable black, and natural earth pigments such as terra verde/verdaccio and ochre. Giotto’s attentiveness to gender and age, with the passage of time conveyed by different shades of stony exterior, seems to anticipate Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who claimed that after the passage of nine to ten years, the surface of a marble sculpture comes to resemble human skin. Further attesting to Giotto’s (and, here, possibly his assistants’) instincts for stagecraft, quasi-animate statuettes in the round appear conspicuously silhouetted against azure skies atop a number of buildings before which certain dramatic scenes are set in the Legend of St. Francis cycle in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi.
In the French courts, fourteenth-century illuminators made their own advances in grisaille painting, few as novel and refined as those by Jean Pucelle (fig. 51). Working en camaïeu, thereby using two or three tints of a single color other than grey, Pucelle was able to conjure nuanced monochrome effects without mimetic regard to local color as it appears in the material world. The illusion of material and surface, delicately touched with white heightening, has grown more ambivalent; rather than carved of hard stone, the simulacra appear fine spun, paradoxically weightless.
In late fifteenth-century Florence, meanwhile, no local example could have matched for scale of impact the arrival of Hugo van der Goes’s Portanari Triptych (ca. 1475–76), once delivered by sixteen burly porters into in the hospital church of Sant’Egidio in May 1483. To the local artistic community, the extraordinary arrival from Bruges must have been akin to the landing of an alien craft. Its hyper-realism, evident in passages ranging the albarello jar with healing flowers to an angel’s Amazonian parrot wings, extended to the grisaille Annunciation executed on its outside wings, featuring a rather menacing oncoming dove of the Holy Spirit (fig. 52). Ashen-grey outer shutters are especially important to consider in the context of the austerities of Lent, when color and many other visual elements of the liturgy were suppressed, altarpieces closed and statues draped. Extending in turn to textiles, the same considerations pertain to fascinating examples such as the monochromatic silk Parement de Narbonne (Narbonne Altarcloth, 1364–68) in the Louvre – and its relation to both stained glass and miniature painting.
“Stone painting” in the Low Countries was firmly established between the examples of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Hans Memling, and their various followers. Van Eyck’s luminous marmoreal forms must be singled out for possessing a mesmerizingly incipient living quality, achieved by an immaculate treatment of surface and the rendering of expressive shadows, here reflected, that appear animate in their own right (fig. 53).  The illusory artifice is further accentuated in a number of instances not only by the close juxtaposition but unmistakable interaction between sculptural and human forms. The confusion between living and inanimate bodies is especially pronounced in Rogier van der Weyden’s Altar of the Last Judgment of 1434 (Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune), its reverse panels showing the Annunciation and, below, likewise executed in grisaille, Saints Sebastian and Anthony Abbot, both of whom silently address the kneeling Nicolas Rolin and his wife kneeling in prayer to either side. The latter appear distinctly more immobile than the stony yet responsive objects of their attention, stirred to life by the meditative acts of holy communion. In the following century, sculpted figures reach a still-more emotive – and, in some ways, increasingly disconcerting – stage of metamorphosis into organic form. This is perhaps most evident in the uncannily expressive grisailles of Matthias Grünewald – the four saints inhabiting the exterior wings of the German’s Heller Altarpiece best described as sentient stone (fig. 54). We can only begin to imagine the visceral as well as spiritual immediacy that polyptychs inspired in their original audiences when containing actual sculpture within, the transition from painting to often-polychrome sculpture engaging the devotee in a transformative act of concealment and revelation that culminated in a fully corporeal vision of the divine.
The brilliant examples of Bosch and Dürer notwithstanding, arguably the most innovative inheritor of the Northern tradition of grisaille in the following century is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who executed at least four works in the technique, beginning with the wings of an altarpiece (now untraced) for the glovemakers’ guild in Mechelen in 1550–51. His efforts in the next decade show Bruegel at the peak of his technical and conceptual powers. While Bruegel has long been recognized as an exceptionally lively colorist, what his extant grisailles – The Death of the Virgin (fig. 55); Christ and the Adulteress of 1565 (Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London), and Three Soldiers of 1568 (Frick Collection, New York) – all reveal is an artist studiously seeking after three-dimensional form. The resulting figures are among his most sculptural, all the while seeming to emanate light from within.
As we have seen in Uccello’s early example, the fifteenth century in Italy also witnessed a growing interest in monochrome painting, nowhere more so than in the archaeologically-spirited canvases of Mantegna (fig. 56). Virtually unmatched in their sophistication, his multiple variations on monochrome relief are often combined with polychromy, producing something akin to a cameo effect and calling for a renewed attention to texture and touch. In some ways more difficult still to categorize is Giovanni Bellini’s Uffizi Lamentation over the Dead Christ, one of the most entrancing (and difficult) works featured in the recent Mantegna & Bellini exhibition devoted to the two brother-in-law painters in the National Gallery, London (2018–19) (fig. 57). Part drawing, part powerfully projecting grisaille painting, the Lamentation is an optically fascinating contradiction. Moreover, it is intensely moving when encountered in its pale flesh. The more convincingly inanimate the material of its forms appears, the greater the suggestion of life. In its tantalizing ambiguities of finish/non-finish, Bellini’s panel makes for an especially relevant parallel to another Venetian example: Giovanni di Niccolò Mansueti’s Supper at Emmaus similarly large grisaille, featuring Mamluk-costumed figures (most notable for their characteristic military zamt, or high fur hats) flanking the seated Christ in a shallow, compressed space. (fig. 58). The figural effects of imitation relief, modeled by means of fine hatching, are clearly indebted to both Bellini’s and Mantegna’s examples – and just as clearly puts the lie to the notion of Venetian masters lacking interest in disegno.
Vexing questions of artistic intention and finish also extend to Jan van Eyck, an artist otherwise universally recognized for his level of high finish. Along with exemplars of oil painting by Memling, van der Weyden, and van der Goes, a number of van Eyck’s works were documented in Italy, while many of his non-ducal patrons in Ghent belonged to a “colony” of Italian merchants. Three years after producing the Arnolfini Double Portrait, van Eyck was responsible for the exquisitely refined Saint Barbara, shown seated before a tower under construction that is to be her prison (fig. 59). The small panel is the subject of similar ongoing debate: Does this object reflect a drawn preparatory state for an unfinished painting or is it a highly finished drawing touched with color? Only the sky, in which we may discern birds and the moon, and the white tracery of the windows have been painted. If indeed finished, the work has a claim to be the earliest known example of figural grisaille on panel. Yet even if left in incomplete, as seems most plausible, van Eyck’s Saint Barbara may well be the work praised by Karel van Mander in his Schilderboek (1604) as “more exactly and precisely done than the finished works of other masters could be.”