Repoussoir is a French word used in 2d art to describe an object in the foreground that directs the viewer’s eye into the composition by framing the edge of the image. This object also serves as a tool for creating depth within the picture.
The word Repoussoir originates from the French verb répousser meaning “to push back” — so basically what it does it pushes your focus into the picture. The technique has been used by artists for centuries to focus attention and add interest to their images. These elements are most often trees, poles or figures placed in the foreground of the image, but they can be also buildings, objects, an area in shadow or a combination of all of these. Probably the most commonly used are the trees, while the most effective in my opinion would be the figures facing the center of interest.
Once you know the principle, you can enhance the effect by a strong separation of values — or to further enhance the illusion of distance you can use contrast of color saturation (chroma).
The technique became popular with Mannerist and Baroque artists, and it can be found very frequently in Dutch golden age landscape paintings.
Below are a few examples of the Repoussoir used by old masters in their paintings.
In this first painting by Thomas Moran you can notice the technique on the trees and bushes which are way darker in tones than the background. His choice not to put the Repoussoir in the extreme foreground is carefully planned. He is using another powerful compositional tool for creating distance, which is achieved by illuminating the immediate foreground.
If you squint at the image you can see that there is a strip of dark shadow running through the middle ground, while the foreground is relatively bright with a couple of high detail patches. Moran is a genius when it comes to using light to implement compositional techniques into an image. Notice how subtle the patches of light are in the foreground, how he uses dark against light on the tree barks on both sides and the subtle shift in lightness behind the bush.
In the second painting you can clearly see how removing the trees from the right side of the image would take away a lot from its original depth. Again, you can notice a play with values and strips of light alongside the Repoussoir. The tonal arrangement on and around the trees are even more fascinating than the previous image.
The image below is painted by Jacques-Louis David, who was the official painter of Napoleon. The painting is a huge 10 by 6 meters canvas, and it is depicting the coronation of Napoleon.
The cluster of figures in the immediate foreground grabs your focus and directs it toward the center of interest. You can notice a small cluster on each side of the image, looking straight at the act of coronation.
This forth image is a painting by Albert Bierstadt, who is probably the most famous of the Hudson River School painters. This is not his most famous painting, nor his most successful one — but I think it perfectly illustrates the Repoussoir technique. Both the small tree in the extreme foreground and the tree cluster on the right enhance the illusion of depth in the image.
Below you can see “Ferry boat” by Esaias van de Velde, a Dutch landscape painter. Notice the tree on the left — it both creates depth and leads the eye in the image.
“Paris streets” by Gustave Caillebotte — notice the placement of the figures, the value grouping and the contrast in color saturation between the background and the foreground.
Below you can see “The Art of Painting” by Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest Dutch painters. Notice the fabric hanging from the left which is both used to lead the eye towards the subject and to create depth. The dark tones of the painter’s outfit are also a great device for creating depth in the image.
That’s all on Repoussoir for now. I hope this was useful, and if you liked it share the knowledge — Cheers.
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