Discover the color black in the museum's collections of paintings. From the Renaissance to the 21st century, enjoy how the diverse use of black was employed both for its visual qualities and for its symbolic or social significance. The audio tracks stored on the museum's audio guide enriches the work in the gallery.

Portrait of a young man
Joos Van Cleeve, circa 1520, Oil on canvas

This man, dressed in black, stands out against a blue background, with shading inflected by the light. The meticulously painted clarity of the face and hands contrasts with the black, almost monochromatic clothing.
In the 16th century, the bourgeoisie embraced the fashion of wearing black as a sign of social distinction.

In the 16th century, the bourgeoisie embraced the fashion of wearing black as a sign of social distinction.

The color black was not subject to the clothing regulations of the time as it was very difficult to obtain and, therefore, very expensive. Princes reserved the right to wear certain colors such as sumptuous scarlet red and peacock blue.

The meticulously painted clarity of the face and hands contrasts…

…with the black, almost monochromatic clothing.

The simplicity of the black here conveys the elegance of the character, probably an Italian merchant who settled in Antwerp.

The Repentance of Saint Peter
Jusepe de Ribera, 17th century, Oil on canvas

The dark background of the painting is in stark contrast with Saint Peter's pale face who, as recounted in the New Testament, renounced Christ. This juxtaposition takes on a symbolic intensity: darkness prevails.

But the saint's tearful gaze, seeking light and forgiveness, is directed upwards.

The chiaroscuro—or tenebrism—is characteristic of Caravaggio's influence on Spanish painters of the 17th century.

This helps to emphasize certain very realistic details, as can be seen here with the scarred hands of the artisans.

At the bottom right, there is a stone, a used book, and a key. These artefacts confirm the saint's identity: the keys to Paradise and the stone recalling the text of the gospel in which Christ declares:

"You are Peter and on this stone I will build my church."

Portrait of a woman
Michiel Jansz Miereveld, 1625, Oil on wood

This unknown young woman with a pale, thin face seems rigidly set in her costume. Black was a fashionable color in the mainly Protestant Holland at the beginning of the 17th century.

The black is inflected by the subtle lighting effects which make the satin and the feathers of the fan sparkle.

The simplicity of the background enhances the decorative details, with the eye being drawn to the following features in all their splendor: the jewelry and the brocade bodice, the lace of the sleeves, and the imposing ruff around the neck.

This finery, as well as the choice of painter, a favorite portraitist of the aristocracy and the upper-bourgeoisie, both indicate the model's high social status.

Her pose is turned towards the right, undoubtedly in the direction of the portrait of her husband, which has now disappeared.

Protestant painters favored simplicity, black, and dark tones, as well as the interplay of different shades of the same color. This rejection of bright colors distinguishes them from painters belonging to the Catholic Reformation, who preferred using a very rich palette.

The Poem of the Soul: The Wrong Path
Louis Janmot, 1854, Oil on canvas

In this scene of unsettling architecture, two young teenagers climb a staircase under the inquisitive gaze of people dressed in black teachers' gowns standing lined up in alcoves, and an old lady sitting down.

Qu'est-ce que le cycle Le Poème de l'âme de 18 tableaux de Louis Janmot, conçus entre 1854 et 1892

This painting is part of a cycle of eighteen paintings in the same format, which is completed by a second cycle of sixteen drawings. These illustrate a poem of more than 2800 lines.

The artist's aim is for the viewer to be won over by the scenes filled with symbols. Here, black symbolizes the dangers of secular education which threatens the Christian faith of the two heroes in the Poem of the Soul.

The Princess Marie Cantacuzène 
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883, Oil on canvas

Dignity and melancholy emerge from this portrait of Marie Cantacuzène, companion and muse of the painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

All of her clothing is painted in a single shade of black other than the knotted ribbon and the veil covering her hair, which are highlighted by slight light fluctuations.

This black accentuates the paleness of the hands and face, which are painted in thick layers that highlight the depth and intensity of the gaze.

Here, the black does not allude to mourning, rather to the psyche of the model. The painter declares: "This person is not a widow (...). She is a serious, most elevated and benevolent spirit. (...)
Though reflective people tend not to think in a cheerful manner, there is, in this case, no immediate pain. "

Rough sea in Étretat
Claude Monet, 1902, Oil on canvas
De près, on ne distingue que touches et traces de pinceaux sur cette toile, mais en reculant de quelques pas...

Of all the impressionist painters, Claude Monet was the one most attracted to the changing atmosphere of seaside landscapes, especially those in Brittany and Normandy.

Claude Monet painted this scene during a stay in Normandy. As with all impressionist artists, he made multiple versions of landscapes, following the pattern of those painted outdoors.

This view of a beach framed by the window of a hotel is the view of Étretat that Monet painted a series of in February 1883.

Wintry view, in rough weather.

For them, the colors of nature leave little room for black: this is why, in this piece, black made from traditional pigments gives way to "almost black" shades made from blue, red or green, providing a wealth of tones.

The impressionists were influenced by Isaac Newton's scientific theories, which maintain that black and white are not colors. They were also influenced by Eugene Chevreul's theories, demonstrating how one color can be changed through contact with another.

The impressionists often rejected the color black in their palettes.
In fact, Auguste Renoir once said: "One morning, one of us had no black, so blue was used: and impressionism was born!"

Credits: Story

Lyon Museum of Fine Arts
Director: Stéphane Degroisse, webmaster and new media manager.
stephane.degroisse@mairie-lyon.fr
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Photos: © MBA Lyon - Alain Basset, Stéphane Degroisse, Mathilde Hospital

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