I could have subtitled this post “12 shades of grey” but perhaps, just perhaps mind you, it might have been going a little too far… and yet they exist: Cold grey, Blue grey, Light grey, English grey, Yellow grey, Grey green, Reddish brown grey, Medium grey, Violet grey, Grey deep, Payne’s grey, Charcoal grey… see I’m not bragging. These came to be at the request of Mr. Pablo who demanded the oil pastel in the first place and more on that later.
Tackling a 125 years old institution (which Sennelier is turning this year) is truly a bit daunting. Going to bed with one or two generations… is one thing but being the constant mistress to a ‘Monument’ of French culture so intimately connected with all the major Modern Art movements of the same past 125 years… that’s quite another! OK, big breath, I’ll give it a go…
Memories of going to the Sennelier shop, just a bridge away from the Louvre where my mother worked as an art restorer, should be abundant and yet I do not recall having gone there more than once when I was young. Not that this temple of colour didn’t deserve the visit (it truly is one of the most beautiful art stores in France and probably the world) but we lived across from an art store! The view from my bedroom gave onto the back room where old (always was in my mind) and dignified Mr. Dessertene would stretch canvases all day. If I leaned out of my window I could see, further to the right, the little storefront which opened onto the boulevard. With its worn out wooden drawers and compartments for pencils, brushes, it’s delicious smell of linseed and turps, it was a true little gem. Sophie Sennelier, who runs the venerable eponym store on the Quai Voltaire where it all began, has –you would, being the fourth generation at it!– a good eye for the vintage / authentic and took over the place in 2007 to turn it into Sennelier’s third art supplies store in Paris.
Beautiful art stores share that very distinctive smell that cheap, brand ones do not have. They’re usually too overfilled with goods, placed in what sometimes seems a random way, more to suit the lovely drawers than the client. These are no self-service places, you have to inquire, spell out your technical issues, feel your way to the perfect product/ material. There’s communion and shared creativity going on. Most probably assaulted by what must be wave after wave of onlookers and tourists, maybe that’s the reason why the personnel in the Quai Voltaire store can come across as a little haughty, even snobbish. Eventually they’ll condescend to attend to you if your questions somehow convince them you are a ‘serious’ artist or potential buyer. And they know their stuff which is always interesting.
I initially met Sophie for a chat in the Quai Voltaire store and then was lucky enough to be given an extensive tour of the Sennelier / Raphael / Isabey factory in Saint Brieux. There, the Max Sauer company not only makes their world-renowned brushes but, as it now belongs to them, all the Sennelier products are manufactured on the premises too. And Sennelier does … well … just about everything… which sort of makes it hard to know where to start!
However that’s not the reason I didn’t jump on my keyboard after my visit there. Yes I saw the vats of melting wax and pigments that would be poured into molds and turned into oil pastels, saw ladies wrapping one by one labels around soft pastels, saw the triple mills at work but… something was missing, some personal, exciting component which makes you feel and understand what is singular about a company. I needed warm shoulders I could put the mantle of tradition and savoir-faire on. As a result, this article has been on the back burner for quite some time but I’m happy to say that finally, years later, I found the broad shoulders in question!
I was in Paris for a short visit when, as luck would have it, I noticed that Dominique Sennelier was giving a talk about pigments. I booked and asked for an interview with him. Participants and I all had a great time: tea, little madeleines and… the man itself of course. Despite the fact that he is well into his retirement years –he joined the firm in the 60’s!– Dominique obviously still enjoys talking about colour, paint-making and is truly passionate about Sennelier. That’s what was missing! Passion of course…
A passion that no doubt was there at the beginning when Gustave Sennelier formulated his oil paints and mediums. Prescient or simply on the pulse, that morning of 1887 –a mere couple of years after the “impressionists” had bound together in a formal cooperative of artists– Gustave, on the lookout for a shop in which to begin his colour adventure, saw from his omnibus a “For Lease” sign on the facade of a “Marchand de Couleurs” (that’s the lovely name we give to art stores in French.) Shortly after that, Gustave took over Mr. Prevost’s lock, stock and barrel at nº3 Quai Voltaire, mere minutes away from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, how convenient! It would take him a few years however before he could offer these ‘impression’ men and women just the paint they needed to go plein air painting: oil paint in a tin tube which you could easily take wherever the call of your creativity beckoned you to go.
What no one could have realised then but we all know now is that, from that time onward, art movements and technical improvements/new colours would walk hand in hand. As paint making became a little industry into itself with important knowledge to impart to artists: “Watch out for Antimony white, Orpiment, these are dangerous!” “Maybe try this new and very stable Mars Black instead of your Ivory one which has a tendency to crackle so?” artists and paint makers became partners in oil and for life! In the following years, all the big names of the time: Van Gogh, Sisley, Fantin-Latour, Denis, Moreau, Redon, Laurens become faithful supporters of Sennelier’s oils and clients of Gustave.
Whilst Queen Victoria was busy creating watercolour portraits of family members and landscapes with her Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable, the watercolour rage –maybe lacking such a prominent champion– would take a bit longer to hit France and never did with the same intensity. Nevertheless in 1896 Gustave, who by then had invested in his first colour mill –a porcelain one dedicated to the purpose– launched an impressively different ‘moist’ watercolour range. Glairy but clear Arabic gum from Kordofan mixed with pure honey were the secrets behind his very luminous creation and… still is. I saw the stock at Saint Brieux and all the honey jars! (In fact, those two firms developed so much along the same lines that they decided not to compete but protect their home markets by mutually distributing one another… with the result that Winsor never really sold much in France nor Sennelier in England!)
In 1900 Gustave, at Degas’ request, develops a range of soft pastels “in brown hues.” Finding the perfect texture took time as the balance of pigment and gum altered them to varying degrees of crumbliness to harness but, inspired by Degas’ exacting demands, finally three years later a range of 700 hues saw the light of day…. Now down to ‘only’ 525 the Sennelier pastels à l’écu are still the softest ones on the market today I believe. Much later, still hand in hand with another pastel artist Pierre Skira, Sennelier will produce and put on the market a gritty pastel paper which did not exist until then.
But back to the tireless Gustave who, at the turn of the century, keeps innovating both on the commercial side (with catalogues illustrated with photographs and drawings made by himself in order to expand the clientele to mail orders) and by self-publishing in 1912 “The Chemistry of Colours” a thorough guide to pigments and mediums destined to enhance the knowledge of professional artists. This is a first in the trade and the brainchild of a man who most certainly does not see his profession as that of a mere ‘colour merchant’ anymore.
Meanwhile down in the shop, Mme Juliette Sennelier who is both Gustave’s wife and an artist herself quickly picks up the trend of the day. As Paris gets a taste for “Les Arts Decoratifs”, she understands that paint has become something not just for painters anymore but also for ladies who wish to decorate this fan or that screen, have fun colouring these monochrome prints, add embellishments to furniture or their walls by stenciling patterns on them. Two ranges will become the “best sellers” of these years: Batik Tintout the first fabric paint which is more like a dye really and later Tinfix. Strangely enough, it is thanks to these two products (and a very dynamic French couple) that in the 1980’s Sennelier will finally enter and flourish in the American market.
Gustave dies during the 1929 crash and the Maison, renamed Sennelier Frères, is taken over by his sons, brothers Henri and Charles, already involved in the business. The pair will carry on the activities of course. Henri, the chemist, takes over manufacturing and developing the ranges while Charles busies himself with the commercial side of things. Shortly they open another store in the heart of Paris’ new artistic hub, Montparnasse, on the rue de la Grande Chaumière.
There, as everywhere, WWII will slow down all the operations but post-war artists will wake up from the nightmare with new practices and… new demands. While the U.S. ones are happy dripping and pouring acrylic paint, in France, canvases get thicken with oil paint, layered and worked with palette knives rather than brushes. While these supports feel more like palettes than canvases to Henri Sennelier who returns shocked from visits to the studios he also sees that painters might be using far more paint in the future and so promptly buys a whole stock of 250ml tubes from suppliers to the concentrated milk industry!
“I am looking for a paint that will free me of all technical constraints, a colour that could be applied indifferently to all surfaces –raw wood, metal, cardboard, plastic, paper– without any preparation of the support” was the challenge Picasso offered Henri, who immediately took it up and went to work. Trial and error get him nowhere however until, finally, he realises the answer was just under his nose! Solid paint… that’s the way to go… the oil pastel is born! Not that Henri, pleased to be of service to such a prestigious artist, thinks it’s more than a mere sideline but he does comply to the demands of Pablo and produces 10 grey hues as Picasso is in his grey period (two more will eventually join the club.) Despite the fascinating/annoying fact that these waxy drawing implements will never ‘dry’, oil pastels are still one of the most sold Sennelier product.
Finally, early in the 60’s the old man I have met arrives on the Sennelier stage as Henri’s son Dominique joins the firm and, shortly, his cousin Pierre, son of Charles hops on board too. With them, new colours and new products will see the light of day, whilst old ranges get a bit of a dusting off: gouaches and soft pastels are the first two. The danger with the new hues and post-war modern pigments is that the proliferation of suppliers has made it somewhat harder to distinguish between all the options. Dominique goes on a learning curve to make sure the pigments from China or India are as reliable as those coming from Switzerland and Germany, and as suitable for an artist’s palette. For the earth pigments strongly back in favour in the 80’s, he will turn for the ochres to Roussillon (see my previous post on ochres), the Siennas will as per tradition come from Italy, but for the Umbers he now chooses Cyprus. And of course, these new pigment makers also invent some wonderful new hues… In the 70’s the iridescents make their entrance! Mica-based, these are coated with titanium dioxide, which will vary their colour according to the percentage of titanium dioxyde and sometimes the addition of iron oxide. As soon as Dominique is sure these will be happy in the binder and offer lightfastness too, 25 hues are promptly added to the oil pastel range.
From the oil pastel to the oil stick, there are only a few more steps that happily Dominique will take after he discovers the Skira ones in his own shop. A true drawing oil paint tool… how very very convenient. In other mediums too, as with acrylics, he will not invent the formula but do a nice job of producing a made in France / made by Sennelier range.
Most part chemist but a little bit of a magician too, Dominique’s life has been spent in his lab working on new preparations that would satisfy the artisan in his artist friends. “This medium is not matte enough!” “Try this… I’ve changed the formula and it might give you the degree of matte you want.” “This paper is too stiff but not gritty enough.” “Americans like their soft pastels less crumbly, can you find a way to keep the pigment load and modify the binder?” etc. etc. When the last piece of the Sennelier picture falls into place and I get to meet the man behind all these inventions and improvements, Dominique will –ever so modestly– give us, a few lucky random clients, a charming intro to pigments and paint-making. While I sit listening to him in the little rue Hallé store’s backroom I can see the house where my mother used to restore paintings, my father in law paint and my own bedroom window. There is contentment in this moment, a sort of closing of the circle. I now live on the other side of my years and the world, I have done many other things and jobs before opening an art store but the passion for materials that overtook me then has led me to… the other side of my street! From their questions, I realise I’ve come a long way and certainly know much more than all the people gathered around Dominique today but so so much less than this man could ever impart –even if I were to listen to him for days rather than a mere couple of hours. But for now there is nothing else to do other than sit in delight, basking in the peaceful presence of this living treasure while, with charm and patience, he walks us through the steps of paint-making as thoroughly and patiently as he grinds his pigments… turning them under our mesmerized eyes into the quintessential beauty oil paint is.
Sennelier products can be found in good art stores all over the world of course but, if in Paris, don’t miss their oldest store: 3, Quai Voltaire – 75007 (phone 01 42 60 72 15). They are closed Monday mornings and, unbelievably, at lunch time too so beware! Their second store in Montparnasse is on 4bis rue de la Grande Chaumiere – 75006 and the one opposite my home is 6 rue Hallé – 75014. All three are well worth a visit even if I personally prefer the more modest of the three “my” rue Hallé one… I believe that’s called prejudice and it’s just fine by me!