Until the 19th century, white was used in painting for its symbolic value. Although it was always linked to an absolute, it nevertheless retained a multiplicity of meanings and an ambiguous quality: it could indicate elevated social status as well as purity or death. Indeed, as the anthropological historian of colour Michel Pastoureau has maintained, colour is an essentially cultural phenomenon.

This is demonstrated in the works grouped here, ranging from Paul Delaroche, who clothes young Sara (inspired by a Victor Hugo poem) in a white smock, to Henry-Pierre Picou’s Styx, in which the dead are depicted as travellers draped in white. Jean Benner and Alexis de Broca deploy white more or less consciously with “exoticism” in mind: the contrast it offers with bright colours or the model’s skin tone emphasises the distance between the western gaze and a foreign model.


Martin Barré, 61-T-39, 1961. © ADAGP, Paris, 2018. Photographie © Musée d’arts de Nantes – C. Clos.

Du 19 avril au 6 janvier 2019
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