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Discover the fascinating tradition of monochrome painting over the last 700 years in the first major exhibition of its kind.

Grisaille is a method of monochrome painting, usually only in shades of grey, which became prominent in medieval devotional works. The absence of colour, it was thought, turned the mind from worldly distractions, and in some religious orders colour was prohibited altogether.

Dutch artists of the early Renaissance embraced the technique as an aesthetic choice in its own right, and they in turn greatly influenced painters of the Florentine Renaissance. Grisaille was used to skillfully emulate sculpture to produce a classical effect in painting (or sometimes simply to save money). Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych (1433-35) is an outstanding example. It was also used as a preparatory study for etching or as an underpainting before coloured glaze was applied.

Eliminating colour continued to be a way for artists to flaunt their skill, deepen their understanding of light and shade, and pit themselves against competing media. Printmaking was mimicked and challenged from as early as the 17th century in works such as Hendrik Goltzius’s Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606). Later, artists such as Gerhard Richter would work in grisaille to respond to photography and film.

The final exhibit is Olafur Eliasson’s light installation, Room for one colour (1997), which immerses viewers in a monochrome world. It demonstrates the enduring fascination of grisaille, in an exhibition encompassing artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Picasso and Bridget Riley.

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