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Was there a pictorial composition secret?

The best secret is one that you are not even aware of.

Paul Valéry

In fact, the complete question would be:

" Did painters from Antiquity to modern times have a secret

to compose their paintings? "

Personally I think there was a desire to keep secret the rules and techniques of composition that I reveal here thanks to pictorial archeology. But this is only my point of view, this question must be settled by art historians. I am not qualified in this area to be able to speak legitimately .

To illustrate the questions and the problem that this poses, I transcribe here a conversation that I had on this subject in 2014 with three French museum directors whose names I will not say.

Conversation with a museum director

A museum director:

- I heard that you presented a speech on painting in the form of a conference?


Guy Mauchamp:

- Yes. I set up in spring 2013 a conference-show whose title is "The secret art of painters".



- Well, you say "The secret art of painters"? Is there a painters' secret? But, it would be known if there was a secret about painting, right? There may still be some details to discover, but on the whole we already know a lot in the field of painting history!



- In fact of secret art, I speak more precisely of the art of pictorial composition. Namely, how the painters organized, built, structured their graphic compositions.


- Come on, the pictorial composition is already widely mentioned in the works on painting. And we know practically everything on this subject, right?


- Be careful not to confuse the many ancient works that deal with the proportions of the human body, or perspective. By cons there is nothing, no old work on the pictorial composition. It seems to be covered by a secret which conceals its major aspects.


- How you go! A secret of the pictorial composition! But still, it would be known today if there had been a secret about the composition. With modern means of investigation, X-ray photos, nuclear spectrography, and what not, many scientific specialists have already seen everything there was to see! Perhaps your imagination is just overflowing ...


- Yes, I understand your astonishment, but as Paul Valéry said, "The best secret is one that we are not even aware of". If specialists are not aware of certain patterns to look for, they simply will not identify them. If they even saw them, they would not list them as clues to be treated or as the start of new investigations. It is the problem of the lack of mental model which becomes the brake.


- I grant you. But does this mean that you, you have new complex electronic equipment that would allow you to see new scientific data?


- No. On the contrary! Quite the opposite, what I observe in the paintings are humble, discreet and sometimes tiny elements which, without being hidden, do not attract attention because they are not seen as clues.


- You intrigue me. You mean that you have concrete, objective elements that would establish something new about the pictorial composition?


- Absolutely ! And I have more observable material elements than necessary to lay the foundations for a verifiable and reproducible theory. My problem is to make it clear that there is a secret of the painters of which it would be interesting to become aware.

Guy Mauchamp au Louvre - Photo Meriem Bentahar

- For the difficulty of making you heard ... that I understand. There are such a number of people who advance theories which are in fact only personal projections ... We can only be suspicious! But what do you think should be aware of the composition of painters?


- The first step would be to be open by considering that we do not know everything about the pictorial composition. Admitting that there is still a lot to discover on this subject would already be a decisive step to approach the structure of a work.

The composition stage has been too overlooked by specialists, even flouted by arguing that it is the inspiration, instinct or talent of the artist that do everything. Raphaël had nevertheless written that "everything is in the composition". And with what I update thanks to pictorial archeology, we understand that this "everything" mainly concerns the narration inside the work, the connection, the unfolding of a story with a fixed image .


- This part would be for the secret aspect of which you speak?


- Yes. Besides, I would let art historians debate it, because it is not my specialty. I cannot afford to say that there was a desire to maintain a secret on the part of the painters. The only observation I make is that neither the painters who wrote, nor the art historians in the past have raised this subject, however decisive.

I only know that over the generations, the teaching of teachers to students was transmitted orally in the shadow of the workshops.


- And if there was a secret it would be ...?


- ... that the painters used for their compositions of rules and rigorous and precise techniques, simple and complex at the same time. More than rules and techniques, it was in fact a whole conception of art, a way of connecting, of relating in an attempt to tell a story.


- You can clarify when you talk about rules, I can't see.


- It is possible to draw a parallel with another art that everyone knows: poetry. Poets have invented very strict and restrictive writing rules. The poems are constructed with feet and rhymes. This technique gives them a musicality, a rhythm to embellish their words. This has never prevented their talent from being expressed, it even seems to be the opposite; these rules are a support, a channel for the inspiration of the poet.

The same goes for painters who have invented a set of rigorous and restrictive composition rules. They drew a network of lines which allowed them to ensure an aesthetic, to channel their inspiration and above all to put everything in touch to tell something.


- But then you see lines of composition everywhere in the tables?

Guy Mauchamp démonstration des parallèles obliques sur un Luini, musée des Beaux arts de Dijon - Photo Pascal Meyer

- No, no more than you count the feet of the worms when you listen to a poem. You let yourself be carried away by harmony and general sense. It is only by leaning on the analysis of a work, on its composition, that the lines of compositions appear and allow a better understanding.


- If you allow, one last question: what motivates you so much in this research?


- The fact of understanding and really seeing allows me to better appreciate the beauty of a work. This work invites me to enter into a sensitive relationship with painting, and also in a kind of intimacy with its author. Whether with Raphaël, Léonard de Vinci, Titien, Ingres, or Courbet, when their ideas reappear before my astonished eyes, I have the impression of being by their side, in their workshop.

But the major element that really pushes me in this research is that painters constantly use in their compositions links, relationships between their characters. They put in place a philosophy of bond which means that no character, and even no object is isolated, separated from the rest. Everything is connected, everything depends on the whole and makes sense, as in the universe and quite simply as in our lives.

Seeing these links at work in the paintings reunites me myself and gives a deep meaning to my research.




Regarding the question of a composition secret in painting, the painter and writer Jacques Villon wrote in 1963:


"In the pictorial chaos of these last years, where the exacerbated liberation of the individual instinct reaches the frenzy, to want to recognize the harmonic disciplines which, at all times, secretly served as bases for painting could seem madness.

But this madness is wisdom. Knowledge necessary for those who want to paint. and necessary for whoever wants to watch. The framework of a work is also its most secret - and deepest poetry. "


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