Pushing back


Dear Artist,

At the top of the staircase at the National Gallery in Budapest hangs what many agree to be the last Hungarian historical painting. Commissioned for Budapest’s bicentennial and finished in 1896, it depicts the moment two hundred years earlier when the troops of the Holy League, led by Commander Prince Charles of Lorraine, took the city back after 150 years under Turkish rule. At over 23 feet long and 11 feet high, the painting puts me at eye level with the iridescent pink flag and golden boots of an unknown colour guard, who has been crushed beneath the slain body of the Turkish pasha Ali Abdurrahman. They lay strewn across the painting’s almost dead-centre foreground.


“The Recapture of Buda Castle in 1686”
by Gyula Benczúr (1844-1920)

Part of what makes the whole scene feel so dramatic and believable is a shadowy figure at the far left of the picture. This armoured horseman, his back to us, holds up his sword in the direction of a parade of triumphant leaders. On the picture’s right side is a distant group of soldiers, colourblocked in blue and grey, who also motion toward the centre with their weapons drawn and showing us where to look. This, along with the foreground slaughter, heightens an illusion of depth and pushes the other objects and figures to a position of compositional importance.


“Ladislaus Hunyadi’s Farewell” 1866
by Gyula Benczúr

A favourite of the French Mannerists and 17th Century Dutch landscape painters, this device, called “repoussoir,” or “pushing back,” became the de facto method for framing drama and drawing the eye toward a painting’s narrative and spiritual essence. In your own work, you may have been practicing repoussoir without knowing. If you’re just starting out or want to be conscious of the technique, here are a few ideas:

In landscape: use trees, machinery, foreground rocks, faces, figures, birds or branches to anchor and frame a central feature.

In portrait: use mirrors, drapery, a window or a backward glancing puppy tossing a ball into the lap of your subject.

In abstract: control the eye with your edges. Push back, push in, push out, pull around. “Get the art of controlling the observer,” wrote Robert Henri. “That is composition.”

Gyula Benczur_The-capture-of-Ferenc-Rakoczi-II-at-Nagysaros

“The Capture of Ferenc Rákóczi II at the Fortress of Nagysáros, 1869
by Gyula Benczúr



PS: “A well-composed painting is half done.” (Pierre Bonnard)

Esoterica: By the time he was commissioned to paint The Recapture of Buda Castle in 1686, Gyula Benczúr was well established as a Royal portraitist, a prize-winning historical painter, a member of the Academy and a Professor of Art. It was 1896, and history painting as a genre was falling out of favour for more style-driven and internal directions. In France that same year, Claude Monet had been living at Giverny for thirteen years and Vincent had been gone for six. Cruising today through Gyula Benczúr’s masterworks at the National Gallery, I saw much human drama, golden light and fleshy sensuality. At nose distance, drapery, collarbones, shoe buckles, wagon wheels and picnic blankets are whispy swooshes of single-stroke élan. “One instant is eternity; / eternity is the now. / When you see through this one instant, / you see through the one who sees.” (Wu-Men)


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“You have to understand the purpose of life; the purpose of life is to do something which will live forever.” (Yogi Bhajan)



  1. Sara, thank you for this column. As always, the ideas for our own future work are most useful, but in this case you also brought to my attention a fine painter from the past about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Even now, I wonder how to pronounce his name! But thanks to you, I at least know he existed and painted amazing paintings. Having stood for hours in front of enormous paintings like Belshazzar’s Feast and the Massacre of the Innocents, I can only try to imagine you standing in front of this one. Thanks for writing about it

  2. just wonderful , I love the colors and the depth of the painting .I wish I could paint like that .I love old masters .
    In Germany went to the museum of art in Wien in Germany it was fabulous, I spent hours just feasting my yes.

  3. Thank you for the tips regarding composition. The succinct summary for ” repoussoir” in a variety of subjects will be very useful. I have been doing some pleinaire painting, composition is certainly what often makes or breaks artwork that is done “live”. No photo manipulation with cropping, just dealing with what the eye takes in. I will remember to “push back”!

  4. My painting mentor was keen to remind me to “bring forward” or “push back” and take care with lines to keep the eye on the subject of the painting. This was a good refresher.

  5. You have done a masterful job of analyzing this painting and selecting quotes that we can take into our studios to serve as daily reminders for our own paintings! Bravo!

  6. If that was the dying embers of a genre it was a great way to go. I always wonder what actually happened and how did it look. Probably not like that. The victors write the history, they say. Anyway I expect to see your show in NY in October and am looking forward to it. Nice writing on this.

  7. One never knows what fascinating & helpful stuff will pop up in these pages, but this one’s quite timely for me. I’ve been working on three series paintings–two local ponds and a marsh. I could probably get a hundred images out of them at different times of day and season, even though they’re only visually accessible from the road, and the views really aren’t that deep. Photos are the only way to go and it has been a real lesson to see what happens if I move 30 feet one direction or another, stand back 15 feet (onto the center road line eek), or step onto the verge without dunking myself. And where that horizon line goes, because a cluster of foreground cattail or the shape of the tree line’s reflection will alter the composition dramatically.
    How historical painters came up with narrative images like these at any scale, out of thin air, is just amazing.

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Featured Artist

I, Ramya Sadasivam, have been practicing art since 2006. I so love to portray Indian culture, customs, day to day chores of the hard-working laborers, happy village life and life of women. I love to capture the difference in values between the shadows and bright light and also I like to capture genuine emotion.