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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Frame by Frame

A colorful scene in masterful shades of gray

WILLIAMSTOWN — You’re looking — and this has the potential to be a little confusing, so snap snap, pay attention! — at a reproduction of an oil painting. But please don’t assume the Globe’s printers ran out of color today. The work itself, which was painted by Louis-Leopold Boilly in 1810 and hangs in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is painted in shades of gray.

In French the technique, which imitates engravings, is referred to as “en grisaille.” It’s devilishly hard to pull off, especially at this level of virtuosity.

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It helped, perhaps, that Boilly had already painted a version in full color. That earlier picture, now missing, was the second in a pair of pictures depicting two separate moments in an unfolding drama: a burglary in a bourgeois home.

The first moment showed three brutes, all poised to commit wicked deeds in the home of a young mother, who slumbers on a sofa, her dreaming child draped across her lap (no doubt drooling copiously). At the depicted moment the thugs — their bodies tense; their leathery, slow-witted faces approximating a state of high alert — have heard a noise in the corridor.

Cut to scene two, the picture you see here: Three sharply dressed gents, their faces afire with moral indignation, have come to the rescue, backed by a vengeful mob. One holds a large knife over the head of a burglar, who cowers at his feet. Another holds a pistol to the throat of a second thief, whose head of hair he grips in his fist. And another has set his vicious dog upon the third unlucky bandit.

Mother, meanwhile, slumbers no more. With a flamboyantly protective (and compositionally useful) outstretched arm, she leans away from the melee, shielding her infant and pressing her plump bosom into the head of a second, older child, who has appeared on the scene out of nowhere.

Besides this added child, the two pictures are marred by various continuity problems. From one scene to the next the positions of doorway and wall, for instance, appear to have changed.

But this didn’t prevent two playwrights, Henri Franconi and Jean-Baptiste-Louis Camel, from writing a two act-play based on Boilly’s pictures. It was first performed at the Cirque Olympique in Paris on the eve of New Year’s Eve, 1812.

I don’t know how it fared as a play, but I know that Boilly, as a maker of pictures, had the ability to make even lurid scenes uncannily convincing. His technical abilities were stupendous. And although his genre paintings can be mocked from many angles, there’s no question that behind his paintings’ slick surfaces and decorous compositions, he had a sly and infectious feeling for life.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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