Word #4: “esquisse” (n.)


  1. The first slight sketch of a picture, the first thought of a design drawn loosely with a crayon.

Scott Allan, in his recent essay on painter Théodore Rousseau, complicates OED’s entry:

Imperfectly translated as “sketch,” the word esquisse generally designated a preliminary compositional sketch in nineteenth-century parlance. The esquisse was typically smaller than the final tableau and could be treated in an informal, spontaneous manner that was understood to convey the energy of the artist’s initial inspiration. Unlike the analytical étude, in which the artist subordinated himself to the model, often with considerable attention to detail, the esquisse was conceived as a more creative, synthetic work that anticipated, in its emphasis on composition and coloring, the artful unity and overall pictorial effect of the tableau.

Such distinctions, however, were not easily maintained with regard to landscape. An esquisse could be a freely executed study after nature (that is, an étude) that concentrated on a landscape’s principal features or general atmospheric effect rather than its individual details. Likewise, if an étude was in some senses fragmentary, the source of raw material that was to be synthesized in the word of composition, it could equally be framed with an eye to the ensemble. And if the painter enlisted an étude as the basis for a definitive work, it became an esquisse by virtue of its new function. Esquisse and étude were overlapping categories: a landscape sketch might be an esquisse by virtue of its relationship to another artwork (real or potential) or an étude by virtue of its relationship to nature (Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, 26-27).