11 April 2014
Edited by Amy Pettifer
Photographs by Marine Duroselle
As I stood waiting patiently for my interview with Dominique Sennelier - patron of Paris' most celebrated art supplies shop - I couldn't help but wonder at the history that had passed by its window which overlooks the left-bank landing of Pont du Carrousel, two blocks from Quai d'Orsay. Paris' turn-of-the-century traveling elite perhaps? Or Nazi troops marching as shades were drawn? Picasso in a striped shirt, opening the door and setting the small, brass bell ringing...
The business was founded by Gustave Sennelier in 1887, who strategically located it a short distance from the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1895, Gustave began grinding his own pigments; if a painter needed a specific color, he would make it.
Dominique Sennelier, third in the family business, began working in the factory in 1962 and running the business in 1969; he greets me with all the disheveled vibrancy you would expect from the proprietor of a fine art supplies shop. "You may already know this about us," he says, "but my father, Henri, was a chemist. At Picasso's request, he reformulated our oil pastel so that he would no longer have to prime the canvas."
This significant (and history making) innovation followed on from the already famous soft pastels formulated by Gustave in the 1900s and further developed by his son Henri in 1946. They are rich in pure pigment and were ground on the premises until 1965; the stunning colors are still used to create the base for Sennelier's constantly-evolving range of products, many of which are still manufactured to the same standards today. Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, van Gogh, Kandinsky & Hockney are just a handful of the artists who are known to have used - and loved - Sennelier's wares. Production now takes place in Brittany, but the shop has continued to sell much as before.
Despite trying very hard not to get in anyone's way, you could easily (and literally) bump into any number of artists perusing the tightly packed shelves. It was easy to feel at home in this enchanting space; the warmth of worn, sloping wood, brass pulls, precariously stacked mounds of boxes, racks of paints, jars of upended brushes - color and texture where everywhere.
I trailed after M. Sennelier as he wove gracefully through aisles that can't have been more than 18" wide. "These are examples of my grandfather's original pigments," he said, gesturing to a display case full of colors that reached to the ceiling of the tiny shop.
I am no expert, but I wanted to touch every single one; colors so vibrant that they appeared to possess a tangible texture. "In the beginning we just carried Sennelier, now we stock many fine English and German brands," he added, pointing to oil paints by Windsor & Newton, a British brand founded in 1832.
"And here is our paper room."
Accessed by a tiny wooden staircase to a half floor above, Sennelier's paper store is filled with over 400 different varieties, all imported from the best manufacturers in the world. I couldn't help asking if he had a favorite; "It depends what you need, but the Japanese may be the best...maybe," he replies with casual diplomacy.
Moving at an impressively brisk pace, M. Sennelier leads me back downstairs, through a rabbit-warren of shelving, to the back door; beyond is a typical Parisian inner-courtyard and beyond that, a tiny office where I meet his daughter Sophie, a painter, who now runs the shop. Many years have passed, but Sennelier shows no sign of letting go of the familial roots that make it so special.
As our meeting draws to a close, we wander down through the courtyard to the delivery doors. "Built in 1830's," M Sennelier says, "Still going nicely. So sturdy. Beautifully crafted don't you think?" - A statement that could be true, not only of these wooded doors, but of everything associated with the Sennelier name.
Sennelier is located at 3 Quai Voltaire, 75007 Paris, France
To find out more about Sennelier's rich history, the book Sennelier: A History in Colour by Pascale Richard is available to buy here...