Sennelier, a Merchant of Colors in Paris

A stone’s throw from the Louvre and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Sennelier store has catered to the likes of Cézanne, Soutine, Picasso, Karl Lagerfeld, and Sempé. Since 1887, artists have come here to buy their colors that were once hand-milled to order in the workshop behind the store. Among its achievements, Sennelier has invented Helios Red, Cinnabar Green, and Coral Pink.

“One of the pleasures of the painter is to prepare one’s palette silently in the studio before starting to work. Another equally strong pleasure is the ritual of shopping at Sennelier where you can find it all, even what you are not looking for,” declared French painter and sculptor Pierre Carron. In the store at 3 Quai Voltaire in the seventh arrondissement, white-coat-clad staff with the air of chemists offer artists and art students rare products such as pigments of mineral, vegetable, or insect origin, Japanese charcoal, honey aquarelles, handmade Roché pastels, authentic parchment, paper made with fibers of banana leaf and blackberry bark, bird feathers, silver tips, and unusual pigments including lapis-lazuli.

The man behind this family business is Gustave Sennelier, a man fascinated by the chemistry of colors. He moved into the original studio in 1887 and created a workshop to mill colors. He used a granite table on which he could grind pigments and mix them with oils to make paints. As part of his work to launch his first range of oil paint, Gustave Sennelier traveled throughout Europe — across France, but also to Italy, Germany, and England — in search of the best pigments. He then invented new colors at the end of the 19th century including Cinnabar Green, Transparent Brown, and Chinese Orange, a color the Orientalists were crazy about.

A Friend of Painters

Edgar Degas began frequenting the store in the early 20th century. The demanding painter requested “dry pastel colors in a palette of browns.” The artisan experimented with different models before creating his own blend of pigments. Using natural umber and burnished earth from Sienna, he formed subtle shadows to bring out the glow of a dancer’s skin or the transparency of a tutu. Inspired by this prestigious collaboration, Sennelier developed, with a great success, a range of 700 different soft pastel tones. He christened the collection “à l’écu,” (“coat of arms”) in the tradition of gold coins minted under the reign of Louis IX — a symbol of great value.


The Sennelier store circa 1900. © Sennelier

Gustave Sennelier later created a bright red of great intensity and luminosity which he named Helios Red. He rapidly established a post-impressionist client base, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Gustave Moreau, Henri Laurens, and Odilon Redon. Around the same time, he also launched his Batik Tintout paint inspired by the Javanese art of dyeing, to dye batik material. Fashion designer Robert Piguet, the then assistant to leading couturier Paul Poiret, recommended it to Jeanne Lanvin and the Tintout became a best-seller.

Tailor-Made Colors for Picasso

The Abstract movement followed Impressionism and new, colorful artists came to the Quai Voltaire: Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia, who painted the famous Nu jaune, often parked their Rolls Royce in front of the shop; Chaïm Soutine focused on reds and whites to render his tormented carcass paintings; and Modigliani earned a reputation for being a bad payer.

Henri Goetz, an American-born, naturalized French painter, was also a regular client, and brought along his friend Picasso to shop. For the rest of his life, the artist behind Guernica bought his “Japanese Simili Paper” from Sennelier. In a gesture immortalized by director Henri-Georges Clouzot in the movie The Mystery of Picasso (1955), the artist traces studies in ink, crayon, and watercolor wash with the addition of pastel for La Coiffure (1923), Grand Nu au fauteuil rouge (1929), and Femme se coiffant (1940).

“I am looking for a paint that will free me from any technical constraint. A color that I can apply to any surface without any limitations, on all materials — raw wood, metal, cardboard, plastic, or paper — without any prior preparation,” said the Cubist master one day. In an effort to satisfy Picasso, Henri Sennelier, Gustave’s son, created a solid stick of oil paint. The artist adopted it immediately and ordered 48 different colors. And the stick of oil-based paint is still one of the brand’s leading products today.

Sennelier in America

With Sennelier’s reputation firmly established in France, the brand turned to the United States. Or vice versa. In 1976, American David Davis, the owner of a store in Greenwich Village and married to a French woman, went to the Parisian boutique then run by the founder’s grandson, Dominique Sennelier. The two men hit it off immediately. The following year, Sennelier’s products appeared in New York at David Davis Art Supply (which is still open but now located in Red Hook, Brooklyn). Soon after, the workshop strengthened its distribution by signing an agreement with New York Central, another family business and one of the finest art supply stores in New York, with a space on 3rd Avenue and 11th Street. Pearl Paint, a third New York art supplies store, also represented the brand on the East Coast.

On the West Coast in California, Sennelier was supported by a French couple living in San Francisco, Maureen Labro and Pierre-Yann Guidetti. In 1981, they founded the Savoir-Faire company and became Sennelier’s exclusive representatives in the United States. Drawing on a seemingly endless source of ideas, in 2000 the French pair persuaded their American friends and filmmaker David Lynch to take part in a madcap parade of painted cows entitled The CowParade through the streets of New York to promote their acrylic paints.


An assortment of Sennelier pigments. © Sennelier

Over time, Sennelier adapted its products for the American market, developing jumbo-sized tubes and more heavily pigmented colors. When a new oil paint range of 40 colors was developed, each color carried the name of a great artist, such as Bonnard Blue. Thanks to its innovations, Sennelier managed to earn the esteem of the American public. David Hockney used the colors Helios Red and Chinese Orange in his Grand Canyon (1998), and Richard Serra used the brand’s black oil sticks for many of his works.

In order to confirm the brand’s commercial success in the United States, Pierre-Yann Guidetti took Dominique Sennelier along with him on lengthy trips, attending shows, public relations fairs, and artistic events across America. They were invited to speak at the National Gallery in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at Yale University to discuss painting techniques. Dominique Sennelier was also called on to help authenticate the paper used in a drawing by Miro at the MoMA, and name a pigment used by Cézanne in a watercolor study of The Bathers when the Philadelphia Museum of Art was planning to restore the work. And the back of the canvas even bears the Sennelier stamp.

Now renowned among U.S. artists and art students, the French brand is continuing its activity while upholding its longstanding traditions and pursuing its search for innovation. The store on Quai Voltaire is now headed up by Sophie Sennelier, a fourth-generation painter. Under her management, new colors, products, and blends seemingly created as much with magic as with science are still being invented in the workshops of this merchant of colors.

Combining the Sennelier family’s memories and accounts from artists, Pascale Richard’s coffee-table book, Sennelier: A History in Color (Chêne, 2012), depicts the epic history of this color creator. The information and quotes in this article are taken from the work.