(n.) an artistic technique that emphasizes something by placing slightly left or right of centre
Artistic terms always seem to fare well on Haggard Hawks, and an obscure term used both in artistic composition and, oddly, in geometry proved that point just yesterday. Rabatment, as we explained on Twitter, is an artistic technique in which an object in a composition is emphasized not by being placed in the centre of the viewer’s field of vision, but at the point where a rectangular canvas could be cut or folded to form a square. So in that picture above—namely the French Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte’s Boater Pulling on his Périssoire (1878)—the canvas could be folded over roughly where the boater is standing, to leave a perfectly serviceable picture of his périssoire (that’s a canoe, before you presume something shady is going on). Over on Twitter, we used a slightly different but no less effective example:
Rabatment first appeared in English in the 1870s and, as you might not be too surprised to learn, at least in part owes its origins to French. Not a natural French term, it was probably concocted by English speakers, who attached the super productive suffix –ment (used to form nouns from verbs, like abridgement and accomplishment) to the existing word rabat.
As the OED helpfully explains, to rabat—a verb that likewise drifted into use in English from French in the first half of the nineteenth century—is “to rotate a plane about its line of intersection with another plane, especially the horizontal plane, until the two coincide.” Kudos to you if you didn’t fall asleep during those last twenty words. (Only kidding, geometrists, we love you really.) That’s not strictly what’s going on in a rabatment, but it’s clear that we’re in the same semantic ball park, certainly, and indeed both words derive from the same ultimate origin—namely, the French verb rabattre, variously meaning “to turn,” “to close,” or “to diminish” in some way.
Typically in a geometric rabatting (or a rebattement as it’s also known) a plain shape is rotated so as to give a different perspective of it; for that reason, it’s a technique that’s often employed in technical drawing, planning and architecture, to provide an alternative view or sequence of views of a given shape or design. An artistic rabatment is a slightly simpler process.
A rectangle has two sets of parallel sides—one long (the top and bottom sides in the paintings above) and one short (the left and right sides). Imagine letting the left hand short side fall flat, rotating around the bottom left hand corner of the canvas like the hand on a clock, so that it now rests on the base. Now imagine doing the opposite: letting it swing back upright, rotating by its opposite end against the bottom edge, so that it now stands, top to bottom, roughly two-thirds into the rectangle. Get the picture? (No pun intended.) It sounds complicated, but the end result is fairly straightforward: the rejigged line now formed a perfect square with the side opposite. And it’s also along this rejigged side that the artist’s focal point lies.
So if that’s the what and the how, what about the why? Why produce an artwork that doesn’t centralize its main focal point?
There are a few theories as to why rabatment works as an artistic technique, but the general understanding is that squares are such basic, perfect shapes that our eyes are trained to look for them even when they’re not, at first glance at least, there. By placing the canoe-puller or the poplar trees slightly off to one side, the artist creates the bare bones of a square in the viewer’s eye.