S’emmêler les pinceaux and other French art phrases you may hear

To mark the start of the FIAC annual modern art fair in Paris today, we look at three expressions related to art

21 October 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

Paris’ international art fair, FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain), opens to the public today (October 21). The annual event, which first took place in 1974, will run until October 24 at the Grand Palais Ephémère.

The fair invites galleries, collectors and art lovers to sell, buy and admire contemporary art in all its forms including sculpture, installations, photography, painting and digital arts.

We look at three French expressions related to art:

S’emmêler les pinceaux (literally ‘to mix up one’s paintbrushes’):

This expression, coined in the 20th century, means to get confused or to stumble. While we now think of paintbrushes, in the Middle Ages the word ‘pince’ had two meanings: it could be a part of a deer’s hoof or a crowbar.

In link with the animal legs, ‘pinces’ came to refer to the end of a human limb, such as the hand or the foot in 19th century colloquial language.

Eventually, in the 20th century, ‘pinces’ became ‘pinceaux’ (paintbrushes), which we hear in today’s expression. However, the phrase really refers to the former colloquial meaning of ‘pinceaux’ -  feet. Tangling one’s feet - or paintbrushes - therefore means to stumble, either literally (to not be able to walk) or figuratively (to be confused).

Ne pas pouvoir voir quelque chose / quelqu’un en peinture (literally ‘to not be able to see something in paint’):

When the French say this, it means that they really do not like someone and cannot stand to look at them in any shape or form. The expression can also be used to refer to objects.

It dates to at least the mid-19th century, when it was used in Alexandre Dumas fils’ (French for ‘son’) 1848 novel, La Dame Aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias).

En voir de toutes les couleurs (literally ‘to see all the colours’):

This means to undergo all kinds of trials or hardships.

It is said that the expression was coined in the 19th century and based on the image of the chromatic circle, also known as the colour wheel, which was conceived by Sir Isaac Newton to map out relationships between colours on the spectrum.

The colours on the wheel represent the variety of emotions one might go through or experiences one might endure.

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