Invention of Oil Painting

THE invention of oil painting as applied to pictures has been credited to the brothers Hubert and John Van Eyck, the Flemish painters who lived in the fifteenth century, but the use of drying oils, obtained from linseed, hempseed, poppy seed, and walnuts, as media for colours, instead of the older tempera media of egg size, glue or parchment size, was known long before the Van Eycks’ time, though oil as a medium for the colours was not in common use until after the middle of the fifteenth century.

The particular method of painting discovered and practised by the Van Eycks was not oil painting, in the modern sense of the term, but was really a form of varnish painting, where an oleo-resinous vehicle was employed as the medium in which the dry pigments were ground. They had been experimenting in order to obtain a good drying varnish to protect their finished tempera pictures, and having found what they desired for this purpose, they simply used this new medium, instead of the water-size vehicles, to grind their colours in.

Linseed oil as a medium for colours was indeed used by some Florentine artists of the fourteenth century for certain portions of their pictures, as we are informed by Cennini and other writers. This Italian author also speaks of oil painting as a method ” much practised by the Germans,” from which we may infer that this must have been the case for a considerable time before 1437, the date of Cennini’s writing. Some have argued from the mention of the Germans in this connection, that the practice of painting in oil was introduced from Germany or from the Netherlands into Italy. We may be quite safe in saying, however, that the perfected system of painting pictures in an oleo-resinous vehicle was due to the experiments and efforts of the Van Eycks, and that the new method was developed by these artists with most satisfactory results.

The Florentines, during the fifteenth century, made many efforts to substitute oil, as a new medium for the old egg-tempera kind. We know that varnishes and drying oils were tentatively experimented with in Italy as vehicles for painting about this time, and that some pictures, both on panels and on walls, were painted partly in oil or varnish mediums and partly in tempera, and in fresco.

At first great difficulties were experienced in using the sticky and viscid oils and varnishes, and often for this reason the draperies and accessories only were at first painted in oil colour, as being the least difficult parts of the picture to paint, but the flesh painting, presenting a more difficult task in the manipulation of the colours, especially to artists who had been more accustomed to the use of tempera, was for a long time still executed in the latter method.

Among the leaders in the experimental methods of oil painting in Florence were Domenico Veneziano, who was painting there from 1439 to the year of his death, 1461; and his celebrated pupil Piero della Francesca (1415 ?—1492). This great Umbro-Florentine artist made some improvements in the new methods of painting, which was also practised by Pesellino (1422—1457), and Alesso Baldovinetti (1427—1499).

The contemporary painters, the Pollaiuoli, still further improved the art of oil-colour in Italy, while Verrocchio (1432—1488) and his pupils or assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459—1537) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452—1519), especially the latter great artist, carried the art of oil painting to the highest degrees of technical perfection.

Vasari, in his life of the Sicilian painter, Antonella da Messina, relates that Giovanni da Bruggia (John Van Eyck) painted a certain picture in the old tempera method, and after varnishing it, he set it in the sun to dry, in accordance with the usual custom. The author goes on to say : ” But whether the heat was too violent, or that the wood was badly joined, or insufficiently seasoned, the picture gave way at the joinings, opening in a very deplorable manner. Thereupon Giovanni, perceiving the mischief done to his work by the heat of the sun, determined to proceed in such a manner that the same thing should never again injure his work in like manner. And as he was no less embarrassed by his varnishes than by the processes of tempera painting he turned his thoughts to the discovery of some sort of varnish that would dry in the shade, to the end that he need not expose his pictures in the sun. Accordingly, after having made many experiments on substances, pure and mixed, he finally discovered that linseed oil and oil of nuts dried more readily than others of all he had tried. Having boiled therefore these oils with other mixtures he thus obtained the varnish which he, or rather all the painters in the world desired. He made experiments with many other substances, but finally decided that mixing (grinding) the colours with these oils (varnishes) gave a degree of firmness to the work which not only secured it against all injury from water when once dried, but also imparted so much life to the colours, that they exhibited a sufficient lustre in themselves without the aid of varnish, and what appeared to him more extraordinary than all else besides was, that the colours thus treated were more easily united and blent than when in tempera.”

This statement of Vasari’s as to John Van Eyck’s reputed invention of oil painting, has been considerably questioned, and even denied by many writers, but is upheld by Lanzi and others. Tambroni, for example, in his preface to Cennini’s Trattato della Pictura goes so far as to declare that the account given by Vasari of the invention of oil painting and Van Eyck’s connection with it is ” one of those romances which are incapable of supporting the anvil of the critic.”

In any case if the discovery of the ” new method ” is to be credited to either of the Van Eycks, the claims of Hubert, the supposed elder brother, as the artist who first adopted the new. system of painting, ought to be, as we think they are now, generally acknowledged. There is, how-ever, no definite or trustworthy evidence existing to prove that the Van Eycks invented oil painting, as it rests on hearsay literary gossip, no more than there is any existing evidence as to which of the brothers was the elder, as no known records can be found that give the years of their births. But it has been pointed out before, that the reputed invention was not so much that of oil painting, but varnish painting, as oil painting was practised at a much earlier date than 1410, the year of the reputed birth of oil painting.

The first mention of linseed oil was made by Aetius, a Greek medical writer and physician of the sixth century, though other drying oils, such as nut and poppy-seed oils, have been mentioned by Pliny and Dioscorides, but in all the above references these oils were not mentioned as painting mediums. Aetius states that linseed oil was prepared in the same way as the oleo cicinum (castor oil), and that it had superseded the latter in its medicinal uses. Afterwards he mentions walnut oil, as follows : ” Walnut oil is prepared like that of almonds, either by pounding or pressing the nuts, or by throwing them, after they have been bruised, into boiling water. The medicinal uses are the same : but it has a use besides these, being employed by gilders or encaustic painters, for it dries and preserves gilding and encaustic paintings for a long time.” According to this passage, nut oil was therefore used as a preserving varnish for gilt ornaments, but not as a size or mordant underneath the gold leaf, and it also proves that it was used in painting, as a drying oil, in the sixth century and perhaps earlier, though the drying quality of linseed oil does not appear to have been known, nor is there any mention of its having been used in the arts.

The siccative qualities of linseed oil appear to have been known in the eighth century, about the time of Charlemagne, and from that period on to the twelfth century, when it was in common use, and afterwards it superseded walnut oil for the making of oleo-resinous varnishes, of which there are many receipts preserved in old documents.

In the two following centuries linseed oil appears to have been extensively employed as a painting vehicle in England—at Westminster and Ely, as we shall see a little later on.

The earliest writers who mention the mixture of oil with colours for painting (chiefly decorative) are Eraclius and Theophilus ; also the French ecclesiastic, Peter de St. Audemar, whose treatise on the arts is almost a contemporary work with that of the monk Theophilus. Two copies of the treatise by Eraclius, De Coloribus et Artibus Romanorum, are in existence, one of which is in the British Museum Library and the other in the Paris Library. A most complete copy of the work by the monk Theophilus, entitled Diversarum Artum Schedula, is in the British Museum. These treatises contain several passages which give various receipts and directions for the extraction of drying oils, making of varnishes, and for the immixture of colours with linseed and other drying oils. Both of the MSS. were compiled about the close of the twelfth century. It is supposed that these two writers—Eraclius and Theophilus—were natives of some country north of the Alps.

The third MS., by Peter de St. Audemar, is now in the Paris Library, and is a work on medicine and the arts of painting, etc. This author de-scribes various pigments and the mediums in which they may be used when applied as colours for illuminating on parchment, for painting on wood panels, and on walls. For example, he states that white (lead) should be mixed with wine, or ground in it, for painting on parchment, but with oil for painting on wood and on walls. Green (verdigris), in like manner for wood, and for walls with wine, or oil. Blue, to be used on walls with egg and water size, but on wood with oil. Minium (red lead), for walls is to be ground in gum water, but not with egg size, except when used on parchment ; if used on wood it should be mixed with oil. Black, to be used on walls with water and egg, or on wood with oil. These directions are similar to many that are mentioned in the treatise by Theophilus, and more especially to those which include oil as a medium.

Lorenzo Ghiberti (1276-1336), when speaking of Giotto’s many attainments, says that he also occasionally painted in oil colours—” lavoro a olio.”

Walpole in his Anecdotes of Painting quotes from a document of Henry III, dated the 23rd year of his reign (1239), a year before Cimabue was born, that testifies to the practice of oil painting in England at that time. This mandate of Henry III is worded as follows :—” The King to his treasurer and chamberlain. Pay from our treasury to Oda, the goldsmith, and Edward his son, one hundred and seventeen shillings and tenpence for oil, varnish, and colours, bought by them, and for pictures made in the Queen’s Chamber, at Westminster ; to the octaves of the Holy Trinity (May 25th), in the 23rd year of our reign, to the feast of St. Barnabas (June 11th), in the same year, namely, for fifteen days.” Similar mention of oil as a painting vehicle appears in the numerous account rolls belonging to the reign of Edward I (1274-1293) and in others dated 1307, the first of Edward II. Also in the records of Ely Cathedral of the dates 1325 to 1351, and in a number of account documents belonging to the reign of Edward III, which relate to the decoration of St. Stephen’s Chapel, from 1352 to 1358. Partial translations of the latter accounts appear in Smith’s Antiquities of Westminster (London 1837).

The following extracts from Eastlake’s Materials, etc., throw further light on the use of oil as a painting medium in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in England :—” In the period from 1274 to 1277 (second and fifth of Edward I), an account apparently relating to the Painted Chamber (Westminster), contains these items : — ` To Reymund, for seventeen lbs. of white lead II.s. X.d. To the same for sixteen gallons (?) of oil, XVI.s. To the same for twenty-four lbs. of varnish XII.s. . . . To Hugo le Vespunt, for eighteen gallons of oil XXI.s.’ Again ; ‘ to Reymund for a hundred (leaves) of gold III.s. To the same for twenty-two lbs. of varnish, Xis. I.d.’ Elsewhere ; ` To Robert King for one cartload of charcoal for drying the paint in the King’s Chamber.’ ” The last entry appears to relate to the drying of the surfaces painted in oils, but the precaution may also have been necessary before varnishing tempera.

In the year 1289 (seventeenth of Edward I), the following materials were enumerated in an account relating to the repairs in the Painted Chamber :-” White lead, varnish, green, oil, red lead, tin-foil, size, gold leaf, silver leaf, red ochre, vermilion, indigo, azure, earthen vessels, cloth, etc.”

In 1292, oil and varnish are twice mentioned in a similar account. In 1307, in consequence of a fire, which occurred in 1298, repairs were again undertaken, and similar materials were used for the work of restoration.

The records of Ely are more conclusive as to the immixture of oil with colours, and, as the materials are nearly the same as in the above mentioned accounts it may be inferred that oil painting was practised at Westminster as well as at Ely. Among the items of an account of the year 1325 three gallons and a half of oil are mentioned ” for painting the figures on the columns.” In English records the term “ymagines ” is used indiscriminately for painted figures on any surface, and for statues, but the latter in some foreign documents are distinguished by the term ” ymagines rotunde.” The Ely figures on the columns would be painted ones, and the method of their execution would be in oil colours. In 1336, in a similar account, oil is mentioned as being supplied in great abundance, forty-eight flagons altogether, and this may explain its absence in other entries where colours and other materials are mentioned without oil. It should be remembered that when in some documents the word ” varnish appears alone it may be generally understood that oil was included, even if it was not mentioned in the list of materials, for without which the ” vernix ” or ” sandarac ” would be of no use, as the latter terms in those days usually meant the dry resin or gum only. In the last mentioned account columns were to be painted; a usual proceeding in medieval times.

In 1339 and 1341 oil again appears ; in an account of the former date it is mentioned ” for tempering the colours.”

In 1351 oil is mentioned ” for making the painting in the Chapel.” In all these documents where varnish is included in the items it is noted as supplied by weight. The above extracts relating to Ely Cathedral will be found in the Archæologia, Vol. IX.

The following extracts relate to the work executed in St. Stephen’s Chapel, Sept. 19. 1352, twenty-fifth year of Edward III :—” For nineteen flagons of painter’s oil, bought for the painting of the Chapel, at 3s. 4d. the flagon, 43s. 4d.” The purchaser of this oil was evidently allowed a generous discount from the maker, who is else-where mentioned as the, then, principal painter, named Hugh, of St. Albans. Again, on March 13, 1353 :—” To Thomas Drayton, for eight flagons of painter’s oil, bought for the painting of the Chapel, at 2s. 6d. the flagon, 20s.” And on May 13, in the same year :—” To John de Hennay for seventy flagons and a half of painter’s oil (bought for painting of the same chapel) at 20d. the flagon, 117s. 6d.”

The great variation in the price of oil mentioned in the above extracts points to the fact that the cheaper and commoner kinds were doubtless used for the commoner work of the decoration such as in the coatings of the ground colours on the large surfaces of walls, ceilings, and columns, and the more expensive oil was the refined and purified kind which would be used for the painting of the imagines ” and other pictorial designs, that were usually painted on the interior surfaces of nearly all churches, cathedrals and palaces of the Middle Ages. If we had no other proofs that such buildings were not considered finished until they had received a universal colour decoration, the extracts from the accounts, above quoted, furnish the required testimony. This information, together with the vestiges of colour and fragments of decorative painting that are still found on portions of the interiors of old churches and medieval buildings, or that have been brought to light, after remaining hidden under whitewash for centuries, afford conclusive proof that colour and decoration were applied to almost every surface and architectural detail of these buildings both in England and on the Continent, which was only the continuation of the universal practice followed out in classical and still more ancient times.

Though oil painting as applied to easel pictures and altarpieces had not become a universal practice until long after the Van Eycks’ time, there is proof enough, as we have seen, that oil was mixed with colours for decorative work, and in some cases in pictorial work in England, and also in Germany and Italy, as early as the latter end of the thirteenth century. The practice of oil painting was so extensive in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in England that this circumstance had led Walpole to doubt whether the Van Eycks’ discovery was really their own. He suggests that when the Flemish painter was searching for a varnish, ” Might he not have heard that such a varnish or composition was in use in England ? Wornum, the editor of Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting, agrees with this statement of the author.

The practice of oil painting as taught by Eraclius, the oldest writer on the subject, agrees, as Eastlake points out, ” in many details with that exemplified in the English records,” and, ” this may warrant the supposition that he composed his treatise in this country, for oil painting was more generally and more successfully employed in England than elsewhere in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”

The mere immixture of oil with colours was an old practice in Italy and Germany, but Vasari, in his life of Agnolo Gaddi, who died in 1396, makes the reservation, namely, that even this simple method was not then adopted in Italy for ” figure ” painting. It is true that Vasari makes this remark in reference to a precisely similar one by Cennini in his quotation from the latter’s Treatise on Painting, but it is interesting inasmuch as it shows to us that Vasari himself was not aware of any figure painting that was executed in the oil medium until after the days of the Van Eycks. As regards the word ” figures ” used by Vasari, Cennini, and- other contemporary writers in connection with oil painting, we may understand it to mean the flesh portions of the figures in pictures, and not the draperies, for in examining most of the fifteenth century pictures we usually find that nearly all of the draperies, including those in the Van Eyck paintings, are more or less covered with cracks, while the flesh portions are comparatively in a smooth and sound state, and generally free from any surface cracking. This would point to the fact that the flesh portions of the figures were executed in a tempera medium, and varnished afterwards with a white varnish, while the draperies, backgrounds, and accessories were executed either in the new medium of oil colour, or varnished with a thicker and darker kind of oil varnish, if they were not painted directly in a varnish medium.

In the second volume of this work we shall treat of the history of modern painting from the time of Cimabue onwards.