Editorial
by
|
Mar 11, 2019

The History of Painting (Part 2)

The Aegean Civilization (3000-1100 B.C.)

The third great early culture was the Aegean civilization, on the islands off the shores of Greece and in the peninsula of Asia Minor. The Aegeans lived around the same time as the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians.

In 1900 archeologists began to excavate the palace of King Minos at Knossos on the island of Crete. The excavations turned up works of art painted around 1500 B.C. in an unusually free and graceful style for that time. Evidently the Cretans were a lighthearted, nature-loving people. Among their favorite themes in art were sea life, animals, flowers, athletic games, and processionals. At Knossos and other Aegean palaces, paintings were made on wet plaster walls with paints made of mineral substances, sand, and earth ochers. The paint soaked into the wet plaster and became a permanent part of the wall. This kind of painting was later called fresco, an Italian word meaning "fresh" or "new." The Cretans liked bright yellow, red, blue, and green.

Greek and Roman Classical Painting (1100 B.C.-A.D. 400)

The ancient Greeks decorated their temples and palaces with mural (wall) paintings. We can tell from ancient literary sources and from Roman copies of Greek art that the Greeks painted small pictures and made mosaics. The names of the Greek master painters and something of their lives and works are also known, although very little Greek painting has survived the effects of time and wars. The Greeks did not paint much in tombs, so their works were not protected.

Painted vases are about all that remains of Greek painting. Pottery making was a large industry in Greece, especially in Athens. Containers were in great demand for exports, such as oil and honey, and for household purposes. The earliest style of vase painting was known as the geometric style (1100-700 B.C.). Vases were decorated with bands of geometric shapes and human figures in a brown glaze on light-colored clay. By the 6th century, vase painters were using the black-figured style, in which human figures were painted in black on the natural red clay. The details were cut into the clay with a sharp instrument. This allowed the red beneath to show through.

The red-figured style eventually replaced the black. It is just the opposite; the figures are red and the background black. The advantage of this style was that the painter could use a brush to make the outlines. A brush gives a freer line than the metal tool used in black-figured vases.

Roman mural paintings were found chiefly in the villas (country homes) of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In A.D. 79 these two cities were completely buried by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Archeologists who have excavated the area have been able to learn much about ancient Roman life from these cities. Almost every house and villa in Pompeii had paintings on its walls. Roman painters carefully prepared the wall surface by applying a mixture of marble dust and plaster. They put the mixture on in layers and polished it to a marblelike finish. Many of the pictures are copies of 4th-century B.C. Greek paintings. The graceful poses of the figures painted on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii inspired artists of the 18th century when the city was excavated.

The Greeks and Romans also painted portraits. A small number of them, mostly mummy portraits done in the Greek style by Egyptian artists, have survived around Alexandria, in northern Egypt. Founded in the 4th century B.C. by Alexander the Great of Greece, Alexandria became a leading center of Greek and Roman culture. Mummy portraits were painted in the encaustic technique on wood and were fitted into mummy cases after the death of the person portrayed. Encaustic paintings, done in paint mixed with melted beeswax, last for a very long time. Indeed, the mummy portraits still look fresh, though they were done as long ago as the 2nd century B.C.

Early Christian and Byzantine Painting (A.D. 300-1300)

The Roman Empire began to decline in the 4th century A.D. At the same time Christianity gained strength. In A.D. 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine gave the religion official recognition and became a Christian himself.

The rise of Christianity greatly affected the arts. Artists were commissioned to decorate the walls of churches with frescoes and mosaics. They made panel paintings in the church chapel and illustrated and decorated the books of the Church. Under the authority of the Church, artists had to communicate the teachings of Christianity as clearly as possible.

Early Christians and Byzantine artists continued the technique of mosaic that they had learned from the Greeks. Small, flat pieces of colored glass or stone were set into wet cement or plaster. Sometimes other hard materials, such as bits of baked clay or shells, were used. In Italian mosaics the colors are especially deep and full. The Italian artists made the background with pieces of gilded glass. They set the human figures in rich colors against the glittering gold. The general effect is flat and decorative, not realistic.

The mosaics of Byzantine artists often were less realistic and more decorative than those of the early Christians. "Byzantine" is the name given to a style of art that developed around the ancient city of Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey). The mosaic technique perfectly suited the Byzantine taste for splendidly decorated churches. The famous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian, made about A.D. 547, show the taste for rich display. The jewelry on the figures glitters, and the brilliantly colored court dresses are set against a shining gold background. Byzantine artists also used gold liberally in fresco and panel paintings. Gold and other precious materials were used throughout the Middle Ages to set spiritual subjects apart from the everyday world.

Medieval Painting (500-1400)

The first part of the Middle Ages, from about the 6th to the 11th centuries A.D., is commonly called the Dark Ages. In this time of unrest, art was kept alive mainly in the monasteries. In the 5th century A.D. barbarian tribes from northern and central Europe roamed over the continent. For hundreds of years they dominated Western Europe. These people produced an art that has a strong emphasis on pattern. They were especially fond of designs of intertwining dragons and birds.

The best of Celtic and Saxon art is found in manuscripts of the 7th and 8th centuries. Book illumination and miniature painting, practiced since late Roman times, increased in the Middle Ages. Illumination is decoration of the text, the capital letters, and the margins. Gold, silver, and bright colors were used. A miniature is a small picture, often a portrait. Originally the term was used to describe the decorative block around the initial letters in a manuscript.

Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the early 9th century, tried to revive the classical art of the late Roman and early Christian periods. During his reign painters of miniatures imitated classical art, but they also conveyed personal feelings about their subjects.

Very little wall painting survives from the Middle Ages. There were several great series of frescoes painted in churches built during the Romanesque period (11th-13th centuries), but most of them have disappeared. Churches of the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries) did not have enough wall space for mural paintings. Book illustration was the main job of the Gothic painter.

Among the finest illustrated manuscripts were the books of hours--collections of calendars, devotional prayers, and psalms. A page from an Italian manuscript shows elaborately decorated initials and a finely detailed marginal scene of Saint George slaying the dragon. The colors are brilliant and jewel-like, as in stained glass, and gold shimmers over the page. Exquisitely delicate leaf and flower designs border the text. Artists probably used magnifying glasses to do such intricate work.

Italy: Cimabue and Giotto

Italian painters at the close of the 13th century were still working in the Byzantine style. Human figures were made to appear flat and decorative. Faces rarely had any expression. Bodies were weightless and seemed to float rather than stand firmly on the ground. In Florence the painter Cimabue (1240?-1302?) tried to modernize some of the old Byzantine methods. The angels in his Madonna Enthroned are more active than is usual in paintings of that time. Their gestures and faces show a little more human feeling. Cimabue added a new sense of monumentality, or largeness, to his paintings. However, he continued to follow many Byzantine traditions, such as the gold background and patternlike arrangement of objects and figures.

It was the great Florentine painter Giotto (1267?-1337) who actually broke with the Byzantine tradition. His fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua leaves Byzantine art far behind. In these scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ, there is genuine emotion, tension, and naturalism. All the qualities of human warmth and sympathy are present. The people do not seem at all unreal or heavenly. Giotto shaded the contours of the figures, and he put deep shadows into the folds of their clothing to give a sense of roundness and solidity.

For his smaller panels Giotto used pure egg tempera, a medium that was perfected by the 14th-century Florentines. The clearness and brightness of his colors must have greatly affected people accustomed to the darker colors of Byzantine panels. Tempera paintings give the impression that soft daylight is falling over the scene. They have an almost flat appearance in contrast to the glossiness of oil paintings. Egg tempera remained the chief painting medium until oil almost completely replaced it in the 16th century.

Late Medieval Painting North of the Alps

Early in the 15th century, painters in northern Europe were working in a style quite different from Italian painting. Northern artists achieved realism by adding countless details to their pictures. Every hair was delicately outlined, and each detail of drapery or floor pattern was faithfully set down. The invention of oil painting made it easier to paint details.

The Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (1370?-1441) contributed to the development of oil painting. When tempera is used, the colors have to be put on separately. They cannot shade into one another very well because the paint dries quickly. With oil, which dries slowly, an artist can achieve more intricate effects. The Moneylender and His Wife by Quentin Massys (1466?-1530) was done in the Flemish oil technique. All details, and even the mirror reflection, are clear and precise. The color is strong and has a hard, enamel-like surface. The wood panel on which the painting was done was prepared in much the same way that Giotto prepared his panels for tempera. Van Eyck built up the painting in layers of thin color, called glazes. Tempera was probably used in the original underpainting and for highlights.

Italian Renaissance Painting

At the same time that van Eyck was working in the North, the Italians were moving into a golden age of art and literature. This period is called the Renaissance, which means rebirth, or revival. Italian artists were inspired by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Italians wanted to revive the spirit of classical art, which glorifies human independence and nobility. Renaissance artists continued to paint religious subjects. But they emphasized the earthly life and accomplishments of human beings.

Florence

Giotto's accomplishments in the early 14th century laid the foundation of the Renaissance. Fifteenth-century Italian artists continued the movement. Masaccio (1401-28) was one of the leaders of the first generation of Renaissance artists. He lived in Florence, the wealthy merchant city where Renaissance art began. By the time of his death in his late twenties, he had revolutionized painting. In his famous fresco The Tribute Money he puts solid sculptural figures into a landscape that seems to go far back into the distance. Masaccio may have learned perspective from the Florentine architect and sculptor Brunelleschi (1377?-1446).

The fresco technique was very popular during the Renaissance. It was particularly suitable for large mural paintings because the colors dry perfectly flat. The picture can be viewed from any angle without glare or reflections. Frescoes are also available. Usually the artists had several assistants to help them. Work was completed by sections because it had to be finished while the plaster was still wet.

Masaccio's full three-dimensional style was typical of the new progressive trend of the 15th century. The style of Fra Angelico (1400?-1455) represents the more traditional approach used by a number of early Renaissance painters. He was less concerned with perspective and more interested in decorative pattern. His Coronation of the Virgin is an example of tempera painting at its most beautiful. The gay, intense colors are set against a gold background and accented with touches of gold. The picture looks like a greatly enlarged miniature painting. The long, narrow figures have little in common with Masaccio's. The composition is organized in sweeping lines of movement circling about the central figures of Christ and Mary.

Another Florentine who worked in the traditional style was Sandro Botticelli (1444?-1510). Flowing, rhythmic lines link the sections of Botticelli's Primavera. The figure of Spring, carried by the West Wind, sweeps in from the right. The Three Graces dance in a circle, the fluttering folds of their dresses and graceful movements of their arms expressing the rhythms of the dance.

The famous artist Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) studied painting in Florence. He is known for his scientific studies and inventions, as well as for his paintings. Very few of his pictures have survived, partly because he often experimented with different ways of making and applying paint, rather than using tried and true methods. The Last Supper(painted between 1495 and 1498) was done in oil, but unfortunately Leonardo painted it on a damp wall, which caused the paint to crack. Even in its poor condition the painting has the power to stir emotions in all who see it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Leonardo's style was his method of painting lights and darks. The Italians called his half-dark lighting sfumato, which means smoky, or misty. The figures in the Madonna of the Rocks are veiled in a sfumato atmosphere. Their forms and features are softly shaded. Leonardo achieved these effects by using very fine gradations of light and dark tones.