The Origin of Painting

As a follow-up to the below post, I thought it useful to expand a bit on Pliny the Elder’s account of the origin of painting. In his Natural History (circa 77-79AD), Pliny attempts to make the compendium of information for his time. In Books XXXIV and XXXV, he discusses metallurgy, sculpture, and painting.

In Chapter 5 of Book XXXV, he writes, “We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow […omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta].

Later, in Chapter 15, he tells the now-famous story of Butades of Corinth. “It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp [umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit].

From the mid-to-late 18th century until the early 19th century, The Origin of Painting was a mildly popular sub-genre, depicted by artists under titles such as “The Origin of Painting”, “The Art of Painting”, “The Invention of Drawing”, and “The Corinthian Maid”. Some examples:

Jean Baptiste Regnault, Origin of Painting, 1785

Jean Baptiste Regnault, Origin of Painting, 1785

David Allan, Origin of Painting, 1775

David Allan, Origin of Painting, 1775

Joseph Benoit Suvee, Invention of Art of Drawing, 1793

Joseph Benoit Suvee, Invention of Art of Drawing, 1793

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Origin of Painting, 1830

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Origin of Painting, 1830

Some recent interpretations of Pliny’s story:

Francine van Hove, Dibutades, 2007

Francine van Hove, Dibutades, 2007

Karen Knorr, The Pencil of Nature, 1994. (The title is a mixed metaphor, as it is the title of Henry Fox Talbot's 1844-46 account of his invention of the photographic process)

Karen Knorr, The Pencil of Nature, 1994. (The title is a mixed metaphor, as it is the title of Henry Fox Talbot's 1844-46 account of his invention of the photographic process)

Architecture Historian Robin Evans, in his essay “Translations from Drawing to Building”, makes an astute observation regarding the Schinkel version shown above. In comparing it to David Allen’s rendition, he notes that Schinkel, an architect, is the only of his contemporaries to depict the shadow as cast by the sun. Allen and others use the point source of a lamp. Evans uses this discrepancy to explain the two major paradigms of projection: parallel (orthography) and centric projection. The artist uses the converging lines to make enlargements and reductions in the scale of the image, by changing the physical relationships between light, subject, and wall. The architect requires precision in scale for transmission of information. The sun provides this control, so it doesn’t matter where the subject is; the sun’s rays are parallel, guaranteeing a precise same-scale reproduction when the shadow reaches its screen.

In addition, in all the depictions I have found, Schinkel is the only of his contemporaries to actually show the inscription of the pencil. The other shadows in the paintings are so dark, there is no line visible tracing the shadow’s edge. Schinkel’s shadow is more accurate in that it is not a deep black hole with no definition. Real shadows darken the value of the surface hue, and are not black. Strange that the painters do not describe this accurately.

The above quotes from Pliny have been the source of inspiration to painters since first written almost 2000 years ago, but a larger excerpt reveals something more than just the role of shadows in the establishment of 2D representation. From Book XXXV:

“On painting we have now said enough, and more than enough; but it will be only proper to append some accounts of the plastic art. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.”

Although Pliny does earlier say that multiple cultures agree that painting began as a shadow trace, the above anecdote clearly describes the origin of sculpture more than painting. Pliny is clear that he is finished talking about painting and is now talking about the “plastic arts”. This may have subtly affected the depiction of the shadow in the 18-19th c. Because the shadow trace was to be filled with clay, the shadow is painted as solid, and not translucent. Schinkel, the architect, familiar and dependent on the line as part of his trade, is the only one to depict the line.

So why has history transposed the origin of sculpture into the origin of painting? And why was this such a popular topic for a specific 50 year period more than 1700 years after the story was told? The popularity of the image came after the Renaissance revolution in representation. Perspective, orthography, and even lenses and other optical devices were already well known, and as a result, projective methods were standard techniques in the late 18th century. Their visual paradigm of translation of 3D information into 2D was well established. The role of projection in the service of verisimilitude was a foundation for the artist’s perception. Pliny was of another time, where, as posited in the “Sculpture vs. Painting” blog post below, the method that enabled accurate dimensional translation did not yet manifest in painting as a desirable treatment of painting’s subject. The use of this allegory was in line with artistic trends of the late 18th century, when artists such as Jacques Louis David became fascinated with the ancients, and a “Neoclassical” movement had many looking to the past*

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787. Classical themes and stories told through 18th century painting.

While painting is given this compelling origin myth, which would seem to be a smoking gun for those of us seeking the earliest applications of projection, it is more likely that this tale was the early development not of sculpture, but of realistic sculpture. Sculpture like the busts of Caracalla and Agrippa outlined below are the product of a desire for verisimilitude in sculpture. The shadow alone could not perform that task, but it doesn’t matter because the role of a precise instrument, one that would translate with such fidelity that Dibutades would recognize and remember her lover through its accuracy, is the ancient domain of sculpture. Painting would have to wait for a paradigm of viewing to establish its domain as a projective art as high fidelity as sculpture.

———————————————————————————————

Notes:

*This neoclassical trend also aligns with the early American fascination with Greek and Roman architecture, making civic and institutional buildings in a classical style that we still see today. It also explains the town names of places like upstate New York (Athens, Ithaca, Syracuse, Troy, Rome, Cairo, etc.) where the ancients were clearly in mind when settling these areas in the 18th century.

Advertisements

About this entry