Panel painting  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A panel painting is a painting on a panel made of wood, either a single piece, or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, it was the normal form of support for a painting not on a wall (fresco) or on vellum, which was used for miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and also for paintings for framing.

History

Panel painting is very old; it was a very prestigious medium in Greece and Rome, but only very few examples of ancient panel paintings have survived. A series of 6th century BC painted tablets from Pitsa (Greece) represent the oldest surviving Greek panel paintings. Most classical Greek paintings that were famous in their day seem to have been of a size comparable to smaller modern works - perhaps up to a half-length portrait size. However for a generation in the second quarter of the fifth-century BC there was a movement, called the "new painting" and led by Polygnotus, for very large painted friezes, apparently painted on wood, decorating the interiors of public buildings with very large and complicated subjects containing numerous figures at at least half life-size, and including battle scenes. We can only attempt to imagine what these looked like from some detailed literary descriptions and vase-paintings that appear to echo their compositions. The first century BC to third century AD Fayum mummy portraits, preserved in the exceptionally dry conditions of Egypt, provide the bulk of surviving panel painting from the Imperial Roman period - about 900 face or bust portraits survive. The Severan Tondo, also from Egypt (about 200AD) is one of the handful of non-funerary Graeco-Roman specimens to survive. Wood has always been the normal support for the Icons of Byzantine art and the later Orthodox traditions, the earliest of which (all in Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai) date from the 5th or 6th centuries, and are the oldest panel paintings which seem to be of the highest contemporary quality. Encaustic and tempera are the two techniques used in antiquity. Encaustic largely ceased to be used after the early Byzantine icons.

Although there seem from literary references to have been some panel paintings produced in Western Europe through the centuries between Late Antiquity and the Romanesque period, and Byzantine icons were imported, there are next to no survivals in an unaltered state. In the 12th century panel painting experienced a revival because of new liturgical practices—the priest and congregation were now on the same side of the altar, leaving the space behind the altar free for the display of a holy image—and thus altar decorations were in demand. The earliest forms of panel painting were dossals (altar backs), altar fronts and crucifixes. All were painted with religious images, commonly the Christ or the Virgin, with the saints appropriate to the dedication of the church, and the local town or diocese, or to the donor. Donor portraits including members of the donor's family are also often shown, usually kneeling to the side. They were for some time a cheaper alternative to the far more prestigious equivalents in metalwork, decorated with gems, enamels, and perhaps ivory figures, most of which have long been broken up for their valuable materials. Painted panels for altars are most numerous in Spain, especially Catalonia, which is explained by the poverty of the country at this time, as well as the lack of Reformation iconoclasm.

The 13th and 14th centuries in Italy were a great period of panel painting, mostly altarpieces or other religious works. However, it is estimated that of all the panel paintings produced there, 99.9 percent have been lost. The vast majority of Early Netherlandish paintings are on panel, and these include most of the earliest portraits, such as those by Jan van Eyck, and some other secular scenes. However, one of the earliest surviving oils on canvas is a French Madonna with angels of about 1410 in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, which is very early indeed for oil painting also. In these works the frame and panel are sometimes a single piece of wood, as with Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) by van Eyck (National Gallery, London), where the frame was also painted, including an inscription done illusionistically to resemble carving.

By the 15th century with the increased wealth of Europe, and later the appearance of humanism, and a changing attitude about the function of art and patronage, panel painting went in new directions. Secular art opened the way to the creation of chests, painted beds, birth trays and other furniture. Many such works are now detached and hung framed on walls in museums. Many double-sided wings of altarpieces (see picture at top) have also been sawn into two one-sided panels.

Canvas took over from panel in Italy by the first half of the 16th century, a change led by Mantegna and the artists of Venice (which made the finest canvas at this point, for sails). In the Netherlands the change took about a century longer, and panel paintings remained common, especially in Northern Europe, even after the cheaper and more portable canvas had become the main support medium. The young Rubens and many other painters preferred it for the greater precision that could be achieved with a totally solid support, and many of his most important works also used it, even for paintings over four metres long in one dimension. His panels are of notoriously complicated construction, containing as many as seventeen pieces of wood (Het Steen, National Gallery, London). For smaller cabinet paintings, copper sheets (often old printmaking plates) were another rival support, from the end of the 16th century, used by many artists including Adam Elsheimer. Many Dutch painters of the Golden Age used panel for their small works, including Rembrandt on occasion. By the 18th century it had become unusual to paint on panel, except for small works to be inset into furniture, and the like. But, for example, The National Gallery in London has two Goya portraits on panel.

Many other painting traditions also painted, and still paint, on wood, but the term is usually only used to refer to the Western tradition described above.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Panel painting" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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