A THOUSAND WORDS by Mary Elizabeth Podles
Jan van Eyck's The Madonna in a Church
We are so accustomed to oil paintings that we seldom give the medium a second thought: it is essentially our default position for Old Master and fine art painting. But it was not always so. The sixteenth-century chronicler and art historian Giorgio Vasari credits Jan van Eyck with the invention of oil painting in the fifteenth century; while this is not strictly true, Van Eyck's mastery of the oil technique probably made Italian painters aware of its range of possibilities for the first time. It is worth a look.
In early Italian and Byzantine painting, the colored pigments were bound to their support with an admixture of egg yolk, which any washer of dishes can tell you is a tenacious substance, but one which by nature is rather opaque. When linseed or some other oil was substituted for the egg, pigments became transparent and could, once dry, be overlaid with other transparent colors for a nuanced richness and luminosity not before possible.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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