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The Varnish and the Glaze

Painting Splendor with Oil, 1100–1500

A new history of the techniques, materials, and aesthetic ambitions that gave rise to the radiant verisimilitude of Jan van Eyck’s oil paintings on panel.
 
Panel painters in both the middle ages and the fifteenth century created works that evoke the luster of precious stones, the sheen of polished gold and silver, and the colorful radiance of stained glass. Yet their approaches to rendering these materials were markedly different. Marjolijn Bol explores some of the reasons behind this radical transformation by telling the history of the two oil painting techniques used to depict everything that glistens and glows—varnish and glaze.
 
For more than a century after his death, the fifteenth-century painter Jan van Eyck was widely credited with inventing varnish and oil paint, on account of his unique visual realism. Once this was revealed to be a myth, the verisimilitude of his work was attributed instead to a new translucent painting technique: the glaze. Today, most theories about how Van Eyck achieved this realism revolve around the idea that he was the first to discover or refine the glazing technique. Bol, however, argues that, rather than being a fifteenth-century refinement, varnishing and glazing began centuries before. Drawing from an extensive body of recipes, Bol pieces together how varnishes and glazes were first developed as part of the medieval art of material mimesis. Artisans embellished metalwork and wood with varnishes and glazes to imitate gold and gems; infused rock crystal with oil, resin, and colorants to imitate more precious minerals; and oiled parchment to transform it into the appearance of green glass. Likewise, medieval panel painters used varnishes and glazes to create the look of enamel, silk, and more.
 
The explorations of materials and their optical properties by these artists stimulated natural philosophers to come up with theories about transparent and translucent materials produced by the earth. Natural historians, influenced by medieval artists’ understanding of refraction and reflection, developed theories about gems, their creation, and their optical qualities.

336 pages | 80 color plates, 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Art: Art--General Studies, European Art

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Reviews

“In this field-defining work of technical art history, Marjolijn Bol makes an original argument for a combined material, technical, and cultural revolution in the art of image making. With stunning illustrations and prose as lucid as the precious gems she examines, Bol demonstrates a fifteenth-century transformation in systems of depicting optical reflection and refraction across media—in goldsmithing, manuscript illumination, panel painting, and tapestry weaving—as art making shifted from mimesis of materials to include the whole of the visible world.”

Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University

“This brilliant book demonstrates how the fifteenth-century panel painter’s techniques of varnishing and glazing were foreshadowed in the Middle Ages by media such as stained glass, enamels, and metalwork. Combining the skills of a cultural historian and conservator, Bol offers fresh analysis of medieval sources and their terminology, tries out their recipes, and documents the results with exemplary clarity. Superb color plates not only reproduce the artworks in stunning detail but also record the author’s hands-on research into pigments and binding-media. The Varnish and the Glaze will inform and delight all who are interested in the history of color in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.”

Paul Hills, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Table of Contents

Disclaimer
Introduction: The Paint That Glows
1 Oil and Apelles: Vasari’s Invention of a New Paint Medium
2 The Color of the Sun: Varnishing Practice before 1450
3 Crystal Clear: Changes in Varnishing Practice, 1450–1500
4 In Search of Splendor: Gems and Their Imitations before 1400
5 Making Glazes: Practices, Recipes, and Reconstructions
6 The Eyckian Turning Point: Glazing and the Imitation of the Visible World
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index
 

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