Medium Well Done: 14 Copper and other sheets

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), The Apotheosis of the Rose (1926), oil on copper, 213.4 x 119.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The vast majority of oil paintings have been made on supports of wood or stretched fabric. But over the centuries a wider variety of materials have been used, including sheets of metal, slate and other stone, glass, and most recently elaborately-structured composite materials. They all meet the primary requirement, that of rigidity, but vary in their dimensional stability, weight, and suitability to retain paint or an appropriate ground.

The most commonly-used of these alternative supports has been copper sheet, which has long been used as the support and ground for enamelling, and forms plates for various methods of making prints. Although a relatively expensive metal, it is highly malleable and was worked into uniformly thin sheets even in quite ancient times.

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), The Annunciation (c 1575), oil on copper, 36 x 27 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Courtesy of Walters Art Museum.

Earliest surviving paintings on copper date from the first half of the sixteenth century. Lavinia Fontana’s striking oil painting of The Annunciation from about 1575 is a good example from the time that copper came into vogue in both the north and south of Europe.

Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), Mountainous Landscape with Saint Jerome (1592), oil on copper mounted on panel, 25.7 × 32.8 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

By the end of that century, many painters were using copper supports. For landscape artists like Paul Bril, they were an ideal means of making relatively small but intricately detailed works which were suitable for a customer’s ‘cabinet’.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Juno in the Underworld (1596-98), oil on copper, 25.5 x 35.5 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder was among many others who painted on copper at this time. By the early seventeenth century, there were twenty-five master coppersmiths in Antwerp alone who provided plates for painting.

The challenge to painters who chose to paint on copper was ensuring good adhesion to the metal surface. Traditional recipes stress the importance of thorough cleaning and de-greasing, and some recommend treatment of the copper using cloves of garlic or their juice. Like many metals, copper does slowly corrode when exposed to the atmosphere, and ensuring complete coverage of bare metal by ground or paint was important to prevent that. In practice, surviving oil on copper paintings have generally remained in fine condition, and they don’t appear to suffer delamination.

In return, the painter gets a very smooth surface on which they can develop fine detail. The dark natural colour of the metal was widely used for chiaroscuro effects, and the surface of the paint layer is usually so smooth that varnishing was unnecessary.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Bringing Food for the Inmates of a Hospital (c 1598), oil on copper, 27.8 x 20 cm, The Wellcome Collection, London. Courtesy of and © Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Elsheimer specialised in painting on copper, and I can’t recall seeing any painting which he made on a different support. He painted Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Bringing Food for the Inmates of a Hospital in about 1598, when he was just twenty.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), The Burning of Troy (after 1601), oil on copper, 36 x 50 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

Elsheimer excelled at nocturnes and other scenes in very dark settings, such as The Burning of Troy above, and Ceres at Hecuba’s Home below.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610) and Workshop, Ceres at Hecuba’s Home (c 1605), oil on copper plate, 30 × 25 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.
Hendrick de Clerck (1560/1570–1630), The Contest Between Apollo and Pan (c 1620), oil on copper, 43 x 62 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Copper remained quite a popular support during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. Some artists, such as Hendrick de Clerck, pushed their technique up to larger sizes too.

David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Armida before Godfrey of Bouillon (1628-30), oil on copper, 27 x 39 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

David Teniers the Younger was another career-long enthusiast for painting in oil on copper, in more varied lighting than Elsheimer. Around 1628-30, he painted a complete narrative series of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered on copper.

David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c 1650), oil on copper, 55 × 69 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The fine detail in Teniers’ Temptation of Saint Anthony demonstrates what can be achieved on a smooth copper surface.

Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648 (1648), oil on copper, 45.4 x 58.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

During the latter half of the seventeenth century, enthusiasm for copper supports started to tail off. Gerard ter Borch still used quite a large plate for his historical record of The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648, but most other painters were transferring to canvas.

Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743), Brother Philippe’s Geese (c 1736), oil on copper, 27.3 x 35.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The use of copper has never ceased altogether since the late sixteenth century, and has been continued by a succession of artists with whom it has found favour, such as Nicolas Lancret above, and Johann Georg Platzer below. The latter appears to have painted many works on rather larger sheets of copper than those used earlier.

Here there’s a delicate balance to be struck: thinner sheets are less rigid, and warp more readily, but are substantially lighter and cheaper too.

Johann Georg Platzer (1704–1761), The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the Camp of Alexander the Great (date not known), oil on copper, 56.9 × 82.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in the late eighteenth century, Angelica Kauffmann painted smaller history works on copper which she could then sell at more affordable prices than her larger works on canvas.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Nativity (1799-1800), tempera on copper, 27.3 x 38.2 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art (Gift of Mrs. William Thomas Tonner, 1964), Pennsylvania, PA. Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The first widely-known painter to run into trouble when painting on metal sheet was William Blake. Early in his career he devised techniques for painting in glue tempera, and applied this to printing plates, some of which he seems to have cut down to size himself. One of these has been painted on tinned steel, thought to have been cut from the lid of a box, and the others are on copper. Unfortunately, adhesion between the glue and gum binder used in his paint and the surface of the metal has proved poor, and these paintings have flaked and aged badly.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Leda and the Swan (1922), oil on copper, 108 x 118.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Copper and other metals made something of a comeback during the twentieth century. Joseph Stella painted several works on copper, including his very large and detailed Apotheosis of the Rose shown below, in 1926.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), The Apotheosis of the Rose (1926), oil on copper, 213.4 x 119.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Large copper and other metal sheets become heavy; the advent of aluminium in the late nineteenth century has led some modern artists to use it as a support. With the development of lightweight rigid sheet materials for aircraft and other industrial applications, and most recently composites in which plastics and metals are bonded together, modern painters now have a much wider choice.

Most rocks are neither light nor readily made into flat surfaces suitable for painting. The one exception which has been used since the Renaissance is slate, which is widely available in thin sheets. I show here just three examples, the first two of which are on quite large slate supports.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547), Pope Clement VII (c 1531), oil on slate, 105.4 x 87.6 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Several masters of the southern Renaissance painted on slate, including Sebastiano del Piombo, whose magificently dark portrait of Pope Clement VII above shows how the natural slate grey can be used to effect, and Vasari’s large painting of Perseus and Andromeda below.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Perseus and Andromeda (1570-2), oil on slate, 117 x 100 cm, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin West (1738–1820), Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (c 1816), oil on slate, 34 x 25.6 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

The most surprising painting here is the last: a preparatory study made for a large portrait of Benjamin Franklin, which was never completed, by the Anglo-American history painter Benjamin West in about 1816 – on a sheet of slate. I have no idea why he chose this support in the final few years of his life.