Last weekend, I looked at one of the great technical challenges in realist painting, glassware. This weekend I turn to an even tougher problem: painting jewels, jewellery, and precious stones.
From the dawn of humanity, people have valued and hoarded treasures, precious stones and metals which are turned into movable property with which they can decorate their palaces and their bodies as jewellery. Nothing shouts out – often uncouthly – your riches louder than wearing them on yourself, and on your partner.
When painted, though, there’s a delicate balance to be struck. Those symbols of status must look really special, sparkling and glinting, but mustn’t outdo the person wearing them. The diamonds, sparklers in slang, have to show their value, but that mustn’t exceed that of the owner.
In some of the oldest surviving portraits in European art, jewellery was more than just a sign of earthly riches and status.
This haunting funerary portrait, of a woman of noble status among Greek and Roman colonists in Egypt in around 100 CE, adorns her with the riches she couldn’t take with her on that last journey. There’s a glint in the deep red stone hung from her necklace, but it doesn’t really sparkle as it would.
One of the earliest and most brilliant depictions of jewellery comes in the details of an anonymous work, The Wilton Diptych from the end of the fourteenth century.
Probably painted as a personal devotional work for King Richard II of England (1367-1400), its left panel features three crowns and abundant jewellery which, in the right light, looks every bit as impressive in miniature as they would have in real life. Considering that this was painted using egg tempera, that is an astonishing achievement.
These details of jewels and the white hart brooches were raised from the paint surface using thicker areas of lead white, to give the impression of enamelling. Coupled with mordant gilding, they mimic the three-dimensional form of jewels and act as point reflectors of light, sparkling as if they really were gems in the paint layer. Although it has been suggested that these details may have been added using oil paint, no evidence of that has yet been found.
That approach doesn’t appear to have been known more widely among artists of the northern Renaissance, though.
Around fifty years later, when Jan van Eyck and his workshop painted the Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donor (c 1441-43), jewellery and precious stones, including those of the crown held at the right, and on the hem of the Virgin’s gown, were painted in detail but lacked any real sparkle. Given the keen interest in optics and optical effects at the time, this is surprising.
Two reasons for this are apparent: the flat lighting, which deprives the gems and gold of contrast, and insistence on a smooth paint surface and tight brushwork, as shown in the detail below.
It was late in the Renaissance before painters seemed to rediscover how to give jewellery that extra something which made it stand out and look real.
Although the gems and metals in Veronese’s fourth painting in his Allegory of Love series are only modest, they look far more real than the greater riches of van Eyck. As revealed in the detail below, this is because Veronese has applied thicker and more painterly highlights to them.
It was Rembrandt who took this further and really brought cut gems and metals to life.
In his stunning painting of Belshazzar’s Feast from about 1635-38, Rembrandt combines the right high-contrast lighting and innovative rendering of highlights to bring its many jewel and worked metal surfaces to life.
The detail below shows how he has achieved this, using thick, even impasto, and highly gestural marks to form the reflective highlights on the faces of cut gemstones and on their metal settings. Instead of painting fine and precise lines and areas, these more irregular marks result in a more realistic effect. It took the genius of Rembrandt to recognise that striving for precision had made earlier paintings look less realistic.
Another superb example of Rembrandt’s technique, this time without the glitter of cut gemstones, is in this slightly later painting of David and Jonathan (1642). Seen in the flesh, these paintings look even more real than in these images.
The detail below of David’s elaborately decorated sword shows how thickly Rembrandt has applied light paint over the highlights in irregular and broken marks.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at some portraits, still life, and the depiction of jewellery in nineteenth and early twentieth century painting. Could anyone match Rembrandt?