Sheer Delight 2: Texture in oils

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo ('Mona Lisa') (detail) (1503-06), oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by C2RMF, via Wikimedia Commons.

During the fifteenth century, the depiction of clothing and fabrics in European art was transformed. This required the confluence of intent for realism, a suitable medium, and development of technique.

In the previous article I showed how egg tempera and fresco had supported this development, but even in the hands of a master like Botticelli proved far short of ideal. The main factor which both media lacked was what’s now referred to as the period for which wet paint remains open, and amenable to reworking. For egg tempera that’s precious seconds, and fresco is little better with its imposition of the giornata, the day’s work.

Depending on the drying oil and pigment used, for oils that period can be a couple of weeks or longer. This not only allowed new techniques such as sfumato, but made it much easier to experiment and develop those techniques. Oil paints are also ideal for applying in different ways, from thin transparent layers to heavy impasto.

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).

All three factors started to come together first in the Northern Renaissance, where masters including Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden sought detailed realism using oil paint. Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) is an excellent example.

On the left is Chancellor Rolin, looking earnestly at the Madonna and Child opposite. His hands are held up in prayer, below them an illuminated book resting on scarlet material, in turn on a support covered in rich, dark blue fabric. His head is bare, his hair cut short in austere, monastic form. He wears a full-length fur-trimmed cloak elaborately decorated in metalled embroidery over mid-brown material.

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail) (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail) (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).

The whole painting is remarkable for its rich textures and its depiction of the effects of light on surfaces. Skin of faces and hands are finely detailed and reflect the age of the person, and clear distinction is made between the heavy fabric of his cloak and its fur trimming.

Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Ivo (Portrait of a Man Reading) (1450), oil on panel, 45 x 35 cm, The National Gallery, London. WikiArt.
Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464), Saint Ivo (Portrait of a Man Reading) (1450), oil on panel, 45 x 35 cm, The National Gallery, London. WikiArt.

Rogier van der Weyden’s plainer if not austere Saint Ivo or Portrait of a Man Reading (1450) goes even further with its texturing of the grey fabric, which is almost tactile.

Unfortunately, the masters of the Northern Renaissance had other intents too, including exploration of light and reflections, and their development didn’t progress much further.

It was Antonello da Messina who first developed painting in oils in Italy. Although he advanced techniques for skin, particularly faces, his surviving paintings show relatively plain clothing and fabrics.

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Antonello da Messina (c 1430–1479), Portrait of a Man (c 1475-6), oil on poplar panel, 35.5 x 25.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. Photo © and courtesy of The National Gallery, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/antonello-da-messina-portrait-of-a-man

This is best seen in this wonderful Portrait of a Man thought to date from about 1475-6. Although it doesn’t show much of the model’s clothing, his jacket appears near-perfect, and his collar considerably in advance.

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Giorgione (1477–1510), Virgin and Child with Saint Nicasius and Saint Francis of Assisi (‘Castelfranco Altarpiece’) (c 1500), oil on panel, 200 x 152 cm, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta e San Liberale, Castelfranco, Veneto, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgione’s Virgin and Child with Saint Nicasius and Saint Francis of Assisi (the ‘Castelfranco Altarpiece’) from about 1500 combines a fine depiction of the Virgin and infant Christ with two wonderful saintly figures. Depiction of Nicasius’ armour is spectacular, and provides contrasts with the more natural folds and weight of the clothes worn by the Virgin and Saint Francis.

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Giovanni Bellini (c 1430–1516), The Doge Leonardo Loredan (c 1501), oil on poplar, 61.6 × 45.1 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan from about 1501 is a successful exploration of the texture and properties of oil paint using fine impasto, which marks another step forward in achieving detailed realism, this time with a heavily patterned fabric.

The major innovator of the time was, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, now better-known for painting faces and skin than the clothing that covers them.

davincivirginofrocks
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’) (Panel from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan) (c 1491-1508), oil on poplar, thinned and cradled, 189.5 x 120 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1880), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

By the turn of the century, Leonardo was pushing the boundaries of techniques and overtaking the northern masters. His second version of The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel, or The Virgin of the Rocks, shows his mastery of the medium.

At this time, some of his folds still betrayed their sculptural origins, but most looked thoroughly natural, and the difference between the surface texture of the outer covering and inner lining of the Virgin’s mantle is seen in the detail below.

davincivirginofrocksd1
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’) (Panel from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan) (detail) (c 1491-1508), oil on poplar, thinned and cradled, 189.5 x 120 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1880), London. Wikimedia Commons.
davincimonalisa
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (‘Mona Lisa’) (1503-06), oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by C2RMF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Painted soon after The Virgin of the Rocks, this modest portrait of Lisa Gherardini is one of the most technically advanced oil paintings of its time. Leonardo used multiple thin glaze layers consisting largely of binder with just a little pigment to develop the subtle shadows of the flesh with sfumato.

But there is more to this painting than those multiple glazes of sfumato on the woman’s face: the delicate patterning and folds in the clothing are remarkable for any period.

davincimonalisad2
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (‘Mona Lisa’) (detail) (1503-06), oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by C2RMF, via Wikimedia Commons.

As far as the depiction of clothes and fabrics is concerned, Leonardo’s greatest achievement was his influence on the young Raphael, whose paintings open the next article in this series.

Reference

Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.