During the Renaissance, artists developed one approach to the lifelike rendering of fabrics and their surface textures, that of precise representation using sophisticated painting techniques. Painters like Raphael perfected the use of transparent glazes with denser layers of pigment. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that successors discovered the other approach with painterliness, the bravura application of paint, almost the exact opposite in terms of speed.
This was all part of the realisation that the mind’s eye was easily fooled into imagining a lot from a simple image. A quick sweep of an almost dry brush charged with lead white pigment created a highlight often more effective than could be achieved with more precise and considered marks. Whether this was realised from the need to paint quickly, or from oil sketches, isn’t clear.
During the sixteenth century, this realisation spread slowly, and it was probably Veronese, known for the speed with which he covered large canvases, who first developed it into a style after about 1570.
From a distance, the tight composition of his Allegory of Love, IV, ‘The Happy Union’ (c 1575) looks to have been painted in disegno, although differences in fabric textures and the splash of light cloud suggest that more detailed examination is needed. The garments themselves appear largely contemporary, in a similar style to those of Tintoretto’s princess from twenty years earlier.
Once closer to the canvas, many of the details turn out to be painterly caresses with the brush, in the fabrics and hair in particular. This isn’t how Raphael did it.
Later still, Veronese’s Judith and Holofernes (c 1580) makes no attempt to conceal the scumbled highlights of its fabrics.
A detail shows how extensive and free Veronese was in making his marks, although they’re largely confined to fabrics, with flesh being painted more smoothly.
Thirty years later, the oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens took this further.
This breathtaking study of Two Sleeping Children (c 1612-13) looks very much later and looser than his regular finished paintings. Looking at the detail of the bedclothes (below), there are abundant marks visible, which impart a natural feel to the material.
Rubens was followed by Rembrandt; although for a long time he was best known for his large and highly finished paintings, that changed dramatically during his later career.
These started when he was still enjoying commercial success, during his marriage to Saskia, as shown in the detail below of some of the fabric of clothing in his Belshazzar’s Feast from about 1635-8.
This works best with the lavish and heavy fabrics worn by Rembrandt’s affluent patrons and models.
His mark-making increased, both in the passages in which he left visible marks, and in the surfaces which he marked, right up to his death. It appears in the hands of the elderly, the glint of a knife, but above all in fabrics, as shown in the two details of The Jewish Bride of about 1667, below.
Highlights on the sleeve and jewellery have been applied roughly, although it’s still a matter for speculation as to exactly how he achieved that. Lower down, on the red dress of the bride, the duller top layer of paint has been scraped through to reveal lighter lower layers.
The end result is a painting which creates its visual effects as much by its surface textures, as by form or colour. This may have arisen as Rembrandt extended the techniques which he used in oil sketches and studies to his ‘finished’ paintings. During his lifetime, it led to criticism that his paintings were so coarse, but by the next century the painterly depiction of clothing had become standard, even in portraits.
Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.