THE ORIGIN OF PAINTING
In his comprehensive work on Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79) described what the Ancient World believed to be the origin of mimetic, or more specifically portrait art. The daughter of the Greek potter Butades, deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, thrown upon the wall by the light of a lamp. Next, Butades filled the outline with clay to shape a lasting portrait, which he hardened by fire with the rest of his pottery.
We can read this mythological story on different levels. First, it notes a difference between 2D and 3D representation: painting began as a shadow trace, while plastic arts were the next step. Philosophically inclined interpreters will recognize Plato’s aesthetic theory that defines art as merely a shadow of reality. Anthropologists see a connection between image, shadow and imminent death (phantom images of the dead are called ‘shadows’ in ancient civilizations). On a more practical note, the myth contains all elements necessary to create an image: the artist, his subject matter or model, the artist’s equipment (brush, pencil, raw material) and the indispensable presence o
Pliny’s story was popular from the mid-18th until the early 19th century, when the Age of Enlightenment renewed appreciation of Greek and Roman cultures. It inspired Neoclassicist artists to revive styles and spirit of antiquity. Boosted by the excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, painters like Jacques-Louis David re-introduced classical subject matter, combining restraint, grandeur, and simplicity with clear and sharp outlines.
David is still a famous name, though his less known rival Joseph Suvée (1743-1807) beat him into second place to win the 1771 Prix de Rome. Suvée’s touching play of light and shadow (1791) concentrates on the farewell session of the daughter and her lover, and may reflect his own life and times during the French Revolution. Families were ripped apart in the turmoil of civil war, while thousands of young men were conscripted to defend the French borders against foreign armies. It made the wish to keep a lasting memory of friends in mortal danger an urgent concern.
Ironically, Pliny the Elder died during the 79 eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Fortunately, his story of Butades’ daughter survives in the art of Suvée and others.