The Varnish and the Glaze: Painting Splendor with Oil, 1100–1500 (Hardcover)

The Varnish and the Glaze: Painting Splendor with Oil, 1100–1500 By Marjolijn Bol Cover Image

The Varnish and the Glaze: Painting Splendor with Oil, 1100–1500 (Hardcover)


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A new history of the techniques, materials, and aesthetic ambitions that gave rise to the radiant verisimilitude of Jan van Eyck’s oil paintings on panel.
Panel painters in both the middle ages and the fifteenth century created works that evoke the luster of precious stones, the sheen of polished gold and silver, and the colorful radiance of stained glass. Yet their approaches to rendering these materials were markedly different. Marjolijn Bol explores some of the reasons behind this radical transformation by telling the history of the two oil painting techniques used to depict everything that glistens and glows—varnish and glaze.
For more than a century after his death, the fifteenth-century painter Jan van Eyck was widely credited with inventing varnish and oil paint, on account of his unique visual realism. Once this was revealed to be a myth, the verisimilitude of his work was attributed instead to a new translucent painting technique: the glaze. Today, most theories about how Van Eyck achieved this realism revolve around the idea that he was the first to discover or refine the glazing technique. Bol, however, argues that, rather than being a fifteenth-century refinement, varnishing and glazing began centuries before. Drawing from an extensive body of recipes, Bol pieces together how varnishes and glazes were first developed as part of the medieval art of material mimesis. Artisans embellished metalwork and wood with varnishes and glazes to imitate gold and gems; infused rock crystal with oil, resin, and colorants to imitate more precious minerals; and oiled parchment to transform it into the appearance of green glass. Likewise, medieval panel painters used varnishes and glazes to create the look of enamel, silk, and more.
The explorations of materials and their optical properties by these artists stimulated natural philosophers to come up with theories about transparent and translucent materials produced by the earth. Natural historians, influenced by medieval artists’ understanding of refraction and reflection, developed theories about gems, their creation, and their optical qualities.
Marjolijn Bol is associate professor in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht University. She is the coeditor of The Matter of Mimesis: Studies of Mimesis and Materials in Nature, Art and Science.
Product Details ISBN: 9780226820361
ISBN-10: 022682036X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: April 21st, 2023
Pages: 336
“In this field-defining work of technical art history, Marjolijn Bol makes an original argument for a combined material, technical, and cultural revolution in the art of image making. With stunning illustrations and prose as lucid as the precious gems she examines, Bol demonstrates a fifteenth-century transformation in systems of depicting optical reflection and refraction across media—in goldsmithing, manuscript illumination, panel painting, and tapestry weaving—as art making shifted from mimesis of materials to include the whole of the visible world.”
— Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University

The Varnish and the Glaze is a rich and well-researched dive into an understudied aspect of the intersection among art history, material studies, and the history of science. Bol’s focus on varnishes and glazes as integral parts of both the material fabrication of paintings and the chromatic properties of paintings is particularly novel. Unlike many other texts, this book does not look at ‘color’ per se. Rather, the book suggests that the colors used in paintings cannot be understood outside of the wider cluster of material techniques that artists used to make colors brighter, more durable, and at times even deceptive. And transparency, Bol argues, is one of the most important material techniques. In other words, by focusing on color and colorants alone, scholars have missed a large part of the intellectual work of painters in the early modern period.”
— Michael Rossi, University of Chicago

“This brilliant book demonstrates how the fifteenth-century panel painter’s techniques of varnishing and glazing were foreshadowed in the Middle Ages by media such as stained glass, enamels, and metalwork. Combining the skills of a cultural historian and conservator, Bol offers fresh analysis of medieval sources and their terminology, tries out their recipes, and documents the results with exemplary clarity. Superb color plates not only reproduce the artworks in stunning detail but also record the author’s hands-on research into pigments and binding-media. The Varnish and the Glaze will inform and delight all who are interested in the history of color in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.”
— Paul Hills, The Courtauld Institute of Art

“A wonderfully fresh, fascinating book. The science is explained clearly and simply, images are analysed with keen-eyed intelligence, and beautiful photographs, taken by the author, show how varnishes and glazes are made. A book from which any reader, student, or expert, will learn a great deal, with great pleasure.” 
— Paul Taylor, the Warburg Institute

"This valuable book is a rarity in its ability to bridge gaps between disparate fields of specialty in art historical research."
— A. V. Coonin