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Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950
From 1930 to 1950, a renaissance of the medieval technique of tempera painting occurred among many well-known American artists. Although stylistically and technically diverse, the artists shared an affinity to this ancient medium. Yet, while scholars and critics have occasionally noted tempera's rebirth, it has never been thoroughly analyzed or its causes well explained. (left: George Tooker (born 1920), Bird Watchers, 1948, egg tempera on gesso on a Masonite Prestwood panel, 26 3/4 x 32 3/4 inches, Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)
A new exhibition organized by the Brandywine River Museum addresses this void by examining tempera's 20th-century reemergence in the United States. Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950 includes more than 50 works of art done in tempera by such important artists as Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, John Sloan, George Tooker and Paul Cadmus.
The word "tempera" derives from the medieval Latin "temperare," meaning blending or mixing. Today, the word indicates a medium bound with emulsions, combined with dry pigments and water. The exhibition considers techniques using both egg yolk (egg tempera) and milk proteins (casein tempera) as principal emulsions.
The history of tempera painting predates oil painting. The monk. Theophilus Presbyter described the use of casein tempera in the 12th century. Egg tempera, on the other hand, was the primary medium for painters in 14th-century Italy. Tempera faded in popularity after the 16th century. however, when pigments ground in oil became more widely used.
During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, many American revivals occurred in architecture, painting and sculpture as interest in classical, gothic and Renaissance art increased. As artists studied works of the past, they became interested in the use of historical methods of painting. Tempera once again gained popularity.
In the United States, the Yale University School of Fine Arts was one of the first centers of the revival. There, in the late 1920s, Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. established a course in tempera and published on the subject. When Thompson left in 1933, his student Lewis York took over the course until 1950, teaching artists such as Saul Levine, Andrew Petryn and Robert Vickrey. (left: Andrew Wyeth (born 1917), Raccoon, 1958, tempera on panel, 48 x 48 inches, Collection of the Brandywine River Museum, Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)
Beginning in the 1920s, two teachers at the Art Students League in New York City were extremely influential in the revival. Kenneth Hayes Miller and Thomas Hart Benton both taught mural courses at the League and promoted tempera as an ideal medium for large works. Their group of colleagues and pupils eventually grew to include John Sloan, Paul Cadmus and Jackson Pollock. Through his teachings at the Kansas City Art Institute, Benton also influenced many artists working in a regionalist style. Additionally, the Works Progress Administrations' Federal Art Project of 1935 sponsored a number of works in tempera by artists including Ben Shahn, O. Louis Gugliemi and Mitchell Siporin.
Egg tempera was used in N.C. Wyeth's studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania during the 1930s. Wyeth's student, Peter Hurd, experimented with the medium and shared his knowledge of and enthusiasm for it with N.C. Wyeth and his students, including Wyeth's youngest son, Andrew, and artist John McCoy. Andrew Wyeth made egg tempera his primary medium and is highly acclaimed for his use of it today.
The physical and visual qualities of tempera have attracted artists for centuries. Some prefer the discipline of mixing the paint, preparing the surface and applying the tempera in layers. Others favor tempera's ability to dry quickly.. (After tempera paint dries, it becomes insoluble, allowing artists to paint over without disturbing underlying layers.) Others choose tempera for its matte finish as an alternative to the glossy quality of oil paintings. Still others select tempera because it is a durable medium. In fact, many tempera paintings completed in the 15th-century still retain a fresh appearance today, enabling artists to study and learn from the work of medieval and Renaissance masters. (left: Peter Hurd (1904-1984), The Rainy Season, 1947, pure egg tempera on gesso on a Masonite Prestwood panel, 48 x 40 inches, Collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)
Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950 is the culmination of more than ten years of research initiated at the Brandywine River Museum. The research was undertaken by guest curators Richard J. Boyle, former director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Hilton Brown. a professor of Art History, Art Conservation and Museum Studies at the University of Delaware. Together, Boy]e and Brown conducted interviews with many artists, including Paul Cadmus, Jacob Lawrence, George Tooker and Andrew Wyeth. Recent scientific analysis performed by Richard Newman, head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has added significantly to the knowledge of tempera by identifying ingredients of works of formerly ambiguous media.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 230-page catalogue containing more than 200 illustrations - 100 in color. In addition to comprehensive essays by Boyle, Brown and Newman, the catalogue includes extensive technical charts, artists' biographies and a selected bibliography.
After its debut at the Brandywine River Museum (March 9 through May 19, 2002), Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950 will travel to the Akron Museum of Art (June 15 through September 1, 2002) and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas (September 21 through November 17, 2002).
Prepared by Mary Cronin, Supervisor of Education, Brandywine River Museum
Beginning in the 1930s, a renaissance of the medieval technique of tempera painting occurred among many well-known, but largely unconnected, American artists. This exhibition explores the 20th-century revival of the medium in this country through more than 50 works of art done in tempera by Andrew Wyeth, Paul Cadmus, Thomas Hart Benton and others.
The exhibition considers techniques using both egg yolk (egg tempera) and milk proteins (casein tempera). Although artists were chosen for their use of tempera media, their exact materials and techniques vary widely. Stylistic diversity and contributions to the use of tempera technique in America were also considered in choosing the artists.
This exhibition summary is based on catalogue essays by Richard J. Boyle and Hilton Brown.
What is tempera?
The word tempera derives from the medieval Latin temperare, meaning blending or mixing. Today the word indicates a medium bound with emulsions, combined with dry pigments, and mixed with water.
Hilton Brown explains the use of milk and eggs as paint ingredients:
There are other varieties of paint that are sometimes called tempera. Some are synthetic mixtures. An important quality of tempera is that it is water-soluble when wet, but water-insoluble when dry. This means that it can be mixed or thinned with water while painting, but once it dries it does not dissolve in water. Due to this quality, once it is dry, tempera can be painted over.
Egg tempera is paint made by mixing egg yolk, powdered pigments and (usually distilled) water.
Casein is paint made by mixing milk proteins (available in a powdered form), powdered pigments and either oil or water.
Pigments are colored powders. They can be ground by an artist from natural materials or can be made commercially from natural or synthetic materials. Pigment creates the color in paint; it is not the same as paint. Pigment will not stick to a surface without the addition of a binding material (such as oil, egg yolk or water).
A support is the material on which a painting is created. Common supports are canvas, paper and wood panels. Tempera painting is best done on a rigid support, such as wood. Tempera does not adhere as well to flexible supports such as canvas or paper. Some artists in America used Masonite as a support. Masonite, developed by William H. Mason as a way of using sawmill waste, is made by compressing wood particles under heat to create a hard, rigid board.
Before painting, the surface of the support must be prepared by applying a ground. The ground helps the paint to stick to the support and improves the appearance of the finished painting by making the support surface smooth. The most commonly used ground is called gesso. Gesso is usually a mixture of white chalk (calcium carbonate) and glue.
Some artists' techniques related to tempera include cross-hatching, sgraffito and gilding. Cross-hatching is a painting technique in which an artist makes small strokes that layer over one another, usually in a perpendicular pattern. Cross-hatching allows an artist to build up layers of paint and to combine different colors in the painting. Sgraffito is a decorative technique of incising (making thin lines that cut) through one layer of paint or metal leaf to expose an underlying layer. Gilding is the technique of adding gold or other metal leaf to a painting. Many early tempera artists gilded parts of their paintings.
Who used tempera?
How did artists in America learn about tempera?
Tempera is an ancient painting medium, much older than oil painting. Specific records about the use of tempera date back to the 12th and 14th centuries in Europe. Egg tempera was the painter's principal medium in 14th century Italy, when artist Cennino Cennini wrote a book on tempera methods and technique, entitled Il Libro dell' Arte or The Craftsman's Handbook. This guide, available in several translations, influenced later artists. Tempera faded in popularity after the 16th century, when pigments ground in oil became more widely used. Casein also has a long history, dating back to the 12th century when its preparation and use was described by the monk Theophilus Presbyter. (left: Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Aaron, 1947, indirect oil with egg tempera under painting on gesso on canvas mounted on plywood, 30 5/16 x 24 4/16 inches, Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)
During the late 19th and early-20th century, many revivals occurred in architecture, painting and sculpture as interest in classical, gothic and Renaissance art increased. As artists studied the works of the past, they became interested in the use of historical methods and techniques of painting. In London, a Society of Painters in Tempera was formed in 1901. Germany experienced a tempera revival during the 1920s, resulting in a book by Max Doener entitled The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, with Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters. Written in 1921, this book was used by many later artists with an interest in tempera painting.
With advances in industry and the rise of the automobile, the pace of modern life accelerated in the United States during the period after World War I. Amidst all of the changes, some artists turned to the methods of the past in a search for permanence and stability. There was a renewed focus on the Italian Renaissance and the commitment of the artists of that time to the technical aspects of their craft. Perhaps reflecting an isolationist political climate, some artists in America during the 1930s turned away from the modernist styles of Europe and concentrated on contemporary American subjects expressed in a realist style. Others used historical media such as tempera as part of their experiments in creating art about art. Examples of both forms of expression are included in this exhibition.
The Yale School of Fine Arts was a center for the revival in America. In the late 1920s, Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. established a course in tempera painting there. Thompson had studied egg tempera at Harvard with Edward Waldo Forbes, who was influenced and instructed by British painter and art dealer Charles Fairfax Murray. Thompson took courses in old master painting methods with Max Doerner in Munich, and later translated Cennini's book on tempera, which was used by many artists in America seeking to learn techniques. When Thompson left Yale after several years, his student Lewis York took over the tempera course. His many students included Andrew Petryn, Robert Vickrey, Leonard Fisher and Saul Levine.
In 1926 Kenneth Hayes Miller offered a course in mural painting at the Art Students League in New York City, and Thomas Hart Benton began teaching there. Both of these artists were influential in the revival of tempera painting in America. The Art Students League was founded in 1875 as a drawing and sketching class, and soon became one of the most celebrated art schools in the country. Unlike the Yale School of Fine Arts, the League was informal and open to everyone. The League had no entrance or attendance requirements, and student work was not graded. Those who taught or took classes there included John Sloan, Isabel Bishop, Reginald Marsh, George Tooker (briefly), Jackson Pollock, Minna Citron, Philip Evergood and Paul Cadmus.
Also influenced by Thomas Hart Benton were those he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute (R.M. Graham), and other artists working in a regionalist style (A. Hogue and W. Palmer). The Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Art Project of 1935 to 1943 sponsored a number of works in tempera media, especially mural studies and even some murals. The durable and fast-drying qualities of the media, along with its resemblance in appearance to fresco, made egg tempera and casein popular. WPA artists include Ben Shahn, O. Louis Gugliemi and Mitchell Siporin, as well as Jacob Lawrence and Jackson Pollock.
The N. C. Wyeth studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania was another location in which egg tempera was used. During the 1930s, Wyeth's student Peter Hurd began painting with egg tempera with advice from Frederick Weber of Weber and Company, an artists' supplier in Philadelphia. Hurd shared his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the medium with N. C. Wyeth and his students, including Wyeth's youngest child, Andrew, and artist John McCoy. Andrew Wyeth made egg tempera his primary medium and remains well-known for its use today.
Why do artists use tempera?
Tempera has certain physical and visual qualities that have attracted artists for centuries. These include :
It adheres well to surfaces. Mixing pigments with either egg yolks or milk protein causes the paint to adhere, or bind to surfaces.
It dries quickly. Because tempera is mixed with water, it generally has a faster drying time than oil-based paints.
It is insoluble after it dries. This means that after tempera paint dries, it will not mix with water. It can be painted over without disturbing the original layer of paint.
It is durable, meaning that it lasts a long time. Many paintings done during the 15th century in Italy using tempera are still fresh in appearance today.
It has a matte finish, meaning that the finished painting is not shiny (unless some additional varnish or glaze is applied over the tempera). Some artists prefer this dry appearance, as compared to oil paint which usually looks glossy when dry.
It is an old technique used by Renaissance painters. Artists often study and learn from the work of other artists who lived long ago. Many medieval and Renaissance masters used tempera and later artists wanted to try their techniques.
It takes time and technical skill to use. It is not a medium that can be used to create a painting quickly. Some artists like the discipline and structure required to mix the paint, prepare the surface, and apply the paint in layers.
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