The History of Egg Tempera Painting
Many people are familiar with the painting "Birth of Venus" by the Renaissance master Botticelli. The goddess, clothed in only her swirling golden locks, stands languorously upon a giant clamshell. Wind gods blow her molluscan boat toward the shore where a nymph, a flowery, pink robe in her hands, awaits to clothe the beautiful, naked figure.
Perhaps you have seen this wonderful painting at the Uffizi Museum in Florence; or maybe you're familiar with the version found on the cover of a Grateful Dead album. However ubiquitous may be her face, less well known is the method by which Botticelli rendered his immortal Venus. Like all great painters of his time, he made his paints from the yolks of eggs.
Painting with egg yolk goes all the way back to ancient Greece. The Egyptians and Romans were familiar with the technique as well. They would start with color, in the form of powdered pigments - ochers and umbers ground from the earth; celestial lapis lazuli blues made from pulverized stone; rich and smoky blacks of burnt bones and sticks. The powdered pigments were combined with water, and then tempered with a "binder", something to make it all hold together and stick. When the binder used was egg yolk, it was called an egg tempered paint, or egg tempera for short.
By the 15th century, amid the flowering of the commercial and cultural renaissance that became know as The Renaissance, egg tempera became the most popular form of easel painting throughout Europe. It was used by virtually every painter of that time: Duccio, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and of course, that egg tempera master, Botticelli. Late Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci also were well versed in egg tempera, but by that time a new medium had arrived on the scene - oil. Slow drying oil paints blend more readily than egg tempera, and allow for more atmospheric painting. The naturalistic effects achieved with oil were better suited to the more scientific and humanistic culture of Leonardo's time. Oil painting grew in popularity, while egg tempera fell from use. Within a generation or so, egg tempera was practically obsolete.
Happily, in the 19th century the English fell in love with Italy. Numerous Brits took up residence in Florence, and began to root around in the city's archives. In 1844 an Englishwoman, Mary Merrifield, rediscovered, translated and published a 14th century manuscript by Cennino Cennini called Il Libro dell'Arte, in which the process of egg tempera painting is described. Inspired by Cennini's text, five British artists founded The Society of Tempera Painters in 1901. The revival of egg tempera had begun.
A score of early 20th century American painters adopted the "new" old medium: Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, and Ben Shahn to name a few. Andrew Wyeth became the most famous egg painter of them all, when he created "Christina's World" in 1948. Like Botticelli's Venus, Wyeth's Christina became another cultural icon rendered with the yolk of an egg.
Interest in egg tempera continues to grow. Updated versions of Cennini's classic text and numerous how-to tempera books have been recently published; egg tempera paintings are more commonly seen in galleries and shows; and in 1997 a new Society of Tempera Painters was formed in the United States. The Society publishes newsletters, holds exhibitions, and has a web site replete with egg tempera information and imagery. While still relatively unfamiliar to many people, more and more artists are discovering the beauty and benefits of this ancient medium.