May
04
2008

Oil painting older than previously thought

Oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh (Art Institute of Chicago): Did Vincent know his new way of seeing things was made possible by using an ancient medium?
Oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh (Art Institute of Chicago): Did Vincent know his new way of seeing things was made possible by using an ancient medium?Courtesy Mark Ryan
Oil painting, long considered a European invention dating from the 15th Century, appears now to have originated in Asia and from as early as the middle of the 7th Century.

Tests done on a series of wall murals discovered in caves in the Afghan region of Bamiyan show that the paint used is composed of resin and oil probably extracted from poppies or walnuts.

"This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics," said Yoko Gathering samples for analysis: Yoko Taniguchi and team members collect paint samples from one of the cave murals at Bamiyan.
Gathering samples for analysis: Yoko Taniguchi and team members collect paint samples from one of the cave murals at Bamiyan.Courtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (Japan)
, who led a team of scientists from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo, the Centre of Research and Restoration of the French Museums, and the California-based Getty Conservation Institute.

The caves are located behind the site of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 because they were deemed “un-Islamic”. The Taliban also damaged the cave walls.

Close-up of Buddhas on mural
Close-up of Buddhas on muralCourtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (Japan)
Many of the cave paintings depict the robed Buddha sitting among mythical creatures, and are thought to have been painted by itinerant artisans traveling along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking China and the West.

Pigment layers under the microscope
Pigment layers under the microscopeCourtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (Japan)
Samples of the ancient pigment were tested at the European Synchroton Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. The team used a combination of synchrotron techniques including mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to analyze several paintings from twelve of the caves and also from fragments of the toppled Buddha statues. The paint turned out to be composed of a mix of layered inorganic pigments and organic binders, such as natural resins, gums and protein. The latter indicates the possible use of egg or hide glue. Concentrations of lead carbonates known as lead whites were also detected.

"The use of drying oils in painting clearly shows an understanding of the properties of this material," said Ioanna Kakoulli, a materials archaeologist at the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program in Los Angeles. Although Kakoulli was not directly involved in the analysis, she confirmed it was of some of the earliest identified examples of drying oils used as a binding media in painting.

"Due to political reasons research on paintings in Central Asia is scarce," said team leader Taniguchi. "We were fortunate to get the opportunity from UNESCO, as a part of conservation project for the World Heritage Site Bamiyan, to study these samples."

Results of the study are published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry.

LINKS
ESRF site story
What is a Synchrotron?
NewKerala.com (India) story
Reuters.com story
National Geographic story

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