Like sculpture — but unlike what I’ll be talking about next week — painting, in the broad sense of “color applied to a flat surface,” goes back a long way . The famous images on the walls of Chauvet Cave are estimated to be over 30,000 years old; the oldest figurative painting may be in Lubang Jeriji Saléh in Indonesia, at somewhere between 40,000 and 52,000 years old. That puts it in roughly the Aurignacian Period, the same era as the earliest sculptures.
But painting is often much less durable than sculpture. One of my archaeology professors pointed out that while undoubtedly there was significance in the decision of early humans to create paintings in caves, our interpretation of that significance has to come with an asterisk and a footnote: for all we know, they also created paintings on outdoor rock walls, now utterly lost to us. A small sculpture like the Venus of Hohle Fels can easily be buried and preserved by the earth, but thirty or forty thousand years of weathering is going to erase any pigment exposed to the elements. (Engravings, however, can survive, and indeed we have petroglyphs that might be the same age.)
Pigments and dyes are a complex enough topic that I’ll need to give them their own essay at a later date, but for now it’s enough to say that in addition to the development of different styles and techniques, the history of painting features a constant quest to make more and better colors: materials that will maintain their hue instead of fading or discoloring, that will replicate the shades occurring in nature, that aren’t as expensive to create or are less likely to poison the artist who uses them.
We have paintings that are hundreds or in some cases thousands of years old, but they require good preservation conditions (e.g. a sealed, cool, dry Egyptian tomb), lots of conservation effort, or both. One of the blogs I follow features a regular procession of paintings undergoing restoration, with specialists removing layers of varnish from previous conservation attempts — which often ended up causing as much damage as they halted — and attempting to re-create the precise materials used by the artist so they can touch up areas of paint loss.
So while paintings aren’t quite ephemeral, they’re also not as lasting as stone or clay sculpture. The flip side is that in many cases they can be created more quickly. Because of this, they can serve many of the same functions as a statue, in terms of spreading the image of a ruler or a god — and if you aren’t using expensive pigments or aren’t aiming for Rembrandt levels of technical virtuosity, you can produce a lot of them for distribution, e.g. hanging a picture of the king in every town hall in the realm.
But you can also use them for less top-tier purposes. Having one’s portrait painted is a marker of success and significance, to the point where that was something rich European merchants during the Renaissance would do to show they’d Made It. (I think the modern equivalent, at least in the United States, is purchasing a McMansion.) Over the generations, a family of nobility or rich gentry might accumulate a whole series of ancestral portraits, often hung in a gallery so they could be shown to visitors. But they, too, knew the perils of degradation: those paintings might each have their own velvet curtain to protect them from the light.
Paintings are also well-suited to commemorating important occasions. Coronations, funerals, pivotal battles, the signing of a great law: these days we immortalize those moments with photographs, but back then you did it with a painting. Which was often more about communicating some emotional truth (not to say propaganda) than about the facts of the event; still, historians can sometimes glean fascinating tidbits from the details of a painting.
That leads to another use for such artwork, which is to tell or at least point toward a story. This extends beyond painting in the strict sense to other forms of representational art; stained glass windows in a church, for example, might depict saints’ lives or scenes from the Bible, acting as a kind of mnemonic aid for the faithful (especially useful with an illiterate population). A similar thing happened with Egyptian tomb paintings, which in some ways seem to have been the visual equivalent of performative speech: they attempted to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased by depicting it.
Narrative painting hits its full potential with something like a modern comic, using the separation and placement of panels to imply the passage of time rather than just presenting a static scene. But that idea is actually much older than comic books. Though the techniques are a little different, Japanese emaki or picture scrolls tell sequential stories, often but not always using text alongside the images. And, going back to that church example, something like the Stations of the Cross tell a story through a series of pictures.
On the lower end of the social scale, things change. While someone with a knife and a bit of wood can pass a boring winter evening by whittling, painting is a different matter. It takes knowledge, skill, and the right materials to create a paint that will actually stick around, and that’s before you try to make the painting itself. Which isn’t to say common people never painted anything; of course they did, and still do. But it’s more likely to take the form of painting one’s house or cart, and more likely to be abstract color or geometric patterns rather than something representational. I’ve seen more examples of spoon handles whittled to look like birds than plates painted with the same image — the former being less likely to wear off and/or poison you. Even a prosperous farmer likely didn’t paint portraits of his family members in his spare time.
Which is why the advent of photography was such a huge deal for the lower classes. But more on that next week . . .