History of Encaustic

Encaustic painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th century B.C.  Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder whose Natural History, written in the 1st century A.D. was a monumental encyclopedia of art and science. Pliny seems to have had little direct knowledge about studio methods, so his account of techniques and materials is not thorough, but his discussion gives us an idea of its general usage. According to Pliny, encaustic had a variety of applications: for the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, for the coloring of marble and terra cotta, and for work on ivory (probably the tinting of incised lines).

Wax is an excellent preservative of materials. It was from this use that the art of encaustic painting developed. The Greeks applied coatings of wax and pitch to weatherproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships and later, merchant ships. Mention is even made by Homer of the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy. The use of a rudimentary encaustic was an established practice in the Classical Period (500-323 BC). It is possible that at about that time the crude paint applied with tar brushes to the ships was refined for the art of painting on panels. Pliny mentions two artists who had in fact started out as ship painters.

[Pliny’s account of artists and their practices is in Book 35 of his Natural History]

Encaustic and Tempera

Encaustic on panels rivaled that of tempera in what are the earliest known portable easel paintings. Tempera was a faster, cheaper process. Encaustic was a slow involved technique, but the paint could be built up in relief, and the wax gave a rich optical effect to the pigment. These characteristics made the finished work startlingly lifelike. Moreover, encaustic had far greater durability than tempera, which was vulnerable to moisture. Pliny refers to encaustic paintings several hundred years old in the possession of Roman aristocrats of his own time.

Encaustic in Sculpture

We know that the white marble we see today in the monuments of Greek antiquity was once colored, either boldly or delicately and that wax was used to both preserve and enhance that marble (see "Polychromy in Greek Sculpture" below). The literary evidence of how this was done is scant. The figures on the Alexander Sarcophagus in the archeological Museum of Istanbul are an example of such coloration, although it is not clear how intense the original color was.

The methods used to color the marble probably varied. They may have been painted with encaustic or painted with tempera and “varnished” with fused wax.

A 4th Century BC terracotta krater vase in the Metropolitan museum depicts a painter applying encaustic to a sculpture of Heracles while his servant heats up metal spatulas on a charcoal brazier.

The Fayum Portraits

Perhaps the best known of all encaustic work are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. A significant Greek population had settled in Egypt following its conquest by Alexander, eventually adopting the practice of mummifying their dead. The portraits, painted either in the prime of life or after death, were placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. The custom of funeral portraits did not begin until after the conquest of Egypt by Rome and lasted about two centuries. The portraits represent the converging influence of Egyptian religious ritual, Greek aesthetic and Roman fashions and social ranking.                                             
Many of these pieces have survived to our own time, and their color has remained as fresh as any recently completed work.

The great period of economic instability that followed the decline of the Roman Empire and the change in cultural values caused encaustic to fall into disuse.  Some encaustic work, particularly the painting of icons, was carried on as late as the 7th century, but for the most part it became a lost art.  It was replaced by tempera, which was cheaper, faster, and less demanding to work with.

The Revival

18th & 19th Century Revivals. The roots of modern encaustic painting go back to the 18th century when antiquarians, excited by the archeological discovery of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, strove to rediscover the techniques of the ancient painters. Encaustic was further explored in the 19th century as a way solve the problem of dampness faced by mural painters in northern climates. Although the practice did not become widespread, there were some amazing successes, such as John LaFarge’s murals for Trinity Church in Boston.

20th Century Revival. In the first half of the 20th century, the invention of portable electric heating implements made encaustic a far less formidable technique. Numerous artists were drawn to experiment with it and apply it to their individual styles. Robert Delaunay, Antoine Pevsner, Diego Rivera, Rifka Angel, Karl Zerbe, and Victor Brauner were early exponents of the revived technique.

Alfonso Ossorio, Jasper Johns, Lynda Benglis, Robert Morris, Nancy Graves, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Robert Rauschenberg,  are prominent among the many artists who turned encaustic into a modernist and cross-disciplinary medium, extending its use from painting to collage, assemblage, sculpture, and printmaking.

1940s. First commercial encaustic. The latter part of the century saw a further explosion of encaustic painting propelled in part by the availability of commercial encaustic paint, first introduced by Torch Art Supplies in New York City in the late 1940s.

1988. R&F Handmade Paints. The tradition of commercial encaustic was continued after Torch goes out of business when their paint maker, Richard Frumess founded R&F Handmade Paints.

1995. Encaustic Workshops. R&F began teaching the first regularly run encaustic workshops, first in art centers, then, in 1996, in its factory building in Kingston, NY. The workshops were held year around in formats ranging from 1-5 days and cover both 2- and 3-dimensional uses of encaustic. In 1999, R&F began setting up regional workshops in throughout the country. In 2004 R&F developed collaborative workshops with other workshop organizations, combining encaustic with photography, printmaking, and papermaking.

1997. Encaustic Works biennial. R&F inaugurated the first of its biennial exhibitions of encaustic work with the intention of creating an ongoing record through the exhibit catalogues of encaustic’s growing role in contemporary art making. Jurors included artists, gallerists, and curators, such as Stephen Haller, Judy Pfaff, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Tracey Bashkoff, Joan Snyder, Heather Hutchison, and Joanne Mattera. Over the years, the biennial itself evolved into a curated exhibit in print. The 2014 exhibit will be curated by Michelle Stuart.

1999. The Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, held the first museum show dedicated to encaustic. Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America. The essays in the accompanying catalogue provide a comprehensive history of encaustic painting from the 18th Century onward.

2001. Joanne Mattera’s The Art of Encaustic Painting became the first technical and contemporary overview of encaustic to be published. Since then numerous other books, essays, and instructional DVDs have come out.

The ferment from all of these developments resulted in numerous encaustic related exhibits and the formation of encaustic networks and conferences and events. The International Encaustic Artists was founded in 2005 and holds its annual encaustic conference event, EncaustiCon, in a different city each fall. The International Encaustic Conference founded by Joanne Mattera in 2007 is held yearly in June in Provincetown, MA in conjunction with Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill.

Links to images:

Late Classical Greek Vase, Terracotta column-krater. 20 1/4 in. (51.5 cm), ca. 360–350 B.C., Metropolotian Museum of Art, 50.11.4.
Hellenistic stone (marble) sarcophagus, Alexander Sarcophagus. 195x318x167 cm, Late 4th Century BC, Istanbul Archeological Museums.
Trinity Church in the City of Boston, Art & History: Building Slideshow.
Jasper Johns, Flag. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 42 1/4 x 60 5/8" (107.3 x 153.8 cm), 1954-55, MoMA,  106.1973. 

Online Articles:

Gisela M.A. Richter. "Polychromy in Greek Sculpture." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, supplement in April 1944 issue.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History: Book XXXV. An Account of Painting and Colours. Circa AD 77-79. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University.
"The Oldest Modernist Paintings"
History and Archaeology, February 2012. Smithsonian.com
"Proportion and Personality in the Fayum Portraits" The British Museum.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History: Book XXXV. An Account of Painting and Colours. Circa AD 77-79. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University.
Gail Stavitsky, Danielle Rice and Richard Frumess. Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America During the Twentieth Century. Montclair Art Museum, May 1999.
Edward M. Gomez. "ART / ARCHITECTURE; Improvised Images in Molten Wax, as Fluid as Jazz." New York Times 16 May 1999.

Further Reading on Fayum Portraits:

Euphrosyne Doxiadis, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Abrams, 1995.
Susan Walker, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Lorelei Corcoran, Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt, Univ. of Chicago, 1995.

Artwork © Francisco Benitez, Celine, encaustic on panel, 24” x 20”, 2008.