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"For the use and good and profit of anyone who wants to enter this profession."
-- Cennino Cennini, sometime before 1437

Art From the Egg: Some Historical Notes About Egg Tempera

© Copyright Alessandra Kelley

Egg tempera is a simple paint. Powdered pigments are mixed with egg yolk and a little water. That's all. Laid down on a white, absorbent ground, usually plaster-based, they dry into a durable, brilliantly colored, tough film which can demonstrably last for millennia essentially unchanged.

The use of egg as a painting medium is ancient. Pliny mentions it around two thousand years ago. Some of the surviving Roman-era Egyptian mummy portraits are egg tempera. Artists learned early on to take advantage of egg's toughness and permanence.

Egg was the primary medium for medieval panel painters. The Greek and Roman traditions had been carried forward primarily by Greek and Russian icon painters, and their work had a strong effect on Italian and other European art. The Italians continued to use egg tempera long after northern Europe had turned to oils, and of course the Greeks and Russians never really gave it up.

Nevertheless, in the history of Western Art as it is usually written, egg tempera vanishes as a medium, utterly supplanted by oil paints by about the year 1500. Botticelli was the last major artist to stay with tempera. Every artist who came after followed the examples of Raphael, who abandoned tempera for oils, or Leonardo, who never used tempera at all.

In the nineteenth century, concerned over the loss of a sense of craftsmanship, various artists, historians, and romantics looked back to earlier eras for inspiration. Among the many manifestations of this urge was a revival of the egg tempera technique. The methods and recipes were passed around, from teacher to student and artist to artist, and by the early twentieth century it was clear that a serious, if small, revival was in swing.

The technique appealed to artists with an interest in social observation, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn (who painted the moving "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti"). In the nineteen-thirties the WPA sponsored many young artists to paint public murals, a good percentage of which were done in egg tempera. Daniel V. Thompson published his technical manuals of tempera techniques, making them much more widely available.

In the nineteen-forties Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop were making their wry and witty observations of the people of New York. A small group of friends, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, and Jared French, were encouraging and inspiring each others' works in tempera, looking back to classicism, mythology and spirituality. Through the 'fifties, 'sixties, and seventies Andrew and James Wyeth pursued their visions of humanity and rural New England. Robert Vickrey developed his austere paintings of children and bicycle shadows and brick walls.

Today there are many who paint in egg tempera, from the iconographers (still!) to those like Cynthia Large and Koo Schadler, who deliberately look to the Renaissance, and abstract artists like Kathleen Waterloo who use the medium for its unique color effects. Egg tempera comes and goes in fashion, but its simplicity, its beauty, and its permanence continue to recommend it.