By Rupert Maas

The Artist Explorer was generously funded by Foyle Foundation.

Jan van Eyck discovers the secret of oils

Much of the early history of oil painting is about what did not happen in our isolated country. The Renaissance that transformed and humanised painting in Italy in the 1500s did not really happen for us. Science, music and, especially literature, flourished in Britain, but the sensual world of paint remained unexplored. 

It was left to the intrepid Dutch to show us the way. And, when they did, it was as much through chemistry as through artistry. They showed the Italians, too. The back and forth of ideas and techniques between Italy and Holland throughout the 15th Century was complex. However, painting in oils was originally a Dutch breakthrough, led by Jan van Eyck. He painted The Arnolfini Marriage in 1434 and was a pioneer in the alchemy of paint, as well as one of the first artists to sign their work.

In earlier times, artists were limited to water-based paints that dried too quickly. If they were working large on a wall, they couldn’t stop for a break and they had to work bit by bit. If they were working on wood, the colour was flat and lifeless. 

Until van Eyck’s time, such oils as there were dried too slowly, if at all, and were murky and yellow. Van Eyck mixed raw pigment powder with organic oils, boiling calcined bones in linseed oil of the flax plant. This was a breakthrough because it finally perfected a stable mixture that ‘dried’ in a useful time. (Actually, strictly speaking, oil paint does not dry, or evaporate, like watercolour, rather it oxidises and ‘sets’). 

The magic of the new medium

Once this formula had been achieved, a painter could, for the first time, wake up in the morning and build on what he had accomplished the day before. And what a vast array of new effects were now available to him! A whole new library of colour, texture, light and space. 

Oil releases the properties of the colours and makes them transparent or opaque at will, so they can then be mixed or overlaid in limitless combinations. The human eye is capable of differentiating between tens of millions of colours, but until The Arnolfini Marriage no painter had ever been able to exploit this amazing ability. This rich new paint quality must have seemed at the time like “reality held in a glass paperweight”.

Other artists develop the formula

Van Eyck kept his formula secret until just before he died. Next, Antonello da Messina added lead oxide to improve the consistency and drying time, and he is credited with having introduced the new process to Renaissance Italy. A little later that century Leonardo da Vinci improved the clarity by adding beeswax at lower temperatures, and later still Rubens used turpentine spirit as a thinner. 

The more oil in the paint the ‘fatter’ it is and the longer it takes to dry. The more turps, the ‘leaner’ it is said to be, and it dries quicker. Painters knew they should paint fat over lean, or they risked cracking, with undried paint trapped under dried paint.

New techniques, new ideas

The new techniques coincided with new ideas in Italy. By the 1500s brilliant pageants of Saints, ordered, static and bejewelled, had given way to Man, naked and alone in huge landscapes, or men contending with one another in powerful dramas. 

Perspective - that astonishing trick of 3D recession into mathematically projected space - was introduced. 

The new possibilities of form and colour, embodied in Michelangelo the designer and Titian the colourist, echoed down through the ages through similar comparisons between Ingres and Delacroix, then Picasso and Matisse.

Early oils in Northern Europe

Meanwhile, in the colder, Protestant North, Man was depicted clothed and surrounded by his fellows. Although he had been released from being cooped up indoors, it was sometimes into a threatening and difficult environment. 

In Pieter Brueghel’s Dark Day, there is no story told, and yet the scene, a hard existence in a vast landscape in February, is exactly described. It is an early instance of landscape for its own sake, where mood overcomes narrative, not to be seen in English art until the 18th Century.

Van Dyck brings oils to England

It is through Rubens and his famous pupil van Dyck, both Dutchmen, that at last new ideas from Italy were introduced to England, and it was done with portraiture. The Royal court needed likenesses for, as Elizabeth I had discovered, portraits were the best propaganda. 

In the wider context of European art van Dyck contributed little that was new - but his influence in England from the 1630s was profound. Not since Holbein in the 1530s had we seen so radical a painter. As the critic Richard Dorment has put it: “By introducing into British art both the spatial dynamism of the high baroque and the Venetian technique of scumbling (laying a thin layer of colour over another to create the effect of light playing over surface), van Dyck instantly became the most progressive artist in the country”.

Van Dyck had many followers. Sir Peter Lely (Dutch) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (German) worked in his shadow until the 1730s when Hogarth (English!) could be said to have initiated a uniquely English school. He treated modern life through narrative, with humour and sympathy and, of course, great skill. 

Reynolds and Gainsborough

The way was paved for two English artists, one from the west country - Sir Joshua Reynolds - and one from Suffolk in the east - Thomas Gainsborough. Both relied as ever on painting portraits, but the popular and versatile Reynolds believed in a ‘Grand Style’, idealising nature and flattering his sitters.

Gainsborough painted from nature in a peculiar, innovative, and anti-academic way. He loved the English landscape, which he painted in fluent, transparent and animated tones. 

Now prose and poetry had set up shop opposite one another in British painting.


Firmly in the camp of the poets was the Romantic painter John Constable, also from Suffolk, who painted out of doors directly from nature, in all weathers. His vibrant and spontaneous oil sketches were admired by Delacroix and Gericault, and by the Barbizon school of plein-airistes. 

The freedom for artists to roam about catching effects of light in all weathers, rather than having to mix their paints in their studios, was considerably furthered by the invention of the zinc paint tube in 1841, four years after Constable’s death.

The Pre-Raphaelites

In the revolutionary year of 1848, a group of very young artists calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against the brown and boring pictures at the Royal Academy. They wanted to get back to a purer time, before Raphael, when colours were vivid and subjects unsophisticated. To this end they painted medieval scenes on a white ground, which reflected light back through the pigment and intensified their colours to a degree initially shocking to the Victorian public. 

Turner and the new British ‘mainstream’

The Pre-Raphaelites might have remained outside the mainstream were it not for the championship of the influential critic John Ruskin, author of Modern Painters. 

Ruskin analysed and eulogised J.M.W. Turner, whom he believed to be the greatest artist since the Renaissance. This helped to establish ‘the mainstream’, a fully mature British school of painting, with Turner at its head. 

Turner, Ruskin argued, instead of ‘composing’ artificial paintings in his studio, went directly to nature to find truth, and God - ‘the sublime’, amidst which Man is very small indeed.

British art on the international stage

Turner died in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, which helped to establish British art and industry as pre-eminent in the world. Many new ideas were flourishing in the newly wealthy and increasingly confident Britain, amongst them those of the Aesthetic movement. Burne-Jones and Albert Moore painted unearthly subjects, pale ghosts in dreamscapes or impossible colour-coordinated beauties draped about. An art-hungry middle class goggled at them at the Grosvenor Gallery from 1877, and the New Gallery from 1888.

With railways and the telegraph, Britain became more permeable to foreign ideas. Frederic, Lord Leighton of Stretton, President of the Royal Academy, was a cosmopolitan who had studied in Germany, France and Italy. He owned several pictures by Corot.

The American influence

Some of the new ideas of the late 19th Century arrived with Americans. In 1875 Whistler painted his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, reaching to the very edge of abstraction. Whistler wanted his painting to have the same effect on the emotions as a passage of music, and only reluctantly added ‘Falling Rocket’ to the title to explain the picture to the public. Whistler boasted that it took two days to paint, and it sparked a famous libel case after Ruskin accused the artist of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." 

Another cosmopolitan American, John Singer Sargent, painted in London as well as in New York, following the tradition of Velasquez and van Dyck. He was very successful. The critic Robert Hughes has praised Sargent as “the unrivaled recorder of male power and female beauty in a day that, like ours, paid excessive court to both.” 

The Impressionist influence

Whistler was a founder member of the New English Art Club in 1886, which was set up in emulation of the Salon des Refusés of the French Impressionists. Painters were required to work very fast, to catch the light before it changed. Represented in the first exhibition were George Clausen, Stanhope Forbes, Sargent and Wilson Steer. 

Simultaneously, some of these same young artists colonized the fishing village of Newlyn, painting the light in the manner of La Thangue.

In Scotland the Glasgow Boys responded to Impressionist influence with broad brushes and vivid palettes.


In 1910 and 1912 the critic, Roger Fry, organised exhibitions of Post-Impressionism (a term which he coined) in London. They were received with shock and horror. Fry was intimately involved with the Bloomsbury Group. They firmly rejected the traditional English aesthetics of narrative and the ‘picturesque’. This did not prevent some of them, particularly Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington, painting beautiful pictures. 

At the same time, also influenced by the Post-Impressionists, particularly van Gogh and Gauguin, the Camden Town Group formed around Walter Sickert, who had known Degas. Their evocative paintings of London in the Great War were in a drab, dun palette that now seems exactly appropriate.

The Vorticists

Wyndham Lewis split from Fry and the Bloomsbury Group, and formed the Vorticist movement with Epstein, Bomberg, Gaudier-Breska, Nevinson, Wadsworth and Roberts. Excited by the dynamism and action of machines and men, the Vorticists positively embraced modernity, striving to capture movement in an image. Although Vorticism lasted a mere three years, it is now considered to be the only entirely home-grown and truly modernist British art movement of the 20th Century. 


The upheaval of the Great War fragmented all groupings, but the inhumanity of it provided powerful stimuli to modernist painters. The vulnerability of man amidst the remorseless engines and obliterating explosives of war demanded a new grammar. Horror inspired the Official War Artists to paint intensely powerful pictures. Amongst these ‘painters in khaki’ were Bomberg, Nevinson, Orpen, and Paul Nash. 

Nash wrote from the front in 1917:  "I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls."

Post-War British art

British painting after the Great War is notable again for what did not touch it. Britain was exhausted. Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field, Minimalism and forms of Post-Modernism never took much of a hold here, although of course individual painters, notably Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, achieved greatness on the world stage. 

Some artists, like Stanley Spencer in Cookham, evolved slowly like pot-bound geraniums in isolated greenhouses, free of any formal influence. 

The most radical developments in Britain at this time were with form and surface, and the protagonists, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were both sculptors. 

Hepworth’s husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, experimented with overlaid geometric panels, textured with marble dust and thinly painted, sometimes in pure white. Hepworth and Nicholson went to live in St Ives in Cornwall, attracting a group of artists that became known as the St Ives School, including Lanyon and Frost, Hilton and Heron. Rich sensuous colour and bold, flat interlocking shapes are typical of all the St Ives painters. 

In 1961 in the wake of Pop Art, a brash group of Royal College of Art students including Hockney, Caulfield and Kitaj made a big splash with an exhibition of very large and boldly coloured canvases.

The Euston Road School

Between the 1930s and the present day, Modernism in Britain evolved into a strange, wild, art market animal. However, alongside this story, and in stark contrast with it, another group of idealistic artists, many of them socialists, established itself just before the Second World War. They called themselves the Euston Road School. 

These artists retreated from the tsunami of modern–isms emanating from America and retrenched to nature and reality. Bewildered and alienated by the intellectualisation of art, they wanted painting to be understood by the common man once again. Their quiet and moderate response was perhaps peculiarly British.

The Euston Road School provided us with a generation of great teachers, amongst them Coldstream, Gowing, and Pasmore, although Pasmore moved towards abstraction in about 1950.

The YBAs 

It is out of this rich tradition that the Young British Artists – the YBAs - sprung from art schools to take the loud lead in contemporary art, worldwide. 

© Rupert Maas 2009

Picture credits

Top to bottom:

Pieter Bruegel, Gloomy Day, © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (

Peter Paul Rubens, The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (

Anthonis van Dyck, The Vision of the Blessed Hermann Joseph, © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (

The Hervey Conversation Piece by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth The Bristol Collection (The National Trust) © NTPL/John Hammond.

Portrait of Sir Abraham Hume by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Belton House, The Brownlow Collection (acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund by The National Trust in 1984), © NTPL/John Hammond.

Rocky Wooded Landscape with Rustic Lovers by a Pool by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Apparently the picture was so much admired by Constable when he stayed at Petworth in 1834. North Gallery (Dec 1992), Petworth Housem The Egremont Collection (acquired in lieu of tax by H.M.Treasury in 1957 and subsequently transferred to The National Trust), ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 18 June 1817 by John Constable. Anglesey Abbey, The Fairhaven Collection (The National Trust) © NTPL/John Hammond.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, Smallhythe, (The National Trust), © NTPL/Derrick E. Witty.