Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), Bernardino Campi painting the portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola. Photo: Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali
A portrait of Nero on a piece of cloth 120 ft long was apparently destroyed by lightning. Other ancient paintings on linen, jute, cotton or hemp (Cannabis sativa, hence the word canvas) fared no better. Hardly any survive.
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), 1656. Photo: Scala, Florence.
Canvas became the preferred support for oil paintings in 16th-century Europe as an alternative to wooden panels. It was cheap, light, and could be used for works of any size, from cabinet paintings to plus-size dynastic portraits. The canvas dominating the left-hand side of Velazquez’ Las Meninas (The Maids in Waiting), above, suggests the scale of the official artist’s task.
Georges Braque (1882-1963), Still Life with Violin, 1913. © 2015. Digital Image: Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015
With Cubism’s questioning of perspectival illusionism, another quality of canvas came to the fore. ‘Painting had to spell out,’ observed Clement Greenberg, ‘the physical fact that it was flat.’ Later 20th-century artists co-opted the physical shapes and textures of canvases into their work, as in Lucio Fontana’s tense, slashed surfaces (below).
Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’, 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan. © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2015. Digital Image © Tate, London 2015
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