The Origin of Painting

Perhaps because I grew up educated in a system in which historical and archaeological record play a vital role in explaining the origin of things, I sometimes pass up on alternative explanations from peoples that had no access to this kind evidence. These explanations are sometimes just as inspiring and often more charming and humane. Take the Greeks for example, who had a flair for telling stories to explain natural and cultural phenomena and did not yet know anything of the caves in Lascaux.

Pliny the Elder relates in his volume Natural History the legend of Butades. Butades of Sicyon was the first ancient greek modeller in clay, his daughter, a Coritian maid was madly in love with a young man. When she learned of his imminent departure, to a distant land where he was to go into battle with nothing but his spear and his dog, she tried to capture the young man’s silhouette by tracing it upon a wall under the light of a candle. The next day, when the man had left the only thing to remember him by was the maid’s drawing on the wall. Butades saw the line on the wall and decided to make a model of the young man out of clay based on his daughter’s drawing.

This charming story on the birth of painting has been rendered several times by various artists, what follows is a small sample of these renderings.

The invention of painting, Eduard Daege, 1832

Origin of Painting, 1785, Jean Baptiste Regnault

The Corinthian Maid, Joseph Wright, 1782-1784

Invention of the Art of Drawing, 1793, Joseph Benoit Suvee

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Origin of Painting, 1830

Dibutades, 2007, Francine van Hove

Karen Knorr, The Pencil of Nature, 1994.