A Dialogue About Early Panel Paintings
Norman Muller is a paintings conservator at the Princeton University Art Museum and a graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts. He has held positions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Worcester Art Museum. Mr. Muller has published extensively on fourteenth-century Sienese panel paintings, Italian and Northern Renaissance, and nineteenth-century American paintings techniques. He recently corresponded with conservation student Rita Berg about his current investigation into the development of early panel paintings.
Rita Berg: Many people may not be familiar with the late antique Egyptian panel paintings. Could you tell us a little about this tradition and briefly describe their materials and techniques?
Norman Muller: The paintings we have been studying are largely Roman in style and date, following the tradition of Greek painting, which was introduced into Egypt in the fourth century B.C.E. The Romans imposed their own style and technique of painting on the Egyptian model, although Egyptian stylistic and iconographic influences are also apparent in some paintings. One of the best preserved paintings we have examined is a wooden “tondo” representing the emperor Septimus Severus and his family in Berlin.
While painted in a tempera technique on a gesso ground, we have not been able to pinpoint the exact nature of the paint medium: whether it is egg or some other aqueous binder, such as glue or gum. We do find in this painting an overall grey preparation over the white gesso, which served to modify the tonality of the colors applied on top. The artist also used a four color palette. And unlike so many paintings in our corpus, we are able to date this work to 197 C.E., and have found references to it being a temple offering. Another painting in our corpus, a fragment representing Isis lactans, was a domestic chapel offering.