Painting: in the eye of the myth

Jean-Baptiste Regnault  (1754–1829) - L'Origine de la peinture.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829) - L'Origine de la peinture.

Photography is the impression of light in a dark chamber. And what if painting had been, in its mythical origin, the projection of the shadow of a face on a clear surface? Strange beginnings that highlight the outline of a face leaving its features in the dark…

We are delighted to recite the myth narrated by Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79) in which painting was born as a result of the ingenuity of a young girl inspired by love. Taking advantage of the fact that the young boy she is smitten with and who is about to depart abroad has fallen asleep, she puts a lantern behind his face to project the shadow of his profile on a wall that she then “surrounds with lines”. This young girl from the city of Corinth was the daughter of potter Butades of Sicyon.  This outline was used to create a clay model that was dried with her father’s pots. This myth could be the origin of plastic art – sculpture!
Yet another passage in Pliny’s text, quoted by the French Hellenist and mythologist Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, confirms this mythical origin of painting as an outline: “The question of the origin of painting is uncertain and does not belong to the plan of this work. The Egyptians declared that it was invented by them six thousand years ago before moving to Greece, which is obviously a vain pretence. As for the Greeks, some say that it was invented in Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it was the result of outlining the shadow of a man’s face; it was as a consequence the first step, but the second step involving a more elaborate method was invented using unique colourway called monochrome that is still in use today.” (Natural History. XXXV, 151). But the great theoreticians of the Italian Renaissance such as Alberti, Vasari and Leonardo de Vinci also evoked the shadow as the origin of drawing and painting.

It has been argued that this myth could be anchored in the polysemy of the Greek word “korê”, that meant a young virgin but later on came to describe the pupil of the eye.
The presence of the young girl means that painting is born of love. This love inspired her to find a way of preserving the memory of her beloved. But this memory, although faithful in its outline, does not copy reality. The idea that painting imitates will come late in art, as figuration always seems to have had the aim of symbolising reality. And maybe that gives meaning to this shadow.
The pupil of the eye is clearly understood by the Greeks’ knowledge of sight: it is through this part of the body that the observed figure is reflected. Reflection and shadow are interlinked in Greek. On the other hand, some ancient philosophers compared the eye to a flame protected by translucent walls, symbolised by the lantern in the myth. The young girl in love would then be this desiring eye that records the reflection of the object of her admiration.

Often quoted citing Pliny (little read these days) this sweet myth is not as odd as it seems. At its origin, painting only circumscribes reality which remains as inimitable as it is mysterious. This idea persists in the very term portrait, with its interesting etymology of “to pull out”, when the word had other meanings than that of drawing a line.