The Alchemy of Painting: How the Technology of Oil Paint Transmuted Art

  • Stoyan V. SgourevEmail author


Scholarship has identified the need to better understand and empirically capture the complexity of the interplay between technological and social factors. One way to disentangle this interplay is to follow the same technology over time. This is the approach adopted in this chapter, pursuing a longitudinal perspective by analyzing the emergence and diffusion of oil-based paint in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A key methodological advantage of oil paint is that it is irreducible to a cultural artefact, constituting a distinct material development. Starting with an overview of the affordances of the technology, the analysis documents how they were activated in two contexts: Flanders and Venice. While reflecting cultural and religious developments, the new technology was an agent of change. The substantive contribution is in highlighting the process of bifurcation of affordances and outcomes, as oil paint catalyzed a divide that was until then only implicit—between representational and expressive functions of art. The technology was a source of tension in the same cultural context that made it possible. The implications of the analysis for contemporary developments, such as the digital museum, are also discussed.


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© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ESSEC Business SchoolCergyFrance

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