E N C A U S T I C  P A I N T I N G -- A H I S T O R Y  O F  T H E  A R T

Encaustic painting (from the Greek: "burnt in") was an ancient method of fixing pigments with heated wax.  It was probably first practiced in Egypt about 3000 BC. Yet, perhaps the best known of all ancient encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD by Greek painters living in Egypt after Alexander the Great's conquest of that region.  These Greek artisans adopted many of the Egyptian customs, including mummifying their dead, and the painting of a portrait of the deceased which was placed over the person's mummy as a memorial.

Most of our knowledge of the early encaustic paintings comes from the Roman historian, Pliny.  Writing in the 1st century, Pliny described how encaustic was used for the painting of portraits, mythological scenes on panels, for coloring marble and terra cotta, and for work on ivory (probably the tinting of incised lines).  Many of the pieces from this time survive today, and their color has remained as fresh as any recently completed work.

The excellent condition of these ancient works is most likely due to the fact that wax is an excellent preservative of materials.  The Greeks applied coatings of wax and resin to waterproof their ships.  Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships.  In the Iliad, Homer refers to the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy.

Unfortunately, the process of producing encaustic art was costly and the medium fell into disuse after the decline of the Roman Empire.  During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and others attempted unsuccessfully to revive the technique.  However, it was not until the 20th century that encaustic art experienced a true resurgence.  Through the availability of portable electric heating implements and other tools, encaustic painting has once again taken its place as a major artist's medium.

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