When Did Artists Begin Creating Oil Paintings?

There is a sad irony in the fact that some of the world's greatest art has been born from tragedy. In 2001, as the world learned that the Taliban had blown up the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, little did we know that this destruction would reveal artwork equally as impressive and important.

Oil painting was thought to have originated in Europe in the 15th century, until the world's oldest oil paintings (dating from the 7th century C.E.) were discovered in caves in Afghanistan.
Oil painting was thought to have originated in Europe in the 15th century, until the world's oldest oil paintings (dating from the 7th century C.E.) were discovered in caves in Afghanistan.

Dating from the 6th century C.E., the pair of gigantic Buddha statues (both well over 100 feet tall) had been carved from sandstone cliffs in the Hazarajat region.

However, it was in the caves located behind the statues that an incredible discovery was made that shook the art world. Some of the caves contain paintings that date from the 5th through 9th centuries C.E. The paintings are particularly special not only because of their age, but also because of the materials used in their creation.

In 2008, after undergoing testing at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), it was revealed that a 7th-century sample taken from the murals had been made using oil-painting techniques. Thus, the Afghan cave paintings have gained recognition as the oldest oil paintings in the world -- much older than the better-known European oil paintings that began to proliferate in the 15th century. The sample was taken from a painting, possibly made with walnut and poppy seed oils, that shows Buddhas seated amid palm leaves, surrounded by mythical beings.

Researchers believe the artwork was crafted by travelers on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route connecting China to Central Asia and Europe. Yoko Taniguchi, who led the team researching the find, called the discovery unprecedented. "This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics," he said.

All about oil painting:

  • The oils used in oil paints harden through oxidation, but don't dry; some artwork can take years to fully harden.

  • Until the mid-19th century, artists had to create their own oil paints by grinding pigments and boiling the oil.

  • Before the 16th century, painting was done on pieces of wood, which cracked and didn't hold paint nearly as well as canvas.

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