Love and the Maiden: A Tale in Tempera

Last month we featured John Roddam Stanhope’s Love and the Maiden in FRAME|WORK, which served as the first in a series of blog posts that will demonstrate key elements of the Aesthetic Movement through this singular painting. In this installment, curatorial assistant of European art Melissa Buron examines how Stanhope's use of tempera paint contributed to the aesthetic of the Victorian avant-garde.

2002.176

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (English, 1829–1908). Love and the Maiden, 1877. Tempera, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas. Museum purchase, European Art Trust Fund, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund and Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund. 2002.176

One of the fundamental objectives of the Aesthetic Movement was the expression of formal beauty in a variety of media. The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900, on view through June 17 at the Legion of Honor, features this artistic exploration in an assortment of objects ranging from household furnishings like teapots, candlesticks and tapestries to paintings, sculpture, costumes and ceramics.

Dresser Tea Service

Christopher Dresser, Tea Service Set (teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug), 1880. Silver plate with ebony handles. FAMSF

The diversity of materials used to demonstrate aesthetic ideas also includes less immediately obvious differences, like specific types of paint pigments, including watercolor, oil and tempera. In today's post, we focus on tempera, which Stanhope used to paint Love and the Maiden.

Stanhope’s unique aesthetic preferences are suggested by his repeated experiments with tempera, as opposed to oil paints, which were used by many of his peers. The defining characteristic of tempera paint is the binding agent that holds the dry color pigments together. Rather than water or oil, the binding medium in tempera paint is traditionally the yolk of an egg. The use of tempera recalls the painting techniques of early Italian artists like Fra Angelico, whose The Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, ca. 1430 resides in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Typically on view in gallery 2 at the Legion of Honor, this painting is not currently on display, as galleries 1 and 2 have been temporarily dedicated to The Cult of Beauty.)

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Fra Angelico (Italian, circa 1400–1455). The Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, ca. 1430. Tempera on panel. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. 61.44.7

Egg tempera was the primary medium used by Western European painters until it was largely superseded by oil painting in the 16th century (an innovation recently explored in the Masters of Venice exhibition at the de Young).

The egg yolk base makes tempera a very quick-drying medium that involves small, precise brushstrokes. This means that works in tempera demand considerable time and patience. The medium is also very difficult to modify, requiring a deliberate plan for each brushstroke. In a paper written in 1903 for the Society of Painters in Tempera, Stanhope explained:

“When painting a picture with [tempera] it is a paramount necessity that the design should be so carefully prepared before beginning painting that practically there should be no necessity for any alterations of the slightest importance.”

Stanhope further described that, like watercolor, tempera paint dries quickly, so “Alterations mean erasing the work already done and repainting it,” unlike oils where “Unsatisfactory work could be painted over or altered as might be necessary.” Accordingly, the thematic and aesthetic repetitions evident in Stanhope’s late paintings, in which he primarily used tempera and watercolor, would have been carefully planned and executed with the utmost precision.

We hope that this focused explanation of one aspect of Stanhope’s masterpiece, Love and the Maiden, brings new appreciation to your enjoyment of this work during your next visit to The Cult of Beauty.