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HISTORY OF THE EASEL
The history of the easel is a complex and continually-changing one. This chapter will outline the easel's origination and rise to popularity.
At its most broad definition, an easel is a structure built to support an artist’s canvas. Easels are also commonly used to display finished works of art. Useful in many situations for a variety of reasons, the easel, in all its forms, is an invention that can be found being used very far back into our world's history.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph artists used their skirts1 pulled taut around their knees as a sturdy place to write on their tablets.
Because much of their writing and art had religious connotations, their finished tablets were displayed on elevated platforms2 that closely resemble modern bookstands.
1) Hieroglyph Man Image - Artist unknown. Scribe from Tomb of Saqqara. The Louvre, Paris. Everyday Life in Bible Times. Melville Bell Grosvenor, Ed. (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1967) 112.
2) Bookstand Art Image - Grosvenor 326.
Easels are formally recorded as far back as the first century CE when Pliny the Elder wrote about a large panel being painted on by an artist who had propped it up on what could have only been one of the first easels.
Pliny the Elder1 was the accomplished writer of the book Natural History2. His book is considered to house nearly all of the ancient knowledge that preceded him and is frequently used as an encyclopedia.
1) Pliny The Elder Image - Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
2) Naturalis Historius Image - Source: English wikipedia.
Published in AD 77, it was and is used as a reference material to all history that comes before that date, including most of the famous artwork. Because Pliny the Elder, whose real name was Caius Plinius Secundus, wrote about some of the art being worked on while propped on easels in his book, we can correctly surmise that the easel was invented prior to 77 AD.
More artistic proof of an easel was discovered in Asia’s history. The depiction of “a contemplative scholar”1 by the artist Wang Wei seems to show the man studying or reading and making use of an easel-like structure.
This art from China is thought to have been created during the 8th century.
1) A Contemplative Scholar Image - Wang Wei. Scholar Fu Sheng. Osaka Municipal Museum, Osaka. Ancient China. By Edward Schafer. (New York, TIME LIFE Books, 1967) 123.
We also know that illuminated easels were used in the 12th century by Monks. In need of something to write their manuscripts on, some monks used a form of an easel on which they created and transcribed many famous works.
Because their manuscripts were so precious, utilizing the stability of an easel was necessary to ensure that the monks came out with the best possible finished writing creations.
The word easel is derived from the German language and it is actually a synonym for the word donkey. The old Germanic form of the word easel is Esel. Interestingly enough, the word that means easel in many languages also means donkey in those languages as well, like Dutch (schildersezel) and Latin (Asinus).
The need for easels spiked greatly in the 13th century when canvas paintings became more popular. As the demand for murals diminished, easels and the art painted upon them became more and more ubiquitous. As the renaissance progressed, the easel became a staple in the art society.
On the left are two of art's famous works in which an easel is pictured.
The painting top-left, "Young Girl in Pink Dress Sitting by an Easel with a Mandolin", is by the famous artist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot.
The painting bottom-left, "Self Portrait in Front of the Easel", is by the famous artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Artists' needs were constantly growing and changing during the renaissance period. To accommodate the boom in commissioned art, many artists modified the basic easel structure to better fit their needs.
This picture to the left seems to show both Plato and Socrates1 discussing a scholarly matter. The easel structure in the picture has been modified to include a chair - a clever twist on the average desk.
1) Socrates and Plato Image - Matthew Paris. Drawing from Liber Experimentarius by Bernardus Silvestris. The Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Age of Faith. By Anne Fremantle. (New York: TIME LIFE Books Inc., 1965) 98.
The invention of the portable easel and storable oil-based paint in the 15th century are the two factors in the boom of landscape artwork. Suddenly, artists were able to pack up their materials and traipse around the countryside, capturing anything they wanted on their canvases.
To the right is an example of a famous landscape painting, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", which was painted in 1432.
More recent history shows that antique easels2 dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries have become quite valuable to antique collectors and restorers. By the 17th century, easels themselves had become works of art. Ornately decorated easels are still widely popular today, and the older they are, the more valuable they are.
Older easels are known to cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
1) Antique Easel Image - Marshall B. Davidson. American Heritage Dictionary of American Antiques from the Revolution to the Civil War. (U.S.A: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc.) 1968.108.