Ancient & Classical Art · Art History

The World’s First Painter: A Fun Fact That’s Totally a Fable

The Origin of Painting
Heinrich Eddelien, The Origin of Painting, 1830. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

In his Natural History, Roman historian Pliny the Elder told a memorable story about the invention of painting. (Remember that we’ve already enjoyed one of Pliny’s other stories about painting.) According to him, painting was invented by a lovesick woman from the ancient Greek city-state of Corinth. Her lover was going on a long voyage, and she was upset about it. As she said goodbye to him, she saw his shadow cast on the wall beside him. So, she took a piece of charcoal and traced its outline, preserving it so she would be able to look at it while he was gone.

Clearly, this is not actually the way that painting was invented, since the earliest known paintings pre-date the city of Corinth by millennia. But it’s still a fun and romantic tale. It would probably also make a good novel or movie in the hands of a really creative author. It’s already been the subject of several paintings, including the one shown above.

My source for this anecdote is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002. (Chapter 2).

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