An Early Insight into Art Materials / by Jeannine Cook

Happenstance has just given me a lovely gift of information. I was reading a wonderful biography by the late famed British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, on the 17th century Huguenot physician, Theodore de MayerneBrilliantly intelligent and successful, de Mayerne was first physician to King Henri IV of France, then attended James I of England and his successor, Charles I. 

Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, to give him his full name, was born in Geneva of French parents in 1573 and lived until 1654/55, ending his days in England.  This is a portrait thought to be done of him in London by Peter Paul Rubens about 1630.


Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

De Mayerne was a multi-faceted scientist, in essence, for his interests and knowledge stretched far beyond the practise of medicine.  Chemist, Hermeticist, experimenter... on one side and on the other, a skilled linguist and writer, high-level diplomat and spy for his Royal employers, as well as deeply knowledgeable expert in art and art materials and practices.  In  short, a true Renaissance man. In 1620, he began with a flourish a new treatise entitled Pictoria, Sculptoria, et quae subalternarum artium... In the many folios, he records observations, derived from reading in part but more from conversations with artists  and craftsmen, about their techniques, technical descriptions of materials used, sources of these materials and their chemical characteristics.

Being a very prominent member of three Royal courts, he had the opportunity to meet a wide selection of artists and craftsmen.  He was ever curious and discussed with them different approaches to oil painting, mixing and preparing pigments, the best oils to use, surface preparation, conservation of art, the art of enamelling, watercolour and miniature painting and all manner of other information.  His friendships with Rubens, with Van Dyck, Orazio and his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, miniaturists Jean Petitot and John Hoskins and others were fruitful in the detailing of art technology in his folio notes.

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, oil and black chalk, with grey wash, c. 1631, Peter Paul Rubens.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

De Mayerne continued with this art treatise for a number of years with the last entries in the 170 folios in 1646.  

Folios 5 & 9O, Theodore de Mayerne, Pictoria, Sculptoria...

After his death, the document ended up eventually in the British Library, under the filing, Sloane MS 2052.  From the time of Horace Walpole onwards, it has been considered an indispensable source of information on Dutch and Flemish painting in the Baroque era, allowing later scholars to learn of Northern European diverse art practices. Today, scientists still use De Mayerne's work as a vital source of information for the 17th century, on a par with Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte for the early 15th century.  Manufacturers of Old Master materials still use De Mayerne's recipes - for  amber resin varnish, for example.  Countless art restorers, in the Prado Museum, the Getty and elsewhere, apparently refer to De Mayerne's careful records about art materials and contemporary techniques.

The more I read, the more I realise there is so much more to learn about.  I started reading Hugh Trevor Roper's wonderful Europe's Physician.  The various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne to learn about an early, prominent physician. I ended up learning about a meticulous chronicler of 17th century art and its practice. What a delicious bonus!