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Fayum funeral portraits

The History of Encaustic Painting from Fayum Funeral Portraits to Today

The Origins of Encaustic Painting – An Ancient Medium

The word encaustic comes from the Greek enkaustikos which means “to burn in” referring to the process of fusing with heat. The process of burning-in is necessary to be classified as encaustic. 

Pausias, a Greek painter of the first half of the 4th century, is credited with inventing the encaustic painting method [source].

Painted Greek Ships

The ancient Greeks used wax and resin to waterproof and decorate their ships. “Homer, writing in 800 B.C., makes note of painted warships sailing into Troy” (The Art of Encaustic Painting. Joanne Mattera pg. 15).

Beeswax is impervious to moisture. Therefore wax is a durable material excellent for sealing and preserving. In his book Naturalis Historia, Roman Historian Pliny the Elder wrote of encaustic painting in the 1st century A.D. “Painting of this nature, applied to vessels, will never spoil from the action of the sun, winds, or salt water” [source].

The Fayum Portraits

The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt around 200–400 AD. The Fayum Portraits of ancient Egypt are realistic encaustic portraits on wooden boards that were used as mummy masks. They were painted by Greek painters who settled in Egypt and adopted the Egyptian custom of mummification.

Today, you can view Fayum Portraits at all important archaeological museums of the world. Approximately 900 mummy portraits are known at present. The majority were unearthed in the Necropoleis of Fayum (Faiyum), a region of ancient Egypt. The mummy portraits have immense historical importance. The longevity of these works speaks to the durability of this medium.

“The Faiyum burial portraits in wax on wood panels…have survived brilliantly for more than fifteen centuries and attest to the permanence of the wax medium. Of course, it must be remembered that these works were entombed in an ideal environment of consistent temperature and humidity, which was absent of light.”   (The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. Fifth Edition. Ralph Mayer p. 359)

The following images are from my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


Mummy with an Inserted Panel Portrait of a Youth from 1st Century A.D.
This mummy is intact with the panel inserted over the face.

After the fall of the Roman empire, encaustic, for the most part, became a lost art waiting to be rediscovered by future artists.

Modern Resurgence

In the 20th century, electricity and modern tools made the encaustic process much more accessible. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera began using encaustic in the 1920s. Rivera’s first government-commissioned mural, Creation (1922-23) was done in encaustic and gold leaf.

In 1938 Karl Zerbe, a chemist by training, began researching and experimenting with wax and pigment. Over the next 2 years, he worked to come up with an encaustic formula and he reinvented the technique. He was the head of the Department of Painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1940, Zerbe taught an advanced seminar in materials including encaustic. [source]

Arthur Dove
A Reasonable Facsimile
Encaustic on canvas
Art Institute Chicago
Arthur Dove
A Reasonable Facsimile
Encaustic on canvas
Art Institute Chicago

The pioneering modernist Arthur Dove used a wide range of media including wax emulsion and encaustic in the 1940s but the most famous encaustic painter is Jasper Johns. Johns forged a new path for contemporary encaustic painting in the 1950s with his flag paintings. Read more here about Jasper Johns.

In 1988, Richard Frumess started R&F Handmade Paints making high-quality encaustic paints commercially available. R&F started offering workshops across the U.S. and many of their students soon became teachers. The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax by Joanne Mattera was published in 2001. This comprehensive guide made accurate information widely available.  Since that time, the Internet has contributed to the growing popularity of encaustic painting.

About Ruth Maude

I enjoy experimenting with a variety of encaustic materials, techniques and tools. Everything I learn pushes my creative journey in new directions. I share what I've learned with other artists through my blog All Things Encaustic.

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8 thoughts on “The History of Encaustic Painting from Fayum Funeral Portraits to Today”

  1. Pingback: WU Libraries Blog

  2. Your site is so friendly, clear, and informative. One thing – would you be able to tell me which museums have the pieces in the images you share? I would brave a pandemic to see them in person! Thanks 🙂

  3. Thank you, I appreciate all the information. Encaustic is the biggest spark of my life! I’m always on the lookout for anything encaustic!

  4. Thanks for sharing the FULL story of the origins of encaustic! I teach encaustic (Seattle, WA and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) and this will be valuable information for my students!

  5. Wow, the funeral masks from the early 100’s AD are amazing. I love encaustic art and I know that I am going to enjoy all the great resources you’re going to offer. Thanks.

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