History Painting 17 Italian. Naples Yellow is one of a series of fifty-three works by the British artist Maria Lalic, which are collectively titled History Paintings and were made between 1995 and 2004. Six works from this series, all dating from 1995, are held in Tate’s collection (the others are History Painting 14 Greek. Massicot 1995, Tate T07289; History Painting 2 Cave. Yellow Earth 1995, Tate T07287; History Painting 35 C18/19th. Cadmium Yellow 1995, Tate T07291; History Painting 42 C20th. Winsor Yellow 1995, Tate T07292; History Painting 8 Egyptian. Orpiment 1995, Tate T07288). The works in this series are all paintings on canvas, comprising multiple thin ‘glazes’ of paint that have been layered over one another and evenly applied across the whole support. The paintings initially look like monochromes, but upon further inspection other paint layers beneath the surface become visible. Since the canvases’ outer edges are entirely unpainted, the built-up layers can also be seen when the painting is viewed from the side. All of the History Paintings feature smooth but visible brushstrokes, oriented horizontally across the canvas. The History Paintings in Tate’s collection have identical dimensions, but this is not true of all works in the series.
Lalic made the History Paintings while she was living and working in Bath. They are all painted on medium-weight cotton canvas held over stretchers, which were made to the artist’s specifications. Lalic masked the canvas edges with tape and then primed the fronts with two coats of acrylic gesso. She subsequently added multiple layers of paint, always brushing from left to right, with the canvas placed on a flat, horizontal surface. Each paint layer features a different Winsor and Newton pigment, mixed in a medium of five parts turpentine, one part damar varnish and one part refined linseed oil. The names of the paints used in each work are written on the stretcher in order of application. These works are displayed next to each other with a gap of around 18 inches (457.2 mm) between them, so that the edges are clearly visible.
The paints used in this series all relate to a chart Lalic found in 1994, which was printed by Winsor and Newton and categorises the historical development of pigments into six eras – ‘Cave’, ‘Egyptian’, ‘Greek’, ‘Italian’, ‘C18/19th’ and ‘C20th’ (Maria Lalic, ‘Statement for “Helder en Verzadigd”, Amiticae, Amsterdam, 13 March–12 April 1998’, c.1998, unpaginated, Tate Artist Catalogue File, Maria Lalic, PC4.2.2, A26661, T07287–T07292). Each work in this series includes all the colours that were listed for one of these periods, in this case ‘Italian’. The paintings representing more recent eras feature a higher number of paints, because the number of available pigments increased over time, something represented on Winsor and Newton’s list. Tate has one painting for each historical era in the subgroup of yellow paintings. Lalic initially intended to create the History Paintings using the actual pigments listed in the chart, but became aware of various technical problems when researching these and ultimately decided to use contemporary Winsor and Newton paints, which correspond to the historical materials as closely as possible (Maria Lalic and Rebecca Fortnum, ‘Maria Lalic’, in Fortnum 2007, pp.35–6).
Although the artist permits the use of a shortened title for this work, its full title is actually:
History Painting 17
Italian. Naples Yellow
The titles of all the works in this series share a common structure. Each begins with the term ‘History Painting’, followed by a number referring to the painting’s chronological position in the series, the name of the historical period to which its pigments relate (as derived from the Winsor and Newton chart) and the names of the paints used, listed in the order of their application. The term ‘history painting’ denotes a traditional genre of European painting, which involves the large-scale depiction of narrative scenes, often from religious scripture, mythology or historical record. However, rather than representing history through painting, Lalic’s series comprises a history of painting itself, presented through a chronology of pigments. The artist has stated that while looking at the built-up layers of paint, the viewer witnesses ‘the literal history of the making of that particular painting’ (Lalic c.1998, unpaginated).
Noting the highly simple techniques that Lalic has used in this series and other works (such as Lead Triptych 1987, private collection), the art historian Nicholas de Ville has argued that ‘the more minimal the vocabulary an artist chooses ... the more significant becomes the physical stuff of paint’. Consequently de Ville has also stated that although the History Paintings are quite conceptually driven, they are also designed to show that different pigments ‘all have their own nuanced identities’, evidencing an interest in ‘the raw essentials of painting’, which he sees as characteristic of Lalic’s practice (Nicholas de Ville, ‘Maria Lalic: Recent Paintings’, in Todd Gallery 1995, p.9).
Discussing her interest in the history of pigments, Lalic has stated: ‘If we look at the colours that were available to someone in the cave era, say ... There are four coloured pigments from that period and they’re so resonant with what that life was situated around – fire and earth, carbon black from fire, and from the earth yellow, red and chalk. It says so much about a particular culture and civilisation ... I think I’m simply excited by recognising a time and place through colour’ (Lalic in Fortnum 2007, p.34).
Maria Lalic, exhibition catalogue, Todd Gallery, London 1995, pp.8–9.
Maria Lalic: History Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Renate Bender, Munich 1997, pp.3–7, 18, 22–5.
Rebecca Fortnum, Contemporary British Women Artists in Their Own Words, London 2007, pp.34–6.
Supported by Christie’s.