Uncovering the mysteries of ancient painting techniques
José Cuní began his life-long interest in the ancient encaustic painting technique in the 50s during his studies of frescos at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Madrid.
Born in Montmeló, near Barcelona, José was fascinated by the enduring and vibrant colours that were still evident in the surviving works of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine painters. His professor, Ramon Stolz, was a fresco scholar specialised in encaustic painting.
After the professor’s death, Jose continued his research on ancient paintings and eventually sought a grant from the Fundación Juan March in Madrid, allowing him to study ancient painting techniques in Pompeii, home to some of the most elaborate and colourful wall paintings of the ancient world.
He found a supporter in the prominent architect Luis Gutierrez Soto, whose interest in Greco-Roman art led him to sponsor the young artist’s research at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.
Jose travelled to Naples in 1961. On his first visit to the National Archaeological Museum, José emerged enchanted by the beauty of the ancient paintings and, despite the passage of two millennia, the outstanding condition of the paint itself. He wanted to understand how those paints had survived so long while preserving their vivid colours.
His first visit to Pompeii only strengthened his resolve to uncover the mysteries of the ancient painting techniques.
José started his own experimentation, following theories about ancient encaustic painting dating to the 18th century found in Naples and Pompeii. They stated that the painters used spatulas, not brushes, and that they had painted in extremely hot conditions.
José could not verify those theories. The wax in the encaustic paints cooled too quickly and gelled, preventing the sort of smooth brush work Jose had noticed. He needed to find the ingredient that served to bind wax, water and the pigments present in the ancient paints.
Whilst studying with Professor Stolz in Spain, Jose had tried turpentine as the binding element. The results were paints that performed more like oils, thick and with a yellowing effect — not water soluble, as intended.
Seeking a new path, he tailed local artisans in Naples, who were using wax with coloured stucco on walls. He learned that they used potassium soap in their process, technically ‘potassium hydroxide’, a well-known base with many industrial and specialized uses.
Delighted with this discovery, he began a long series of experiments and attempts to replicate the ancient paints.
When he thought he was close to his goal, he sought permission to test his ideas by painting in front of one of the Pompeii murals in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. He was rebuffed by the Museum authorities, who were horrified by his request to bring paints into a room where they had hitherto only granted permission for pencil sketches. Undaunted, José took his request to Giovanni Brancaccio, the Director of the Naples Academy of Fine Arts. What ensued was, in his eyes, a Neapolitan drama, with shouts and gestures worthy of an opera buffa, but through which he gained approval to install an easel in front of the Pompeian paintings.
Gradually, through observation, painting and altering the formula, he unravelled the secret of the Greco-Roman artists: He had recreated water-soluble encaustic.
His initial research in Naples completed, José returned to Spain. Realizing that the small batches of paint that he had employed in his Naples experiments were a far cry from the ambitious wall paintings of Pompeii, he continued his experiments, eventually concluding that the order of the ingredients used (beeswax, potassium soap and colouring agents) was a key factor, as was the addition of heat.
Fire had indeed been used by Greco-Roman artists, not during the act of painting, but as a final step that dissolved and fixed the colours in their wax-based paints. He began to use his encaustic paint on larger scale works as well as smaller paintings, testing the artistic possibilities of his discovery on walls, wood, canvas, and on paper. He also worked with less conventional media including pottery, metal, stone, and glass.
What happened next
José Cuní’s paintings were well received in Spain and abroad, appearing at the 1962 Venice Biennial, the 1962 and 1963 Tokyo Biennials, Arte de America y España and the Alexandria Biennial in 1963, among others.
He won the Spanish Premio Nacional del Grabado in 1963 and one of his encaustic paintings won the First Prize at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1966. His works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid and the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca, and many more. However, the groundbreaking qualities of José’s rediscovery of Greco-Roman techniques were largely silenced and hidden in the international art world.
It fell to his sons, Pedro and Jorge, to carry on his efforts.
A family affair
Pedro Cuní, a painter himself, and his brother Jorge, an architect and conservationist, felt that their father had, for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, developed water-soluble encaustic paints that can be used just as they were by Greco- Roman artists. The technique, lost in the early Middle Ages, had remained unknown despite fruitless efforts from the Renaissance onwards, inducing an attempt by Leonardo da Vinci.
In 1989, Jorge Cuní received a Fulbright scholarship to carry out chemical studies of the Roman wall painting at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, Washington, D.C. His research analyzed — via gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and infrared spectrometry — samples of Roman wall paintings from IvIericiaand CompIutum (Spain) and Marsala (Italy). The results, which indicated that all samples studied were painted with water- soluble encaustic, were published in 1993 by the Archivo Español de Arqueología.
For his part, Pedro, an artist and painting instructor at The Cooper Union and Parsons School of Design, began to carry out chemical studies at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, under the supervision and guidance of Chairman John Bové and Professor Ruben Savizky of the Chemistry Department.
Savizky and Pedro, with the help of Cooper Union students (Priscilla Paul, Michael Cerro, James Lee, and Bridle Eisen) compared Jose Cuní’s formula to samples, donated by the Brooklyn Museum from Roman wall paintings at Ampurias, Marsala and Baelo Claudia (Spain) and to a sample from a Fayum painting on wood.
Their research indicated that Roman paintings on wall and wood were done with rile same painting technique of beeswax and potassium soap. Taken together with the chemical studies by Jorge Cuní at the Smithsonian, they inferred that the painting technique used by Greco-Roman artists on walls, wood and canvas was indeed consistent with their father’s reformulated encaustic paint.
50 years of dedication had finally paid off – José had proven his theory to be right.
José passed away peacefully on Saturday in Madrid.
Now it is on all of us – you, the artists, the Cuní children and us as a distributor – to make sure his legacy will live on forever.
Rest in peace, José. Watersoluble Encaustic is back for good.