Why wood as a canvas?

There’s a very interesting article in today’s NY Times on the first page of The Arts section. Entitled, The Case of the Servant With the Fur Collar, it tells of "a 17th-century portrait of a woman who had the unmistakably stolid face of a servant, but was decked out in a sumptuous fur collar.”

The painting, Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet is unsigned, but the experts suspect it might be a Rembrandt.

That it was painted on wood is of little concern to the people who have been examining this work for more than two years. But a wood biologist tested tested the panel and determined that it came from the same tree as the wood used in Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait With a Hat, which buttresses the theory that Rembrandt painted this one, too.

My question is very simple: Why do artist’s sometime use wood to paint on? Was wood more available than canvas circa 1600’s? Might it last lobger? Lend a different mood to the work — warmth, for example? Is wood often used as a canvas these days?

At any rate, you can read the entire article at nytimes.com. Registration is free, and once you’re in, a search on Servant With the Fur Collar should you bring you to the story.

Sidebar: Here’s one of the things about the portrait that puzzled the art experts (which of course, I would never have seen in a million years). They asked “…why did the light on her face appear to be reflected off the dark surface of that collar when it should be absorbed by it?”

The explanations are in the article, and well worth reading. If you can’t get to the story for one reason or another and you want to know the answers, just say so, and I’ll post them. Good stuff!

FWIW, the article is at…

…if you can get in this way.

I’m no expert, but the transition between wood being the dominant material and canvas replacing it as that took a good long time. Up to three or four centuries.

In the specific case of Rembrandt, it’s my understanding that most of his paintings were done on wood panels. A quick flick through the catalogue of the 1999 London and the Hague exhibition of the self-portraits supports this, together with suggesting that the pattern was that he increasingly tended to paint on canvas as he got older. This may just reflect that he was living through the transition, with him starting by using the traditional technology and then adopting the newfangled material, or it may reflect some aesthetic choice. I dunno.

Canvas is now far more popular, but wood continues to be an excellent surface for achieving a smooth finish and precision in painting details.