The History of the Easel
From the first caveman who propped a piece of bark up onto the side of the tree to get a better look at the scratches he'd made with a piece of flint, easels have been the natural solution to both production and
presentation of two-dimension visual arts. But like any behind-the-scenes player, the easel's passage from obscurity to its prolific present is a challenge to unveil. When did a makeshift prop become a double sided easel, a tired speaker's arm become a decorative display easel, rickety sign holders become brass easels, and a wobbly strut become wrought iron furniture?
Though so simple it's almost ingenious, one of the earliest solutions to the need for an artist easel was simply one's own clothing. A man, naked to the waist but wearing a knee-length skirt,sits cross-legged, and the skirt stretching tightly across his knees creates a firm surface on which to form his hieroglyphs 1
. Or, slightly more advanced, the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb produced clay tablets, preserved from 1370-52 B.C.2
Though presumably used as scholars' records and smaller versions as schoolboys' hand-held blackboards, perhaps they were also displayed during speeches and orations as we now use flip charts. Since the content of these tablets and primitive records was often religious or holy text, it was considered essential to elevate them, and the bookstand is invented.3
Several millennia after these Egyptian foundations, in the 1st Century CE, a Roman scholar wrote a book entitled, "The Elder Pliny's Chapters On The History Of Art" in which he makes reference to a large panel being placed on an easel.4
Of course he was writing in Latin, for the English word "easel" was as yet not used, as we shall see later, but the reference implies that the floor easel had by this time evolved into a staple in artist supplies. Around this same time we have a visual reference that reinforces Pliny's assertion, in a decorated sarcophagus from the Bosporan Kingdom, located on the Mediterranean Sea. An artist is depicted working with encaustics, and near him quite clearly described stands a thin-legged wooden painting easel, with a portrait tied to it.5
Painting easels give way to display easels in Asia, where several centuries later in China we find an 8th century depiction by Wang Wei of "a contemplative scholar" studying from what could be called a writing desk, book stand or lectern but has many of the markings of an easel.6
In general, however, artists used walls as their chalkboards and easel painting did not become commonplace until the medieval times.
Broadening the definition of "easel" for the sake of tracking its evolution, we notice that even the earliest looms constructed for weaving tapestry were indeed a vertically slanted wooden structure on which to affix one's artwork during production, the definitive characteristics of an easel. A 1509 painting by Italian painter Pintoricchio portrays the Greek beauty Penelope weaving amidst her suitors, the loom filling an entire room with its uprights and crossbars.7
Though merely a Renaissance painter's opinion of an ancient loom, it is likely accurate as to the fundamentals of the contraption. Many lace makers and other seamstresses had comparable display stands on which they could work and present their product, and although the specifications of needlework demand a divergence from the modern day picture easel, their shared heredity is visible.