The renewed interest in tempera paints in the 19th century was, in part, due to a growing dissatisfaction with oil paints, which were felt to have too many drawbacks, such as insufficient luminosity of colour, slowness in drying and a tendency to crack, wrinkle and darken as they aged. Tempera, revered as part of the lost technique of the ‘Old Masters’, seemed a failsafe means with which to address the problems at hand.
The study and ‘rediscovery’ of historic tempera systems took various forms: scholarship applied to the ancient texts on painting, such as Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’arte, direct examination of the paintings of antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as well as material analysis and characterisation. These findings influenced artists’ practice and their choices of binding media: They experimented with a growing number of historically oriented and at the same time innovative tempera formulations. These could contain any of the following ingredients, often in complex combinations: egg, animal glue, plant gums, casein, waxes, soaps, milk, resins, glycerine and even drying oils.
These paints were used both in Europe and America in manifold ways and with various motivations: At the beginning of the 19th century mural painters of the German Nazarene movement used tempera, later followed by those of the Wilhelmine era and by the French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. From c. 1850 onwards, tempera paints were employed in easel painting by many artists of a wide variety of schools (e.g. Academism, Symbolism, Historicism, Expressionism, New Realism, Surrealism, Futurism), including Arnold Böcklin, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Mueller, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Giorgio de Chirico and Gino Severini. However, they were also used for polychromy of sculpture, miniature painting on paper, scene painting and for room decoration.