Time on Their Hands:
The Evolution of Elven Art
history of Elven art, though marked by very little upheaval or rapid
change, is nevertheless of interest as a window into the culture
itself. On account of their well known fascination with aesthetics,
it is unsurprising that Elves have a long history of artistic endeavor.
A detailed examination of the connection between Elven artistic
expression and Elven society is not possible in a piece of this
brevity, but as a general overview it should provide some sense
of the key qualities found in each major time period.
Although there are not many surviving examples of early Elven art,
enough pieces remain in the collections of the great Houses for
us to gain some understanding of that era. In the first part of
the Second Age, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the depiction
of individual Arkati as patrons and bestowers of blessings seems
to have been the primary subject. Some examples of this form still
exist in the older temples, though occasional periods of neglect
have led to significant deterioration. The compositions are straightforward
and usually very symmetrical. Even in these early works the Elven
painters demonstrate their characteristic command over the use of
The chronology of the paintings from this period is a matter of
great debate. The prevailing view is that the more roughly rendered
works with limited detail are the earliest, progressing to the more
lavishly elaborated pieces with detailed fabrics and ornamentation.
This author takes the opposite view, holding that the simpler works
represent the evolution of a symbolic language for discussing the
role of the Arkati in everyday life. As the Elves moved from worshipping
the Arkati to simply "appreciating" them (as they term
it), their art reflected this more distant relationship.
One of the best extant examples of the more simplified form can
be found in the private collection of House Loenthra. This large
(3'x6') painting depicts Ronan, an important patron of that house.
Ronan faces the viewer and his arms reach out to either side. The
highly attenuated figure is robed entirely in black. Even his face
is concealed, whether by a hood or by shadows it is difficult to
discern. He seems to be floating or perhaps somehow suspended so
that his garments trail off to a point far below his feet. Though
no moons are visible in the sky behind him, their distinctive colors
tint the clouds scattered loosely about. Nearly silhouetted, Ronan
is painted with almost no interior detail. However, a close examination
of the painting's surface reveals that different thicknesses of
paint have been used to create areas of greater and lesser darkness.
The piece has a powerfully dreamlike quality to it, and the resemblance
between the figure's pose and Ronan's traditional symbol of a black
sword is difficult to overlook.
During the middle portion of the Second Age (between 30,000 and
40,000 years ago) painting became a more recognized Elven art form.
There are some fragmentary records of exhibitions, commissions,
and apprenticeships. From these we learn that landscape paintings
were considered to be the ultimate display of ability for any ambitious
painter. A true master was one who could capture the essence of
a particular place and thus touch upon the core of Elven identity.
In a letter to his son, Blaenwr Modrwy comments on a painting from
an exhibition held in Ta'Illistim:
"I saw the grasses bend before a brisk wind just as it did
touch mine own cheek. Though of the pathways shown therein I knew
nothing, yet with one glance I could tell you of the season's passing
and the birds' return, of the stream so brightly dancing just beyond
the strawberry-cobbled hill. The very soul of the land was so contained
within this moment that it could not be other than the place itself,
brought here through heart and hand." (Elsen, Voices of the
Second Age, p. 249)
Although landscapes remained the pinnacle of achievement through
the rest of the period, another trend emerged at the same time.
Houses sought to commemorate their lineage through grand paintings
of past leaders. The preferred style seems to have been a close
imitation of the traditional Arkati paintings, with balanced compositions
and a great deal of symbolic shorthand. These works were hung in
the great halls to remind residents and visitors alike of the legacy
and power of that particular House.
Naturally, it did not take long for current leaders to commission
portraits as well. Very soon it became standard practice for any
presiding House leader to possess a formal full-length portrait
as an official badge of office. Due to the highly stylized nature
of these paintings, they are not so much what we would consider
portraits in the modern sense of depicting the uniqueness of an
individual, but rather they are portraits of that leader's political
power and historical significance as shown through the inclusion
of symbolic objects (swords, wagon wheels, daffodils, nesting sparrows
and others, for possible interpretations see Saretta's Image and
Meaning in Elven Art), heraldic colors, and strictly hierarchical
During the Age of Chaos (between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago) much
historical continuity was lost. Elves have rarely shown much interest
in documenting events of historical importance, instead painting
only those moments seen as aesthetically valuable. At times these
two intersect, and as a result there are a few surviving pieces
illustrating aspects of the Undead War.
Two paintings take as their subject the battle of ShadowGuard (both
pieces are owned by the Hanesyddol Museum of Ta'Loenthra). One of
these shows Taki Rassien, leader of the Vaalorian army, meeting
with members of the Sabrar around a campaign table. Unfurled upon
the table is a map of the fortress and its surroundings. Taki's
sweeping gestures have knocked over a goblet and a dark stain has
begun to spread across the thick parchment. Only Taki's aide, a
young boy so out of place among these battle hardened men, has noticed
the spill, and his eyes reflect a dawning awareness of what lies
The second painting is nothing more than an empty room within the
fortress. The light is gentle and diffuse, providing no highlight
or focus. A barren table rests against one wall and the room's sole
chair has been carelessly knocked to the ground. The floor's wide
expanse is uninterrupted save by a single metal helmet, its faceplate
closed and its neck turned away from our view. Through a narrow
window we can see the outline of a bent and leafless tree.
Following the Undead War, the fragmentation of the Elven Empire
had a stifling effect on the development of painting. Absorbed with
fighting off raids and struggling for power, the nobility had little
interest in supporting and encouraging artists. Apprenticeships
disappeared and most new paintings produced were simply copies or
adaptations of old works.
Over the last ten thousand years, the rebuilding of Elven society
has also meant a re-emergence of painting and other forms of art.
The merchant class evolved from mere traders to powerful political
figures in their own right. With sufficient wealth to enjoy the
trappings of nobility, if not the actuality of it, they began to
commission their own grand portraits. Although some elements of
traditional symbolism were used, the primary focus was on the high
quality and expensive nature of the subject's clothing and possessions.
The most sought after painters commanded high fees for their work
and often presided over large studios with multiple assistants.
Official patronage of the arts also returned, and with new social
structures came an interest in new expressions. The still life gained
acceptance as a valid subject, and several examples were accepted
into House collections. Along with the depiction of common objects
came the depiction of common folk, though this took longer to acquire
the status of "high art." The first example of this genre
was a standard landscape made shocking by the inclusion of a peasant
travelling along a distant road in an old donkey cart. The outrage
of the Nalfein lord who had commissioned it was matched only by
the delight of those who later saw the rejected piece displayed
in the store of a local spice merchant, Terfyn Rhyfel (his son,
Gwael Rhyfel, is currently the most influential art buyer and dealer
in the southern Nations). Eventually such pastoral works gained
at least a grudging acceptance among the Elven elite.
The other major innovation in subject matter during this time was
the portrayal of non-Elves in a heroic manner. Already a rarity
in Elven art of any kind, all prior inclusions of non-Elves had
been of a mocking nature, or else as property (see Muesham's Soul
Commerce for examples of Human slaves as symbols of wealth in Elven
art). Due perhaps to an increasing awareness of the size and power
of the Turamzzyrian Empire, the popular (though not highly regarded)
allegorical paintings of the Undead War began to include some of
the human warriors who took part in battle. Paintings of migrating
tribes of Giantmen also became fairly common, though to many Elves
this did not differ significantly from the depiction of any other
roving herd of beast.
There are a few recent trends worthy of notice, though for many
of them it is too soon to predict what, if any, lasting impact they
will have. With the establishment of steady trade between the Elven
Nations and the frontiers of the Turamzzyrian Empire has come an
increased interest in the exotic-seeming Elven arts and crafts.
Many painters have become artist-merchants, creating work specifically
for sale to Humans and other non-Elves. These pieces tend to cater
to their intended audience, many of them showing Elves engaged in
strange, archaic ceremonies sometimes so bizarre as to be almost
certainly fictional. Similarly, paintings of ancient Elven palaces
are popular with those who wish to somehow identify themselves with
these symbols of decaying nobility.
Paintings of important Elven buildings and locations form by far
the largest category in this new field of commercial art. For all
those unwilling or unable to travel across the DragonSpine Mountains,
these pieces provide enticing glimpses into faraway lands. The popularity
of these images seems to have contributed to a renewed appreciation
among Elves for their own ancient art of landscape painting. New
masters of the art are surfacing and have been featured in recent
exhibitions, and in Ta'Loenthra a city-funded school was established
in 5101 to teach the foundations of this time-honored discipline.