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Old Masters Collage

Old Masters

Started: c. 1300
Ended: c. 1800
Old Masters Timeline
The air we see in the paintings of the old masters is never the air we breathe.
Edgar Degas Signature

Summary of Old Masters

The term Old Master is used to identify an eminent European artist from the approximate period 1300 to 1800 and includes artists from the Early Renaissance through to the Romantic movement. The expression can also be used to refer to the artwork produced by one of these artists, most commonly oil paintings or frescos, but also drawings and prints. The term was used widely from the 18th century and this can be placed in the context of the rise of the European art academies and galleries at this period, who, through collection and education policies, codified what was seen as 'good' historical art and consequently created the modern idea of the Old Master. As with any concept that encompasses such a broad range of art and artists, there is some significant debate as to the exact criteria that defines an Old Master, particularly regarding the date range included and the necessary skill level or renown of the artist.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Originally a master artist or craftsman was an individual who had been fully trained in the guild system, and had progressed to working independently, often taking on pupils of their own. This differs from the modern iteration of the term in which artists worked outside of the guilds or in other, more modern, contexts (for example, Paul Cézanne) can also be classed as Old Masters (or sometimes refered to as "Modern Masters"). As in its previous usage, however, the term continues to denote a level of quality.
  • The most famous works by Old Masters are characterized by innovation in technique and style as well as a drive to create believable figures and landscapes through the realistic representation of perspective and proportion.
  • From the 18th century, copying the works of Old Masters became the baseline for art education and students were expected to become proficient in this before being allowed to draw from life. This consolidated the importance of the Old Masters and placed them in a position of reverence.

Overview of Old Masters

Old Masters Image

Beginning in the 11th century, guilds were community-based organizations that held a monopoly on a trade or craft, and by the 12th century they had developed a strict process of advancement. Beginning as an apprentice, entrants would work and study under the direction of a master, an exemplary craftsman, for several years before completing a qualifying work to be certified as a journeyman. Once a journeyman's certificate had been earned, he could freely travel outside the geographical range of his own guild and learn from other masters. Eventually, often after years of study, a journeyman could become a master, but only after completing a 'masterpiece' that was approved by all the masters of the guild. Scottish guild documents contain the first recorded use of "masterstik" (an old Scots word which now translates as masterpiece) in 1570, and the British playwright Ben Jonson used the derivation "masterpiece" in 1605. These master craftsmen rarely signed their works and, as a result, many remain anonymous. Later art historians, identifying a unique style, have tended to name them after the location of their work (the Master of Flémalle) or after a specific piece (the Master of the Brunswick Diptych).

Key Artists

  • Masaccio was the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance recreating lifelike figures with a convincing sense of three-dimensionality.
  • Universally lauded as one of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci is known for his contributions to the Renaissance period in the form of portraits and religious paintings. Da Vinci was the eponymous "Renaissance Man," proficient not only in art, but also in mathematics, science, and technology.
  • Michelangelo was the legendary Italian Renaissance artist famous for his sculpters of David and his Pieta, and he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
  • Albrecht Dürer was a German painter and printmaker whose introduction of classical motifs whose iconic works secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance.
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the most important Flemish Renaissance painters who was a key influence on the Dutch Golden Age of painting. His works diverged from the tradition of religious scenes and portraits, and instead depicted landscapes and peasant scenes.
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Do Not Miss

  • The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.
  • The Dutch Baroque style of art is more commonly referred to as the Dutch Golden Agewas one of the more prolific eras for painters in Western art history and included the artists Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt.
  • Humanism, the focus on individuals, not the centrality of the church, and on a rediscovery of the humanities, powerfully influenced the art of the Renaissance.
  • Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.

The Important Artists and Works of Old Masters

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-1427)

Artist: Masaccio

This early Old Master work, part of Masaccio's fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel, depicts a nude Adam and Eve, their body language and facial expressions conveying shame and anguish, as they are driven from the garden of Eden. From the arch behind them black lines depict the voice of God while above the arch an angel, dressed in red and carrying a black sword, energetically drives them forward. Both the lines depicting the voice of God and the sword are made of silver, though it has tarnished over time. The influence of classical sculpture is evident in the proportions of both figures, while Eve's arms covering her breasts and pubic area specifically evokes the Venus Pudica pose, which was widely used by later artists. In his depiction of Adam, Masaccio was also influenced by Donatello's Crucifix (1412-13) in the Santa Croce church, known for its realistic depiction.

Painting the first nudes since the Roman era, Masaccio's innovations, realistic figuration and linear perspective, created a new aesthetic. As 16th century painter, Giorgio Vasari wrote, Masaccio brought "into light the modern style that has been followed ever since by all artists" Direct influences can be seen in the work of Fra Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, da Vinci (who called Masaccio's figures "perfect"), and Michelangelo as well as later names including John Ruskin, Joshua Reynolds, and the sculptor Henry Moore. As contemporary art historian Keith Christiansen noted, "the methods Masaccio employed on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel did indeed become the basis of art training throughout Europe".

Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) (1503-1507)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Probably the most famous and most recognizable of paintings, this Renaissance portrait depicts a woman whose mysterious smile and identity has fascinated scholars and viewers for centuries. In its techniques and its treatment of the subject matter, Leonardo's work was radically innovative. Previously female portraits, usually commissioned by male family members, depicted the sitter in profile and emphasized her social status, and suitability as a wife, by attention to her finery and jewelry. Da Vinci's pioneering use of sfumato, the application of multiple thin layers of glaze, creates the work's soft tonal transitions and gradations between light and shadow. This, along with his knowledge of anatomy and mastery of perspective, creates the realism of the piece. As Giorgio Vasari wrote, "As art may imitate nature, she does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating."

Landscape becomes a focus of the work, rather than a mere backdrop, as its features, rendered in aerial perspective, resemble realistic landscape forms but, taken altogether, evoke an imagined world. As Louvre curator, Jean-Pierre Cuzin wrote, "The background may be a representation of the universe, with mountains, plains and rivers. Or possibly it is both reality and the world of dream. One could suppose that the landscape doesn't exist, that it is the young woman's own dream world."

Though most scholars believe he began painting the work in Florence around 1500, da Vinci subsequently took the work with him to France and worked on it until his death. As Cuzin wrote "The entire history of portraiture afterwards depends on the Mona Lisa. If you look at all the other portraits - not only of the Italian Renaissance, but also of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries - if you look at Picasso, at everyone you want to name, all of them were inspired by this painting. Thus it is sort of the root, almost, of occidental portrait painting." Da Vinci's techniques of chiaroscuro, sfumato, linear perspective, and aerial perspective, and his use of composition, became foundational to subsequent artists. Due to his equally celebrated scientific discoveries, inventions, and observations (recorded in his notebooks) he was viewed as the exemplary Renaissance man, a master in all that he attempted.

The Creation of Adam (1508-1512)

Artist: Michelangelo

This iconic work, part of the famous fresco cycle Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel, depicts the moment when God, shown in a cloud of angels and cherubim on the right, conveys the spark of life to Adam, nude and reclining on the left. Influenced by classical Greek and Roman sculptures, Michelangelo's figures are both idealized and sculptural, elevating the nude, which in previous Christian art had been employed only to depict Adam and Eve, in shame, as they were driven out of paradise.

Here, he creates a powerful image of male beauty, which influenced both artistic treatments and cultural beliefs, reflected in the 20th century by Pope John Paul II's comment, "The Sistine Chapel is precisely - if one may say so - the sanctuary of the theology of the human body."

Pope Julius II commissioned the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1507. The result was immediately hailed as an age-defining masterpiece and was an early exemplar of history painting. Michelangelo was also noted for his innovative compositions including the use of foreshortening, a vibrant color palette, and dynamic movement. In the 17th century the emerging art academies defined history painting as one of the highest forms of art. Copying Old Master works in the genre was emphasized in the educational process and many artists travelled to Rome to study the work. Michelangelo's depiction of the human form greatly influenced Titian, Bernini, Rubens, Rodin and Paul Cézanne amongst others.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Old Masters Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 10 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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