The Most Important Art in Old Masters
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-1427)
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".
Fresco - Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) (1503-1507)
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.
Oil on panel - Louvre, Paris, France
The Creation of Adam (1508-1512)
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.
Fresco - Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Italy
Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513)
This large print, along with Saint Jerome in His Study (1514) and Melacholia I (1514), is one of Dürer's Meisterstiche, or master engravings. An equestrian knight, dressed in armor, and carrying a lance, its tip wrapped in a foxtail, fills the picture, as he rides resolutely through a craggy and desolate landscape. He looks sternly forward, not looking at Death, on a horse to his right, who exhorts him or the goat-headed Devil who follows behind him. His faithful dog runs alongside. The work is profoundly allegorical, from the skull on the ground in front of the horse to the hourglass that Death holds, and is perhaps based upon the Renaissance Humanist Erasmus's Instructions for the Christian Soldier (1504), which said, "In order that you may not be deterred from the path of virtue because it seems rough and dreary ... and because you must constantly fight three unfair enemies - the flesh, the devil, and the world... Look not behind thee." Dürer's own title for the work was simply the Reuter (Rider), reflecting his emphasis on the knight as a heroic figure.
Durer devoted his life to producing proportionally accurate depictions of people and animals and is thought to have been influenced by his studies of the equestrian statues of the Italian Old Masters, including Donatello's Gattamelata (1453) or Leonardo's 1490 designs for an equestrian statue that was never completed. Giorgio Vasari said that Durer's master engravings were "of such excellence that nothing finer can be achieved". Durer was extremely innovative in his printmaking, expanding its tonal and narrative range, elevating it to an art form in its own right and influencing subsequent artists, notably the Little Masters. Additionally, his prints were reproduced and distributed throughout Europe, making them one of the first examples of mass-produced art. As a result, artists including Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino began to collaborate with printmakers to promote and distribute their work.
Engraving - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The Hunters in the Snow (1556)
This landscape shows three hunters, along with their hunting dogs, as they trudge through the snow on a hill overlooking a small village, where on the frozen river and large ponds villagers are skating. Presenting a compelling view of rural life, the work employs a masterly sense of composition, as the diagonal created by the hunters' dark outlined figures is echoed in the diagonal of black tree trunks that descend down the hill. This line can be seen to continue across the white strip of land between the ponds to the rugged peaks in the distance. This work is one in a series that Breughel painted depicting the seasons, but as art historian Jacob Wisse noted, "Though rooted in the legacy of calendar scenes, Brueghel's emphasis is not on the labors that mark each season but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. These panoramic compositions suggest an insightful and universal vision of the world."
Breughel's works informed the development of landscape and also genre art, as his scenes depicting ordinary life were studied for his use of linear perspective, bold outlines, and repeating triangular shapes. He influenced the artists of the Northern European Renaissance and of the Dutch Golden Age, as well as later artists such as Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh. As contemporary art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "Scenes such as The Hunters in the Snow seem to sum up the very nature of life on earth in their geographical sweep and anthropological scope. Like Shakespeare, he can capture the theatre of life."
Oil on wood - The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
This work depicts the moment when the resurrected Christ reveals his identity to two of his disciples at Emmaus. Placed as if in a small, candlelit tavern, the scene emphasizes the moment of revelation. Christ, his face and body illuminated, is depicted gesturing to the viewer, while the disciples react physically, one with arms extended in astonishment and the other as if about to rise from his chair. Although he didn't invent the technique, Caravaggio mastered and popularized chiaroscuro, making it a dominant stylistic element in his paintings and using it to increase the drama and movement of his work. He also focused on creating realistic figures, rather than idealizing them, a technique that made him controversial in some religious circles.
Groups of artists, such as the Utrecht Caravaggisti, imitated Caravaggio's use of chiaroscuro and his emphasis on dramatic moments and he also influenced Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. As art historian Bernard Berenson wrote, "With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so much influence". The modern art critic Roberto Longhi noted, "Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different."
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
Las Meninas (1656)
This intricate composition depicts the Infanta Margaret Theresa attended by her entourage, including two maids of honor, a chaperone, a bodyguard, two dwarfs, and a mastiff. To the left, Velazquez portrays himself painting onto a large canvas and in the background a mirror reflects the King and Queen who appear to be standing in the same position as the viewer. Alternatively, it has been posited that the reflection is of the painting on which Velazquez works. Nominally, a portrait of the Infanta, this work is a complex exploration of the phenomenon of visual perception which raises questions about reality and illusion in art.
The Baroque artist Luca Giordano described the work as representing the "theology of painting," whilst in 1827 the painter, Thomas Lawrence said it evoked "the true philosophy of the art". The work has continued to preoccupy and provoke contemporary thought. The noted philosopher Michael Foucault wrote, "We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another's glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints." Foucault saw the work as presaging a new way of thought, occupying a point between the classical and the modern, as he said, "representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form".
The work had an influence on subsequent artists, including Francisco Goya, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Richard Hamilton, as well as contemporary video artist, Eve Sussman, who decontextualized it. Édouard Manet was to call Velázquez, "the painter of painters," and Picasso painted fifty-eight interpretations of Las Meninas in a 1957 series, as he exhaustively studied its form, movement, and color.
Oil on canvas - Prado, Madrid, Spain
Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)
This self-portrait depicts the artist in three-quarter view, facing towards the viewer. Against the dark background, only his furrowed, aging face is illuminated, revealing the wrinkles beneath his eyes and the blemishes on his forehead. As art critic Hilton Cramer noted, the "thickly painted surfaces...are the perfect pictorial correlative" for his "existential candor". Using a deep chiaroscuro, the face is divided between light and shadow by the ridge of the nose, an identifying characteristic of Rembrandt's style.
A leading Baroque painter in the Dutch Golden age, Rembrandt was celebrated for his portraits, his Biblical and classical scenes, allegories, landscapes, genre paintings, and his powerful engravings and etchings. Yet after his death, as art historian Mark Hudson notes, "for almost 200 years...no one was much interested in the art of Rembrandt...the very qualities we admire in him - the earthy truth to physical reality, the directness with which the human presence is put in front of us, the almost edibly palpable feeling for light and shade - were antithetical to the self-conscious classical refinement that dominated critical values in the late 17th and 18th centuries."
Rembrandt was rediscovered in the late-1800s, with the result that he became one of the pre-eminent Old Masters to influence the modern era. His numerous self-portraits, were particularly influential, due to the significant number that he produced throughout his lifetime. Cézanne sketched his Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654), Vincent van Gogh called Rembrandt "a magician", Auguste Rodin described him as a "colossus of art", and Pablo Picasso was to say, "every painter takes himself for Rembrandt". Later artists, including Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon were deeply influenced by what Auerbach called Rembrandt's "raw truth" and his handling of paint, using thick impasto and expressive loose brushwork. As Hudson wrote, "Yet it is also the trajectory we expect art to take: away from tightness, order and control, towards expressivity and abstraction. As Rembrandt invents himself in paint, so he invents Modern Art as he goes."
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom