Old Masters paintings is a term significantly used in the art world. The term denotes paintings of extreme skill, quality, and beauty. The old masters define centuries of fine western art. From religious paintings to secular masterpieces and angelic forms, they have inspired generations of oil painting art ever since.
But who exactly are the “old masters,” and what are some of the most famous old master paintings? This brief introduction explores the definition of old master art and its astoundingly skillful creations.
The term “old master” refers to oil painting art created by distinguished painters working in the late fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Evidence for the term’s origin is scarce, but it appears in a diary entry of John Evelyn, the writer and founder of the prestigious Royal Society. In 1696, he described “pictures” of the “old and best masters,” including the work of Michelangelo. He also wrote a large book of the “best drawings of the old masters.”
In technical terms, the label “master” applies explicitly to fully trained artists working as master craftsmen of their artistic guilds. Still used today, the title denotes the highest professional mark of distinction.
It shows the professional development of artists on their journey from apprentices to journeymen and master artisans. Historically, most paid a substantial sum of money and sent a “masterpiece” before acceptance into their respective guild.
While these masters worked independently, they often employed pupils and entire workshops to help with the production of oil paintings. Therefore, the old master attribution is a particularly fascinating and complex field of academic study.
The exact dating of old master painters is a subject of intense scholarly debate. Indeed, while many posit a cut-off around 1800, others include painters such as Francisco de Goya (still painting in 1828), John Constable (who died in 1837), and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1868).
For this reason, Delacroix could be the last “old master” and the first “new master.” Indeed, his iconic paintings show the high point of four centuries of European painterly tradition. He worked on classically inspired scenes (in the rich tradition of Giorgione, Titian, and Botticelli) with paintings such as Odalisque and Death of Sardanapalus.
Nonetheless, Delacroix’s energetic and, at times, politicized artworks (best exemplified by Liberty Leading the People) also paved the way for the later creative explosions of impressionism and post-impressionism.
If just one of the old master paintings is the most famous artwork in the world, it must be Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait. Yet, as a painting of Lisa Gherardini (the wife of Francesco del Giocondo), it’s still unsurpassed for its enigmatic beauty and skill.
Indeed, Mona Lisa’s smile is still one of the most debated, copied, and parodied aspects of oil painting art. As well as the statuesque beauty of the sitter, Da Vinci’s expert use of “sfumato” (referring to the technique of softly blending paint) is particularly exemplary.
On display in the Louvre Gallery (in Paris, France), the Mona Lisa attracts over six million tourists yearly. Given the painting’s enormous position in the cultural imagination, many visitors are surprised by its small dimensions, however. The painting measures just 77 by 53 centimeters. Nonetheless, it’s also one of the most expensive paintings of all time, valued at over $870 million.
The Mona Lisa oil painting is one of our most sought-after fine art reproductions.
In an intriguing art historical link, another Leonardo da Vinci painting (Salvator Mundi) set a world auction for selling old master paintings. In 2017, it sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking $450,312,500.
The sale price more than doubled the earlier high, set by a Picasso artwork (Women of Algiers) in 2015. To add an extra layer of mystery, Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi previously disappeared from public view on multiple occasions. It only resurfaced in 2005, when a buyer bought the work at an American estate clearance sale.
Aside from Leonardo da Vinci, the great old masters include Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, and Michelangelo. But ultimately, there is no single “great master” of painting but a fascinating progression of styles, artistic development, and dazzling creativity.
These early Renaissance masters paved the way for the Venetian School (and Mannerist tradition) with painters such as Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto. These artists, in turn, gave away to Baroque old masters, including the legendary Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi (one of the few female, old master artists), and the French painter Nicolas Poussin.
Spanish artists such as Diego Velazquez and El Greco developed classically Baroque-inspired old master paintings to create astoundingly detailed and emotionally charged religious and secular paintings.
In the latter part of this period, Baroque gave way to Rococo art, which prioritized ornamental detailing and beautiful contemporary scenes (exemplified by the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau).
The end of the old master era came with the evolution of Neo-Classical styles (for instance, in the work of Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres). This new classicism returned to the carefully controlled compositions of the “original” old masters such as Raphael.
While the term “old master” most often refers to painters of the Italian Renaissance, there are many old master artists hailing from northern Europe. The Netherlands was a particular center of artistic excellence during the seventeenth century. Known as the Dutch Golden Age, it witnessed an explosion of wealth, trade, and creativity.
Dutch old masters include painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, and Pieter Claesz. While Claesz is less well-known today, his still life paintings significantly developed the “memento mori” theme in Dutch art.
Paintings such as Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) are unparalleled in their anatomical attention to detail. They also transformed still life from a previously unremarkable painting (considered below landscape, genre, portrait, and history painting) into a fashionable and highly desirable art form.
Despite Claesz’s importance, paintings by Vermeer remain particularly recognizable. One need only mention his Girl with the Pearl Earring (1655) to conjure imagery from films, television, fashion, and even Banksy graffiti.
Rembrandt famous paintings include atmospheric works such as Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1663) and his legendary group portraits (most notably The Night Watch). Rembrandt was particularly skillful in religious paintings, famed for his ability to depict intense emotion and moments of tense drama.
There are no set rules for exactly what constitutes an old master painting. It’s a subjective and vague art history term, depending on the day’s tastes. Nonetheless, artworks by true “master” artists such as Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, or Caravaggio are all undisputedly considered old master paintings.
While some scholars include art from the Romantic movement, this is a more controversial definition of old master paintings. The term can also refer to prints and drawings, but “old master” art most often refers to oil paintings and frescoes.
Famous angel paintings (for instance, Madonna and Child with Angels by Botticelli) and traditional religious paintings (such as Holy Family with St Anne and The Infant St John by Agnolo Bronzino) and included in this definition.
Depictions of the Virgin Mary and the holy family are some of today's most highly sought-after old master oil painting reproductions.
As the term became popular during the eighteenth century, it categorized opinions of European art academies on what “good” art meant. Consequently, the idea of the true “old masters” (emulated by Academy artists) was born.
Indeed, copying these paintings was a fundamental part of artistic training. Students could only progress towards drawing from “real life” once they’d mastered old master techniques.
It’s important to note that this definition differs from modern everyday usage of the term. These days, paintings by artists such as Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso might qualify as “old masters.” Nonetheless, the phrase suggests the highest levels of painterly skill and quality in either context.
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