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Old Masters

Old Masters Collage
Started: c. 1300
Ended: c. 1800
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

Key Artists

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).

The Important Artists and Works of Old Masters

Masaccio: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-1427)

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".

Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) (1503-1507)

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.

Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam (1508-1512)

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.

Useful Resources on Old Masters


Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Old Masters Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
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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