Old Masters - History and Concepts

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


Medieval Guilds

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).

Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (c. 1435-40) was painted for the chapel of the painters' guild in Brussels.

Northern Europe led the way in developing guilds for painters and the first recorded example is the guild of Saint Luke, which was founded in Antwerp in 1382. The guild took its name from Christ's disciple who, according to tradition, painted the first likeness of the Virgin Mary. In other areas, such as in Florence, painters could join the guild of Doctors and Apothecaries, as apothecaries supplied the materials for making paint. They could also join the Compagnia di San Luca (Company of Saint Luke) founded in 1349, a loosely organized confraternity rather than a guild. Despite these variances, throughout Europe, workshops run by a master artist became the dominant mode for art production and the way to obtain an education in art. The noted Italian artist Giotto is thought to have become an apprentice at the age of ten to Cimabue, the leading 13th century master. The tradition of learning from a master continued into the Renaissance and beyond, as shown by Michelangelo's apprenticeship with Domenico Ghirlandaio and Leonardo da Vinci's early study with Andrea del Verrocchio, whose Florentine workshop, as art historian Arturo Galansino noted, shaped "generations of artists".

Art Academies

Art academies played a dominant role in establishing the concept of Old Masters, as they developed a curriculum that emphasized imitating their works, as well as classical Greek and Roman art. The first academy was founded by Cosimo I de 'Medici in Florence in 1562 at the suggestion of Giorgio Vasari, himself an artist and is also considered to be the first art historian. The Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy and Company for the Arts of Drawing) had a dual role, providing an education in the arts as well as overseeing the production of artwork in the city. Along with imitating classical works and the works of those Renaissance masters, who were recognized as equaling or surpassing the classical era, students studied geometry, anatomy and ideas of Renaissance Humanism. The Florentine Academy became the model for subsequent academies, most notably the Accademia di San Luca, founded in the Rome in 1577.

Antoine Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) is both a celebrated Rococo masterpiece and his reception piece for the French Academy, painted upon graduating.

When the French King Louis XIV founded the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1648 under the influence and leadership of Charles le Brun, it was modeled upon the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and adopted a strict approach to teaching. Students first studied drawing, copying prints of classical Greek sculpture or Renaissance Old Masters, such as Raphael, da Vinci, and Leonardo. Then they studied figurative drawing, copying either classical sculptures or plaster casts, before they could draw from life, sketching a male model. They also studied geometry and anatomy and only after several years were they allowed to paint.

In 1667 the Academy held its first public art exhibition, or Salon. Although initially focused on displaying the work of recent graduates, these annual exhibitions began to include the work of other artists. Over time, the acceptance of paintings into the Salon developed into a prerequisite for artistic success and rejection could ruin a career. The Academy consequently became the arbiters of artistic taste, dictating subject matter, style and even the use of color. This created a genre of painting known as Academic Art, which was heavily informed by the work of the Old Masters. Subsequent national academies, such as the Royal Academy of Art in London and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts adopted the French model, with the result that academic painting dominated Western art, until the early 19th century when Realist artists began to rebel against the system.

In line with these changes in teaching and display, the first recorded use of the term Old Master with its current meaning can also be traced to this period. In 1696, John Evelyn, a noted British diarist, wrote, "My L: Pembroke.shewed me divers rare Pictures of very many of the old & best Masters, especially that of M: Angelo... & a large booke of the best drawings of the old Masters." Evelyn's use of Old Master in this way suggests that it was already a well understood concept by the end of the 17th century.

Women as Old Masters

Sofonisba Anguissola's Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi (1559), portraying her teacher painting a portrait of her and challenging gender norms, pioneered the double portrait.

As art critic Scott Reyburn wrote in 2018, "Unlike contemporary art, old masters (as the terminology implies) also have the problem of being a rigid, male-dominated canon". Yet, from the time of the Renaissance, master artists included women, even though they had to negotiate artistic and societal resistance. Whilst some medieval guilds had an exclusively female membership and others apprenticed women in various crafts and trades, Renaissance Italy discouraged the acceptance of women as apprentices in painting, effectively cutting them off from an artistic career. Sofonisba Anguissola established a rare precedence when she joined Bernardino Campi's workshop around 1546. Praised by Michelangelo, she went on to international success, working for the Duke of Milan before becoming an official painter for King Phillip II in Spain. Her example and her work influenced artists, including Anthony van Dyck who credited her with having taught him art's "true principles".

Despite Anguissola's example, most women obtained their art training through a family workshop. For instance, the Mannerist, Lavinia Fontana, was taught by her father, as were the Baroque masters Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani. These artists influenced their contemporaries and subsequent artists, as well as pioneering new opportunities for women. The sole financial supporter of her extended family, Fontana was the first woman career artist, and Gentileschi was the first to become a member of Florence's Accademia di Arte del Disegno. Sirani established the first school of painting for women, which was attended by the noted artists Veronica Fontana, Lucrezia Scarfaglia, and Ginevra Cantofoli.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun's Self-portrait in a Straw Hat (c.1782) is a vibrant self-portrait, conveying her social standing and her artistic mastery.

In the Rococo period, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was famous for her vibrant portraits, and Angelica Kauffman became a leading master of the Neoclassical era, known for her history paintings. Le Brun was an official artist of the French court, and Kauffman was a founding member of the London Royal Academy. Judith Leyster was highly successful during the Dutch Golden Age. Following her death, however, most of her works were attributed to either her husband Jan Miense Molenaer or to Frans Hals. Her work was only correctly attributed in 1893. By the 19th century, many women masters were forgotten; their work was not exhibited and they were often left out of art history. The Feminist Movement in the 1970s did much to rediscover many of these pioneers, although as Sotheby's noted during their 2019 "The Female Triumphant" sale during Masters Week, "Nearly 50 years later, the stories of the remarkable women who did break boundaries to achieve artistic acclaim are just beginning to be told".

Concepts and Trends


Leonardo da Vinci's iconic The Last Supper (1495-1498), an innovative study of perspective and human interaction.

Due to the extensive time covered, the term Old Master encompasses a diverse range of styles and movements. Throughout the period, however, the fundamental approach to Western art was representational. As a result the classical principles of proportion and perspective remained dominant. The most famous Old Masters were tireless innovators, developing or elevating new techniques, stylistic elements, and subject matter. Da Vinci's oil paintings were celebrated for their original use of chiaroscuro and his invention of sfumato, the use of many layers of glaze to create subtle tonal gradations, whilst Pieter Breughel the Elder's works elevated genre scenes and landscapes to high art. The desire to equal and surpass previous masters also drove the development of new stylistic approaches. Some scholars view Mannerism's innovative use of elongated shapes and flattened space to produce new and powerful images as compelled by the desire to escape the tight rules of symmetry and ratio displayed by da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and other High Renaissance artists.

Old Master Prints

Master of the Playing Card's The Queen of Flowers (c. 1435-40)

An old master print generally refers to a print made from the early 1400s to 1830 either by an old master artist as an original work of art or as a means of reproducing artworks for wider dissemination. The Master of the Playing Cards, an anonymous German engraver from the early 1400s, is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as "the first great figure in the history of engraving". His name is derived from 77 surviving prints, depicting a set of playing cards, the earliest known set of intaglio plates.

Andrea Mantegna's The Battle of the Sea Gods (c. 1475), an engraving and dry point print, influenced Dürer's equally renowned print, Sea Monster (c.1498).

Printmaking, a dominant art mode in Northern Europe by 1430, quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe. In Italy, it was adopted by Andrea Mantegna, who was one of the first Italian painters to use engraving for the creation of original work as opposed to a medium for reproduction. Albrecht Dürer's international reputation was based primarily upon his innovative prints, which reached a wide audience throughout Europe and had an enormous impact on his contemporaries. By the 16th century, many artists including Raphael, Titian, and Perugino had become interested in printmaking, particularly prints that reproduced their paintings and made the images more easily available throughout Europe.

Little Masters

Influenced by Polidoro de Caravaggio's marble friezes, Hans Sebald Beham's Hercules fighting against the Centaurs (1542) is a richly detailed scene within just a 2 x 3 inch size

The term Little Masters describes a German group of engravers who, working from around 1525 to 1550, created miniature prints. Sometimes no larger than postage stamp size, these works were celebrated for their fine detail. Albrecht Dürer and Italian Renaissance artists influenced most of the leading members of the group, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Sebald Beham, Barthel Beham, George Penz, and Heinrich Aldegraver. They depicted scenes from the Bible and classical mythology, landscapes, and scenes of peasant life, combining the refinement of Italian art with German design. In Germany these small prints were much in demand by nobility and wealthy merchants who displayed them in Kunstkammers, or curiosity cabinets.


Lucas van Leyden's A Young Man Standing (c. 1494-1533) exemplifies the Dutch tradition of presenting drawings as finished works in their own right.

Drawing was an essential part of guild training, as students were expected to master it before moving onto painting. The wider use and production of drawings by Old Masters, however, tended to reflect more localized trends. In Protestant Holland, where art was made for the wealthy middle classes, sketches of genre scenes and landscapes were seen as art in themselves, whereas in Italy, where the Catholic Church commissioned most art, drawings were often preliminary studies or cartoons for large frescos. As drawings and cartoons were portable, they were often the available examples of master works and studied and imitated by art students throughout Europe. Museums, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum, built extensive collections of drawings, and art auction houses often feature sales of Old Master drawings. As drawings by exemplary Old Masters are infrequently available, works by lesser-known Old Masters have become highly valued. In 2018 Christie's sold a figure study by Lucas van Leyden for almost 11.5 million pounds. As art historian Furio Rinaldi noted, making "Van Leyden, alongside Raphael...only the second Old Master artist ever to have a drawing sell for more than £10,000,000".

Art Museums

Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1512) is the centerpiece of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister's collection.

From the 18th century, museums played a leading role in promoting Old Masters, as they based their collections on these works. Known for its Old Masters collection, Dresden's Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, (Old Master Picture Gallery) is one of the earliest. The King of Poland, August the Strong, began collecting notable European works in the late 17th century, and the collection expanded under the direction of his son August III to include Dutch, Flemish, and German masters. Visiting the museum in 1768, the German writer Wolfgang von Goethe exclaimed, "I entered this shrine, and my amazement exceeded any preconceived idea". The museum became a model for museums that opened in the late 18th century, such as the Musée du Louvre (1793). Visitors were primarily drawn from the upper classes but also included students and artists who wanted to study and copy the collection's masterworks. This is demonstrated by the Louvre's policy of setting aside five out of every ten days for artists.

Art Auction Houses

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin's engraving in Microcosm of London (1808) depicts an auction of Old Masters at Christie's.

Demand by museums and collectors for works by Old Masters played an important role in the rise of art auction houses. The earliest auction houses emerged in Sweden, with the Stockholm Auktionsverk founded in 1674, and the Uppsala auktionskammar in 1731. London followed soon after with Baker and Leigh, which later became Sotheby's, founded in 1744, and Christie's in 1766. Continuing into the modern era, these auction houses have expanded internationally, with offices in major cities around the world.

Previously thought to be a copy painted by his school of followers, Salvator Mundi (c.1500) was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci after extensive research and restoration.

In the contemporary art market, as New York Times critic Scott Reyburn notes, "one of the biggest challenges facing the art world...[is]...How can interest in older art be sustained when so much more attention is focused - and so much more money is spent - on contemporary works?" To draw attention to the Old Masters, auction houses hold events like Old Masters week to highlight the works, though, as many of the eminent works are already housed in museums, the offerings are often of lesser-known artists. As Reyburn described in summer 2017, "Last week in London, Sotheby's and Christie's evening sales offered a combined total of 131 pictures by artists born before 1850. More than half of them were either unknown, or unknown to anyone who had not studied art history." When, rarely, a work by a famous Old Master does come up for auction, it, not only, drives prices but also becomes a cultural phenomenon. In New York in 2017 Christie's sold Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) for a record-breaking $450.3 million.

Later Developments

As art historian Nancy Locke wrote, "The list of famous artists whose documented admiration of, and copies after the Old Masters is endless; Landseer after Rubens; John Singer Sargent after Velasquez; Henri Fantin Latour after Titian and Veronese, Géricault after Caravaggio and earlier; Watteau after Titian, Van Dyck after Tintoretto, Matsys after Raphael, to name but a few." Yet, even though art students still study and imitate the Old Masters today, the strict curriculum of the academy began to fall out of favor in the 1800s, as Realism, the first modern movement, emphasized observation of nature and realistic depictions of working class life.

Even so, leading artists have continued to return to the Old Masters, often referencing them in their own works. Manet's Olympia (1863) referenced Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), and Degas often visited the Louvre to copy and sketch the works of Ingres and Poussin. As Nancy Locke wrote, Paul Cézanne "felt a deep reverence for certain artists in the Louvre, and frequently turned to them for inspiration and guidance, even in his maturity". Cézanne, as Locke noted, "wrestled with his predecessors on the way to transforming them" and 20th century modern art movements were often marked by a drive to supersede, reconfigure, or actively reject the influence of past masters. Picasso, for instance, devoted a huge amount of time to reworking Cranach, Velázquez, Delacroix, Manet, and Degas. In 1919 Marcel Duchamp's defaced a reproduction of the Mona Lisa (1503-1507) with a mustache, to produce L.H.O.O.Q., whilst Andy Warhol's The Birth of Venus (1984) was a cropped and flattened close-up of Botticelli's work.

In the 1970s the emerging Feminist Art movement challenged the tradition of the Old Masters, arguing the emphasis had erased women artists from art history, education, and patronage. Linda Nochlin's "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971) questioned the traditional assumption that great masters were exclusively European ma, while the Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s challenged art museums to exhibit more women artists, including those like Judith Leyster and Artemisia Gentileschi, renowned as masters in their own eras but subsequently erased.

Subsequent artists have continued to reconfigure the Old Masters. As art critic Magda Mihalska wrote, Cindy Sherman's Old Masters (1989-1990) series of thirty-five photographs "blends Post-Modern consciousness with timeless masterpieces (or tropes that they represent) of European masters". Kehinde Wiley, as art critic Anne Quito noted, "Cribbing from titans of Western art like Jacques-Louis David, Édouard Manet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Titian...creates hyper-realistic portraits, imbuing his subjects with the similar air of dignity or vainglory found in old paintings". On the other hand, the Chapman Brothers, directly altered original artwork including a rare set of Francisco Goya's prints in Insult to Injury (2004).

The Important Artists and Works of Old Masters

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Old Masters Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 10 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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