Learn about old master paintings, and the history of them, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how they have developed.
For many people, the likes of Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens or Reynolds are names confined to the walls of galleries and museums, and while paintings by such famous artists are few and far between on the market, their style as ‘Old Masters’ does feature in many private collections too. Encompassing a huge time-period and variety of styles, this is also one of the most diverse categories of painting.
The Makings of a Master
The truth is, the term “Old Master” is generally confined only to the commercial art world because it is too vague for academic use; everyone has their own idea of what counts as an Old Master. In a strict definition, the term ‘master’ has a specific meaning in relation to the Guild. Guilds of St Luke (so called because Luke the Evangelist was the first to paint the Madonna) are first referred to in the 14th century and, although their roles varied across Europe, were usually responsible for the regulation of artists’ conduct, business and treatment in towns. Guilds also controlled how artistic traditions flourished, as only certain guild members, masters, could take on apprentices and sell work to the public.
In reality, Old Master paintings generally refers to any work produced in the period between the earliest renaissance painters and the Romantic movement of the 19th century although, in cases such as Constable and JAD Ingres, is sometimes extended further in auction house catalogues. The oldest Old Masters are often identified for their pioneering use of perspective and proportion in pursuit of realism, most notably the painter Giotto from 13th & 14th century Florence.
This Renaissance naturalism, which used linear perspective to portray an accurate likeness of the subject through depth, and ‘sfumato’ – a technique popularised by Leonardo da Vinci. On the other side of the Alps, the late 15th century saw the ‘Northern Renaissance’ which began with the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein before evolving into Flemish Baroque, the Dutch Golden Age and other Europe-wide styles such as Mannerism. Renaissance painting owed itself well to portraits and so secular painting grew between 1500-1700 – a tradition in which arguably the greatest portrait artist, Rembrandt, emerged.
A Romantic Revolution?
On the face of it, the romantic painters of the 19th century seem to be a step away from the humanism of the renaissance and Baroque movements (which placed man at the centre of its interests). This new movement focussed on emotion and placed man in the context of history and nature. There are painters of the 19th century, however, who may be considered both romanticists and Old Masters. Francisco Goya, for example, is often considered the last of the Old Masters as one of the great portraitists but also a romantic. Painters like William Blake also contribute the complexity of the later Old Masters whose classification is notoriously difficult and only adds to the intrigue of the Old Masters tradition.