We hear all the time about the “Old Masters” of art, but who were they, really?
That was the first question that came to my mind when I recently sat down to begin a serious study of my latest “crush” — George Inness and his work. No, he can’t be called an “old master”, but according to his biographers, he studied their works and drew inspiration from them.
I spent time last summer reading a lot of art history, and I enjoyed watching the Great Artist series with Tim Marlow, which featured many of the famous artists who have come to be known as “old masters”.
The idea of masters came from the guilds of old — organizations which somewhat governed the practice of a particular trade, skill, or craft. Reading about the history of art guilds is fascinating in itself!
Each guild had its own rules, but generally there was an apprenticeship for any new guild member. This period would be three years or more, after which the apprentice would qualify for the title of journeyman. He would then be free to work for any member of the guild.
This was the point in an artist’s career where he would typically begin to sign and date his paintings. He could apply to a guild for membership then — after making a payment of dues — and become a free master. This allowed him to set up his own workshop, train apprentices, and sell his work, along with the work of other artists.
Here again, there were specific rules and restrictions in place. The number of apprentices was set by the guild, and only married men were allowed to set up workshops. I’ve read, however, that after a man’s death, his wife could continue to run the workshop. Some guilds allowed women to apply for membership, others didn’t. Many art guilds were associated with St. Luke, known as the patron saint of art, and therefore refused to allow Jewish artists to join.
So, we see that the “old masters” were artists who were fully trained as members of a guild, but in our current-day interpretation, works by pupils in an artist’s workshop might also be referred to as a painting from the age of the “old masters”. Today, the term old master is used mostly in the context of time, with any skilled European artist working before 1800 being classified accordingly. Some art historians limit the term to works produced between 1450 and 1800.
These “old masters” were part of many different schools of art, encompassing many different art styles. Under the banner of “old masters”, we find Renaissance artists, Baroque artists, Gothic artists, Rococo artists, and more. These “old masters” came from the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and other countries throughout Europe.
In other words, when it comes to “old masters”, we have a wide variety of art from which to choose. We might go through and pick a few favorites — for me, such a list would include Albert Durer, Nicholas Poussin, and many of the artists from the Dutch Golden Age — but it would be impossible to put together a complete list and learn about them all.
So maybe the real question isn’t so much about who these artists were as it is about why their works were significant in art history and why they remain important for us today. I found one answer in an interview with Keith Christiansen from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The complete article is here: EASEL ESSAY — Not Just For Nerds — Vivid Stories from the Old Masters.
If you find it “TLDR” — too long, don’t read — I’ll sum it up quickly for you. Christiansen believes that…
“…these works remind us that the world is more complex than we give it credit for. People of the past were incredibly fascinating, dealing with some of the same issues we confront today—most signally, life’s meaning and mortality—but they did it in a different fashion, and sometimes in a way we don’t understand and possibly don’t approve of. The fact that we don’t approve of those ways should make us question our own beliefs.”
One painting he discusses in the interview is the 1650 portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velasquez.
You’ve probably seen this painting reproduced in different art books, and maybe you know that de Pareja was a mulatto slave. He was also an artist who pursued his own career after being granted his freedom. There’s much to reflect upon in this portrait, in how Velasquez chose to portray the man, and how thoughts and attitudes about the painting have changed at different times.
Indeed, art history is intriguing and, like George Inness and many others, I want to learn from these “Old Masters”. I want to see their works, hear their voices, and learn of their stories.
Who are your favorite “Old Masters”?