Who Were the Old Masters?

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”?


  1. I have two favourite painters – John Constable for his landscapes (check him out as his detailing is quite remarkable), and Terence Cuneo. Cuneo is well known to me for his paintings of British Railway scenes, although he does paint other subjects!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Which is (to me) exactly how it should be. Once you start limiting your favourites, you are limiting your scope of appreciation …. which then limits your own ability to grow. Any art form is entirely subjective anyway, which should give you the freedom to grow in whatever direction provides you the most personal satisfaction and overall pleasure. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I enjoy reading biographies of artists, learning about their philosophy of art. In many ways, I probably learn more from reading their words than I do from seeing their art.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A general interest story (from memory of over 50 years ago):

    During my final year in school (in England), I had an art exam. It consisted of still life; a portrait, and an imaginative water colour based on a pre-selected subject (to be chosen from three options). For the water colour, I chose “Market Day”, and proceeded to paint a typically English town market place in the evening, with stalls separated by a narrow aisle. Strings of white lights were hanging from the tops of the stalls, and people milling around as they pondered what to buy.

    I was very pleased with the end result, which got me a Grade 9 mark … being the lowest grade possible and therefore an absolute “FAIL”! That exam was important to me, and so I took it again when the opportunity arose (around 4 months later).

    I chose “A Day at the Seaside”. I don’t know why I took the route I did with this choice. Perhaps I was trying to prove something? Who knows … but I consciously repeated my “Market Day” painting. There were however some key differences. I changed it to a night time scene. My strings of white lights were now coloured, and instead of produce on the stalls, I had souvenirs on some and games on others. I also put railings down the side of the stalls nearest the viewer to represent the guard rails on a typical English pier. If anybody saw the paintings “side by side”, it would have been pretty obvious what I had done.

    That painting got me a Grade 1 (being the highest grade possible) and therefore a resounding “PASS”!

    I was 18 at that time, and it was my first lesson in how subjective art is!

    “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is so very true. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always interesting to hear stories like yours. Art is, indeed, subjective. While I agree that we have the right to our personal opinions about art — what it is and what it isn’t — I think it’s wrong when critics and curators try to influence us in our thinking as to what’s right or wrong in the art world. There’s a place for all forms of art. I might not like what someone else calls “art” but that doesn’t mean I can censor it. I’m thinking here about a few articles I read recently in an old issue of Artist magazine. I wasn’t impressed by the artwork featured. To me it wasn’t what I personally want to think of as “fine art”, but that’s a discussion that can go on forever. In the end, we simply have to agree that there is no absolute consensus on what art is, or who is — or isn’t — a truly great artist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “I think it’s wrong when critics and curators try to influence us in our thinking as to what’s right or wrong in the art world.”

        I totally agree with you, but wonder whether you realize that you just defined life as we know it. What some people perceive as art, others may not. This can be extended to every aspect of our life where, sadly, people interact with us based on their perspective of us. Are we of the same nationality? Do we dress similar to them? What kind of car do we drive? Which part of town do we live in? What work do we do?

        That’s all nothing more than pre-judging against a personal perspective and then embracing us, or rejecting us, depending how we rated! In the context of your statement (quoted earlier), we all tend to try and influence others in the direction of our own perspective. Art really is life! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like your beautiful blog. A pleasure to come stroll on your pages. A great discovery and a very interesting blog. I will come back to visit you. Do not hesitate to visit my universe. See you soon. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Very interesting read! My personal favourite Old Master is from the Dutch Golden Age – none other than Rembrandt van Rijn. I will often go back and look at his painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’: the subtle emotive gesture he creates in the hands of the “doctor” is delicate and quite (pardon the pun) masterful. Definitely one to learn from…
    All the best. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

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