An informal term applied to the most prominent ‘pre-modern’ artists of 1300 to 1800, during the great European Renaissance.
The term encompasses a wide variety of styles, including the Early, High and Northern Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, The Dutch Golden Age, Rococo, Neoclassicism and even some early examples of Romanticism. The word ‘master’ has a male-centric quality, though more recently the practices of various ‘women masters’ from the period have been illuminated, including Rachel Ruysch and Artemisia Gentileschi.
Origins of the Term
The term originally made reference to artists who had trained in a local artists’ guild and become independent ‘masters’, although pupils of such masters have also tended to fall under the term. It is thought the phrase first came into popular use retrospectively in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in Holland where the term oude meester (old master) made reference to the most prominent artists of the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan van Eyck. In Les Maitres d’Autrefois, (The Masters of Past Time) 1876, French artist and writer Eugene Fromentin studied works by Dutch and Flemish painters including Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and a range of others, considering the social, political and economic circumstances in which the work was made. While the term is still in circulation today, particularly in auction houses, many art historians find it too broad ranging and non-specific for general use.
The Italian Renaissance
Some of the most prominent names associated with the term Old Master come from the Italian Renaissance, artists who earned their ‘master’ status through breath-taking displays of virtuoso skill and determination. Leading Italian Old Masters include Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, who all pioneered new painting and sculpture techniques with dazzling levels of realism led by the close study of human anatomy and natural history. Other outstanding Italian masters with major works of art in the National Galleries of Scotland collection include sculptor Antonio Canova, and painters Tiziano Vecellio and Jacopo Bassano. The Gallery also holds key works by Spanish Old Masters including El Greco and Diego Velázquez, who demonstrate highly skilled depictions of light, atmosphere and theatrical content in their paintings, as seen in Velázquez’s world renowned An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618.
Northern European Masters
Within Northern Europe, many of the artists labelled ‘Old Master’ came from the Dutch Golden Age, a period of unprecedented prosperity and productivity within the creative arts during the eighteenth century. Rembrandt produced paintings, drawings and prints that captured with brutal honesty the depth and range of human emotion, while Johannes Vermeer’s exquisitely detailed, immaculate paintings are still among the world’s most prized and revered in the history of art, including Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, about 1654-56. Extraordinary Northern European Masters from beyond the Netherlands include Flemish painters Rubens and Jan van Eyck, and German artists Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, who brought startling levels of naturalism, light and space into their art.
In the 1980s feminist art historians including Grizelda Pollock and Rozita Parker questioned the male-centric bias of the term ‘Old Master’, suggesting a more inclusive language was needed for a wider understanding of art history’s rich complexity. In Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, 1981, they argue, '…there is not a female equivalent to the reverential ‘Old Master.' In recent years art establishments have worked towards redressing this gender inequality by bringing female artists from the broad ranging ‘Old Master’ period out into the limelight. In January 2019, for example, Sotheby’s organised The Female Triumphant, a week of auctions selling work by prominent female artists who had found great success in their day, but had been largely ignored by art historians, including Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, Fede Galizia, Michaelina Wautier and Elizabeth Gardner. Other female voices to be rediscovered and celebrated include Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch and Italian Baroque painters Artemisia Gentileschi or Elisabetta Sirani.