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Old Master

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Sir Peter Paul Rubens - Portrait of the Artist - Google Art Project "Old Masters" redirects here. For other uses, see Old Masters (disambiguation).

In art history, "Old Master" (or "old master") refers to any painter of skill who worked in Europe before about 1800, or a painting by such an artist. An "old master print" is an original print (for example an engraving or etching) made by an artist in the same period. The term "old master drawing" is used in the same way.

In theory, "Old Master" applies only to artists who were fully trained, were Masters of their local artists' guild, and worked independently, but in practice, paintings produced by pupils or workshops are often included in the scope of the term. Therefore, beyond a certain level of competence, date rather than quality is the criterion for using the term.

Table of contents
  1. Period covered
  2. Anonymous artists
  3. List of the most important Old Master painters
  4. See also

Period covered

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term was often understood as having a starting date of perhaps 1450 or 1470; paintings made before that were "primitives", but this distinction is no longer made. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as "A pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; esp. a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries." The first quotation given is from 1696, in the diary of John Evelyn: "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." The term is also used to refer to a painting or sculpture made by an Old Master, a usage datable to 1824. There are comparable terms in Dutch, French, and German; the Dutch may have been the first to make use of such a term, in the 18th century, when oude meester mostly meant painters of the Dutch Golden Age of the previous century. Les Maitres d'autrefois of 1876 by Eugene Fromentin may have helped to popularize the concept, although "vieux maitres" is also used in French. The famous collection in Dresden at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister is one of the few museums to include the term in its actual name, although many more use it in the title of departments or sections. The collection in the Dresden museum essentially stops at the Baroque period.

The end date is necessarily vague - for example, Goya (1746-1828) is certainly an Old Master, though he was still painting and printmaking at his death in 1828. The term might also be used for John Constable (1776-1837) or Eugène Delacroix (1798-1868), but usually is not. Edward Lucie-Smith gives an end date of 1800, noting "formerly used of paintings earlier than 1700".

The term tends to be avoided by art historians as too vague, especially when discussing paintings, although the terms "Old Master Prints" and "Old Master drawings" are still used. It remains current in the art trade. Auction houses still usually divide their sales between, for example, "Old Master Paintings", "Nineteenth-century paintings", and "Modern paintings". Christie's defined the term as ranging "from the 14th to the early 19th century".

Anonymous artists

Artists, most often from early periods, whose hand has been identified by art historians, but to whom no identity can be confidently attached, are often given names by art historians such as Master E.S. (from his monogram), Master of Flémalle (from a previous location of a work), Master of Mary of Burgundy (from a patron), Master of Latin 757 (from the shelf mark of a manuscript he illuminated), Master of the Brunswick Diptych, or Master of Schloss Lichtenstein.

List of the most important Old Master painters


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Main article: Mannerism Baroque painting

Main article: Baroque painting Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque painting

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