Old Master

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In art history, "Old Master" (or "old master")[1][2] 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, woodcut, or etching) made by an artist in the same period. The term "old master drawing" is used in the same way.

Artemisia Gentileschi is an Old Master of Italian Baroque art

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.

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."[3] The term is also used to refer to a painting or sculpture made by an Old Master, a usage datable to 1824.[3] 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,[2] though he was still painting and printmaking at his death in 1828. The term might also be used for John Constable[2] (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".[4]

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".[5]

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 Embroidered Foliage (from his characteristic technique), Master of the Brunswick Diptych, or Master of Schloss Lichtenstein.

List of the most important Old Master painters

Rucellai Madonna by Duccio, c. 1285.



Early Renaissance

Portrait of a young woman by Sandro Botticelli, 1480

High Renaissance

Sistine Chapel ceiling, Ignudi, Michelangelo, 1509

Venetian School (Early Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism)

  • Domenico Veneziano (Italian, 1400–1461), Early Renaissance
  • Jacopo Bellini (Italian, 1400–1470), Early Renaissance
  • Gentile Bellini (Italian, 1429–1507), Early Renaissance, noted for historical scenes of Venice and portraits of its doges
  • Giovanni Bellini (Italian, 1430–1516), Early and High Renaissance, pioneer of luminous oil painting
  • Bartolommeo Vivarini (Italian, 1432–1499), Early Renaissance
  • Carlo Crivelli (Italian, 1435–1495), Early Renaissance
  • Alvise Vivarini (Italian, 1445–1503), Early Renaissance
  • Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, 1455–1526), Early Renaissance
  • Giorgione (Italian, 1477–1510), High Renaissance, pioneer of Venetian School of painting
  • Titian (Italian, c. 1488–1576), important High Renaissance-style exponent of colour painting in oils and frescoes
  • Palma Vecchio (Italian, 1480–1528), High Renaissance
  • Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, 1480–1556), High Renaissance
  • Sebastiano del Piombo (Italian, 1485–1547), High Renaissance
  • Jacopo Bassano (Italian, 1515–1592), Mannerist painter noted for portraiture and religious genre painting
  • Tintoretto (Italian, 1518–1594), major Venetian Mannerist painter of monumental religious works
    The Annunciation by Beccafumi, 1545
    Paolo Veronese (Italian, c. 1528–1588), High Renaissance-style, one of Venice's leading colourists

Sienese School


Northern Renaissance

"Kreuzigung Christi" (English: "Crucifixion of Christ") by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1503

Spanish Renaissance



Holy Family with St. Anne and the Infant St. John by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1545

Baroque painting

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, 1601
Portrait of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656

Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque painting

The Concert by Gerard van Honthorst, 1623


Capitulations of Wedding and Rural Dance by Antoine Watteau, 1711
An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768








The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by William Blake, circa 1805

See also



  1. ^ The term is spelled either way in the literature. Major UK and US dictionaries, incl. the Oxford Online Dictionaries, American Heritage Dictionary, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Random House dictionaries use lowercase; Oxford English Dictionary, Collins, and Merriam-Webster dictionaries also mention the uppercase spelling.
  2. ^ a b c Old Masters Department, Christies.com.
  3. ^ a b "old master, n. and adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web.
  4. ^ Lucie-Smith, Edward, The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, p. 152, 2003 (2nd edn), Thames & Hudson, World of Art series, ISBN 0500203652
  5. ^ Now rewritten less succinctly to the same effect.