We often hear in the art world about the Old Masters, but just who are they, really? From the name, it’s clear they’re classics in art history, never to be forgotten. Names like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Durer invoke respect in even the most detached art viewer.
But just why have these artists survived the centuries to be as popular in the contemporary world as they were in their own times (or even more so)? What makes Old Masters masters?
Old Masters is in fact a rather uncertain term, spanning centuries and genres of historical art. Old Masters come from the époques of Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism and Romanticism. The phrase broadly refers to European artists whose works became seminal between 1200 and 1800. But there’s more to it than that.
Old Masters were skilled technicians in their art. They were usually fully trained and independent workers who belonged to their local artists’ guild. And their search for knowledge went beyond colour palette and artistic contours.
What makes them so special? We’re here to tell you.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Arguably the most well-known Old Master, Leonardo da Vinci remains one of the most respected artists in the world today.
That may be thanks to his most recognisable artworks, including Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, and The Last Supper.
But there’s more to da Vinci than the Renaissance painter. He was also an intelligent architect, mathematician, engineer and inventor. He was a keen scientist and produced many anatomical, botanical and scientific sketches, among them his famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man.
To add to the mystery, few of da Vinci’s works seem to have survived to the modern day (among them, The Swan) – and many of those we do have appear unfinished.
Besides painting, da Vinci conceptualised flying contraptions, armoured vehicles, solar power and something similar to a calculator, proving his thinking was well ahead of its time.
He may have lived six hundred years ago, but da Vinci’s curiosity for the way the world works has resonated with people throughout the centuries, ensuring him a lasting legacy.
Like da Vinci, Michelangelo had many talents, among them architecture, sculpting, painting and poetry. He was one of the foremost Italian Renaissance artists.
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodivico Buonarroti Simoni, to be exact), is most famed for his marble statue of David and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the Creation of Adam. The Creation of Adam is particularly praised for the incredibly human detail in the hands of Adam and his Creator, God.
His work portrayed an emotional and spiritual intensity that even today moves people to heightened emotions. Even 600 years on, some 20,000 people stroll through the hallowed halls of the Sistine Chapel every day, predominantly to marvel at Michelangelo’s stunning creations.
Michelangelo achieved wealth and fame in his lifetime. But it was no temporary success. Today, his evocative, lifelike portrayals of humankind continue to wow viewers, whether they’re art enthusiasts or not.
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Old Masters didn’t have to be Italian. Albrecht Durer, from Nuremberg, Germany, was an influential painter, engraver, mathematician and printmaker in the Northern Renaissance.
Most famous for his woodcuts, the Apocalypse series, and his prints, Knight, Death, and the Devil, Durer is celebrated for his detail, technical skills and tonal variations. His watercolours of landscapes made him one of the first landscape artists in Europe.
Durer had built such a respected position in his time that he became the court artist for both the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V.
Durer’s epitaph says it all: “Whatever was mortal in Albrecht Durer lies beneath this mound”. His prints of nature, religious depictions and self-portraits remain as popular today – as immortal – as the memory of the man himself.
The Old Masters were revered for a reason. Their sharp intellect, deep insight into human nature, and persistent curiosity to understand the world set them apart from their peers during their lifetime and guaranteed them an enduring legacy.
Today, their paintings, prints, sculptures and even sketches hang in some of the best art museums in the world, from the Louvre to the Prado, the Tate Gallery to the Uffizi Gallery and, of course, the Vatican Museum. If you would like a copy of their prints to hang on your walls too, browse our selection of Old Masters prints and posters.
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