What you Should Know About the Old Masters

24 Mar 2020

Have you ever wondered how to decipher old master paintings? These works of art, from roughly 1350–1850, might appear difficult to understand at first glance. The characters, meanings and symbols they contain appear to belong to a different time, but there are ways of getting behind them. Understanding what an artist might have wanted you to read in his or her painting will give you a completely new perspective and show how relevant these incredible works of art remain today. 

Old masters contain references to classical mythology, the Christian tradition, and ways of living that simply aren’t our own any more. They were made with complicated techniques born of major inventions by the contemporary artists of their day. To help you understand the essentials, we picked five key terms from Christie’s Education’s online course The Great Masters of European Art. If you want to learn more, you can study the full course from the comfort of your home.

Beginning in around 1400, this period was a ‘rebirth’ (renaissance comes from rinascita, meaning rebirth in Italian) of interest in the classical world, stimulated by the discovery of statues of ancient Greek and Roman gods, goddesses and heroes that had been buried for centuries. For the classical artists and their audiences, these statues were objects of veneration and protection. For the old masters, they were simply inspiration for art and a new way of looking for perfection in the human body. From the Renaissance to Romantic eras, European artists liked to amuse and instruct their audiences with scenes drawn from classical mythology.

Born out of the waves, the Roman goddess of love Venus is often shown naked with an enormous shell, such as in the painting by Sandro Botticelli. She is also the goddess of beauty, and was awarded a golden apple with the words ‘to the fairest’ by Paris, Prince of Troy in a famous beauty contest depicted by Peter Paul Rubens (amongst others). She holds this golden apple in Bronzino’s famous painting The Allegory of Love (now in London’s National Gallery). Venus is wife of Vulcan, lover of Mars and mother of Cupid, who is often placed next to her to identify her. Her other attributes included a pair of grey doves, and red roses, which are often strewn at her feet.

Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti - most of the great painters had their patrons. Patrons were usually aristocrats, members of royal families or important figures in the church. In Renaissance Florence the powerful Medici family had the money and influence to support the artists throughout their development and help them to build their fame. 

Rococo is a term that originated with the French word rocaille referring to the pebbles and seashells that were used to decorate fountains and grottoes. The sea shell (with exuberant additions) became a dominant decorative motif from the 1730s onwards, but it was not until 1835 that this style gained the name ‘Rococo’. Characteristics of this style also included ‘C’ or ‘S’ shaped curves and a tendency towards asymmetry. In painting, light pastel colours are favoured; in interior design and furniture, floral motifs, chinoiserie (Chinese inspired motifs) and whimsical animals (squirrels, birds) are often seen. Rococo flourished during the reign of Louis XV in France but spread throughout Europe

It is a smoky effect often used by Leonardo da Vinci. He used subtle gradations from light to dark to give a three-dimensional effect to model form. Painted light effects such as stark contrasts or extensive shadows can also add drama to a scene. The Italian artist Caravaggio used light and dark next to one another in a technique called chiaroscuro, which Rembrandt would later incorporate into some of his major works. You can examine the direction of the light source in a painting, and ask yourself if it makes internal sense.