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What is an Old Master?

Some of the Old Masters produced illuminated manuscripts.
Leonardo Da Vinci, who painted "The Last Supper," might be considered an old master.
Raphael's "School of Athens", depicting Greek scholars.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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The term “old master” is used both to refer to a European artist who lived and worked during a specific time period, and to works of art produced during this period. The exact timespan of the old master period varies, but is generally accepted to encompass art produced from the 1400s to the 1700s. Art historians debate the usefulness of the term “old master,” and they may use different terms to discuss art produced during this period in history.

Although art historians might not like it, many famous galleries have an “old master” wing, and art auction houses may also use the term to identify artwork in their catalogs. It can be useful to know what sort of art is under discussion when the term is used, as a result. Since the time period for works of art classified as old masters are broad, a huge assortment of artistic styles and techniques are encompassed under this umbrella term, as are a range of artists including Goya, Dürer, da Vinci, Tintoretto, Raphael, and Vermeer, among many others.

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It is important to remember that this phrase is used only in discussions of European art, not of art from other regions of the world. It references the highly skilled and talented artists or “masters” who worked during this period, often under the supervision of guilds or collectives. Many old masters also worked for and with patrons, who were an important part of the art world during this period. The old master period reflects a very volatile period in European history, as the Renaissance marked major changes in the European way of life.

The old masters produced paintings, drawings, etchings, prints, sketches, illuminated manuscripts, and sculpture. The term is often used specifically in reference to painting, since so many of the old masters produced a large body of amazing paintings and frescoes. Old master prints are also commonly on display in art galleries. An old master is characterized by extreme technical skills and a certain sense of distinctive and sometimes haunting beauty which has kept the artwork popular through the centuries.

When the artist behind a piece of work is unknown, it may still be called an old master, to place it in the time period in which it was created. In these instances, an identifying mark such as the name of the artist's patron or the region in which the painting originated is used to name the artist, as is the case with the Master of Flemelle. Looking at the works of art produced during the period can be extremely illuminating, as these artworks show how people lived, worked, and played during a turbulent and undoubtedly exciting time in European history.

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