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Jan 29 - Jan 29 2024

What is an ‘Old Master’ Painting?

Host: The National Gallery Date: January 29th to February 19th 

Throughout this course, we will seek to examine what makes a painting an ‘Old Master’ painting. Historically, the term ‘Old Master’ has referred to artists that were trained and were the leading artists, or ‘masters’, of their local artist guilds. You can find many examples of artists in this category in the National Gallery. They include artists like Andrea Mantegna, Botticelli, Hans Holbein, Federico Barocci and Rachel Ruysch. The latter was the first woman to have earned the membership to the painters’ guild of The Hague.

In this course, we will seek to go beyond the names of famous artists, as the primary identifier for a masterwork. Instead, this course will focus on the close analysis of these historic paintings through a different lens. We will consider how the very material foundations and lived histories of these artworks, from their ageing and restoration, to their popularity at different time periods, can imbue these works with different layers of value, and ultimately categorise them as ‘Old Master’ paintings.

Week 1: What is an 'Old Master' painting made of?

In the first week of the course, we will explore the physical foundation of 'Old Master' paintings. This session will look at the various materials for painting on, (supports like canvas, panel or copper) and with, (media like egg yolk tempera, oil) and fresco, pigments, and their special properties.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, artists needed to be able to make most, if not all, of the materials and ingredients of their practice within their own studios. Even enormously time-consuming activities like grinding a lump of earth or mineral to make a powder fine enough to paint with, was done in the artist studio by apprentices.

We can reconstruct these materials by both studying the pictures which have come down to us through the centuries, and also by reading the historic treatises produced to help artists in their own period, such as those by Cennino Cennini in 1400, or Edwin Norgate in 17th century England.

We will examine the problems that artists faced and their solutions regarding sourcing and creating with historic materials, as well as some of the vagaries of trade, like the supply of scale insect to make crimson coming from the Americas.

Week 2: What are the effects of age and ‘oldness’?

In the second week, we will consider the impact of age and centuries of life on paintings today. An 'Old Master' painting  arrives to us in the present after living through many centuries, during which a number of interventions may have changed its appearance. Sometimes these are the inevitable effects of age, like fading and changing of pigments, craquelure, or the collapse of the wooden support or canvas. In order to appreciate the picture as it was first produced, it is vital to be able to recognise effects which are not the intention of the artist, but rather are a sign of its history. Other changes may be the work of later owners and restorers and may have been done for a variety of reasons. We will look at alterations of paintings wreaked through prudery, political expediency, or simple changes of taste.

The second half of the session will look deeper into the topic of restoration, where we will learn about conservation techniques used on 'Old Master' paintings. What can be done to repair the damage of the past?

Week 3: How do we value an 'Old Master' painting?

How do we evaluate and value an 'Old Master' painting? How has it been used, experienced, desired? In the third week, we will consider the notion of value of painting both in its original context, at the time it was created, and for us today.

The first part of the session will consider what meaning and context a painting had for its original audience. Most historical works no longer reside in their original location. The National Gallery’s collection is full of works that were created for specific spaces, including altarpieces in a church. We will examine how these masterworks were meant to be viewed in their original context, from hanging height to lighting, rather than in a contemporary, public museum.

The second half of the session will look at the painting’s change in value over time to the present. Tastes change. Canonical and famous artists like Caravaggio or Vermeer were not always so prized by audiences, collectors, or art historians.  What has shifted over the course of centuries?

Week 4: What training made an artist a 'master'?

The final week examines how the 'Old Master' learnt and developed his or her artistic practice. We will look at the many different aspects of their training, and how apprentices came to paint in their master’s style before leaving the studio to become independent artists.

Training demanded a great deal of patience. It included preparing studies of the human body, done from other drawings, plaster casts, and, occasionally, the nude.  Apprentices also had to learn methods for the transfer of design, such as cartoons and tracings. We will consider the role of copying, which was a vital part of learning to reproduce a master’s style.

Following the break, we will conclude the course with a challenge to your eye! Chantal will provide a crash course in connoisseurship. You will test your knowledge from the course, ultimately identifying for yourself what makes an 'Old Master' painting.

  • Jan 29 - Jan 29 2024




what is an ‘old master’ painting?