One of the most common terms in the art market is “Old Master”. You will often see this term attached to a painting, a print, or a drawing; you may, for instance, read a title like “17th century Old Master Oil Painting.” Old Master is not a particular artist, or even a particular style of art. So, what does this term mean, and why is it used?

Jan Lievens Engraving of Saint John
Jan Lievens, "Saint John". Ca. 17th century.

What is an “Old Master”?

The term “Old Master” is somewhat vague, but it refers to the general approach to European art from about the 15th century to the 19th century. Now, this stretch of time is among the most active and varied in art history, encompassing Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical art. “Old Master” serves as a catch-all for artwork produced in this period, as certain themes and ideas were followed and expressed by many artists in this time. For instance, Old Master artists made works of art that were very realistic (or, more properly termed, naturalistic), and often showed people in their paintings. 

The Old Master “Style”

The figures you see in an Old Master artwork look like real people, though oftentimes idealized. This is because figure drawing and painting was the most stressed aspect of art at this time. Developing artists would intensely study the human form, as well as perspective, light and shadow, and even the laws of proportion to make works of art that were well-ordered and easily comprehensible to the viewer.

The scenes and genres of a work of art also defines an Old Master: portraits, history or religious paintings (showing scenes from history or biblical events), genre scenes (scenes of everyday life), landscapes, and still lives (pictures of inanimate objects or food items) are all common types of Old Master artworks. Old Master artworks also refer to paintings, drawings, and prints, while sculptures are not considered “Old Masters”. Older sculptures can, however, be described in much the same way as an Old Master painting or drawing.

Who are the Old Masters?

The Old Masters include the most famous artists of all time: Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452 – 1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475 – 1564), Raphael (Italian, 1483 – 1520), Albrecht Durer (German, 1471 – 1528), Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669), Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 – 1675), Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640), and Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641), just to name a few. While these artists painted and drew different things and in different styles, all are considered Old Masters, and the cream of the crop at that. This is the origin of the term itself, as these figures are the Old Masters of Art. Their masterpieces accordingly sell for millions of dollars.

Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Daniele da Volterra
Daniele da Volterra, "Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti". Ca. 1545. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Attributing Old Masters

Old Master paintings are also sometimes, but certainly not always, unattributed. In lieu of an artist’s name (Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.), the term “Old Master” can serve as a fill-in. Signing works of art did not become very common until relatively recently, and usually established masters signed their artworks while their students did not. So, we are left with a large number of fantastic paintings, prints, and sketches that are unsigned. The term “Old Master” allows us to give a name to these artists when anything more precise is difficult.

Two Etchings by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (Il Grechetto), Two Etchings of Men. Ca. 17th century.

Attribution Terminology

Though many Old Masters are difficult to attribute, we can get close. Since many artists taught younger artists, or worked in groups, we can usually see the calling card of one or another artist. Art historians will use the term “Circle of (artist’s name)” for these types of paintings or drawings that are of the named artist’s period. An example would be “Circle of Raphael”, meaning that the painting is similar to works by Raphael, and could have been painted by a contemporary or student of Raphael.

The other two terms that are used with Old Masters are “Manner of (artist’s name)” or “After (artist’s name)”. “Manner of” means that an artist painted or drew in the style of the named artist, while “After” means that the work is a copy of a known work. Thus, a well-executed painting of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1503) would be deemed “After Leonardo da Vinci”. Nest Egg Auctions sold a great example of what this means: a 19th century copy of the Samian Sibyl by Guercino (Italian, 1591 – 1666), painted by the 19th century artist Carlo Schwicker (German, 19th century), is attributed as “After Guercino”. Since Guercino is one of the most beloved and sought after Old Masters, paintings like this are not uncommon, though still quite sought after.

Painting of the Samian Sibyl after Guercino
After Guercino / Carlo Schwicker, "Samian Sibyl". Ca. 19th century. Oil on Canvas.

Old Masters at Nest Egg Auctions

Old Masters are a common sight at auctions. Many auction houses will even have dedicated Old Masters Sales, where the works of art sold are all considered Old Masters, as opposed to Modern and Contemporary art. Nest Egg Auctions has a long history of selling Old Masters at auction. In 2014, Nest Egg Auctions sold an Old Master portrait of a knightly man. Standing in his gilded armor, this gentleman holds his sword and an arrow, and his family crest is painted behind his head. His grizzled beard shows his many years, and his deeply-set eyes show how much he has experienced. He is a grand, mighty, and elevated presence, and a wonderful example of Old Master painting and what is deemed “Grand Manner Portraiture”.

Old Master Painting of Spanish Nobleman
Spanish School Portrait of a Nobleman. Ca. 18th century. Oil on Canvas.

Nest Egg has also sold religious paintings, such as a touching scene of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus and a Nurse, likely the work of the 19th century student. This painting shows dedicated attention to detail and a careful use of historical tradition. These sorts of paintings were popular throughout the period in question. Religious scenes like this often inspired much artwork from the Renaissance to the 19th century.

Old Master of Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus with Nurse
"Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus with Nurse". Ca. 19th century. Oil on Canvas.

Prints and drawings can also be considered Old Masters, and one piece stands out among all that Nest Egg has sold. An engraving by Lucas van Leyden (Dutch, 1494 – 1533) shows the full power and attraction of an Old Master. The Promenade (1520) depicts two well-dressed people walking through a landscape. Van Leyden’s technique is incredible, creating a space with immense detail. The faces of the figures, their positions, and their clothing shows the artist’s deft skill. This, truly, is what “Old Master” means – a work of art by a long-dead master of their craft with skill we may never see again.

The Promenade by Lucas van Leyden
Lucas van Leyden, "The Promenade". 1520. Engraving on Paper.

Selling Old Masters at Nest Egg Auctions

Old Master artworks are popular at auction. These are works that express tradition, and are excellent documents of the history of art. If you think that you have an Old Master painting, drawing, or print, let Nest Egg Auctions know! We would love to take a look at it, and tell you what it is you have.

Engraving of the Flight into Egypt, after Claude Lorrain
After Claude Lorrain, "The Flight into Egypt". Ca. 19th century. Engraving on Paper.