Arts Essays - Old Masters


Defend theopinion that Old Masters are the most important segment of the art market.

Every day the room is seething with visitors. As the lineheaves towards the front in a slow, weary museum trudge, around seventy morepeople are filing through the door every minute. Caged in a box of bullet-proofglass, the picture almost looks unimpressive under the harsh institutionallighting, speckled with camera flashes that dance across the canvas, whileevery few seconds the most famous face in art is obscured by someone else'shead.

With over five million visitors to the Louvre every year the 'Mona Lisa' is perhaps one of the most iconic images in art, eminently priceless, instantly recognisable to even the most art-obtuse and a must-see on the agenda of any Paris tourist. Today da Vinci's 'Portrait of a Lady on a Balcony,' more popularly known as the 'Mona Lisa', pays homage to the great European painters known as the Old Masters, cultural and historical icons whose work is famous for being famous.

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It is astonishing to conceive that the majority of people who fight through the crowds spend a mere fifteen seconds in front of Mona Lisa's infamous smile, just long enough to grab a snapshot; People no longer study it. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting, says Darian Leader, author of Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing.

Despite the estimated five weeks it would take a visitor toproperly appreciate the 65,300 pieces of art in this building, most touristschose the abbreviated experience a full sprint through the museum to see thethree most famous objects: the 'Mona Lisa', 'Venus de Milo' and 'WingedVictory.' Art Bruchwald had once boasted he'd seen all three masterpieces infive minutes and fifty-six seconds.

Through his infamous portrait, Leonardo da Vinci hasbequeathed to the entire heritage of Western art history since the Sixteenthcentury an enduring icon that still manages to fascinate and mystify itsmassive cult following even into the Twenty-first century.

Aside from the 'Mona Lisa,' Old Master da Vinci himself hasendured as an iconic figure in his own right, an engaging character whose art,science and thought has inspired centuries of research and theory. Perhaps hismost recent success came in the form of Dan Brown's international bestsellingnovel The da Vinci Code which has given this cult icon exposure to anaudience in excess of ten-million captivated readers worldwide. In the midstof a fast-paced, imaginative plot centred around the Holy grail mystery, thenovel celebrates the genius of da Vinci through numerous allusions, inventions andplot-devices that add to the aura of intrigue that already surrounds thisnotorious Old Master:

Even a cursory glance through da Vinci's journals revealed whythe luminary was as notorious for his lack of follow-through as he was famousfor his brilliance. Da Vinci had drawn up blueprints for hundreds ofinventions he had never built. One of Jacques Sauniere's favourite pastimeswas bringing da Vinci's more obscure brainstorms to life - timepieces, waterpumps, cryptexes, and even a fully articulated model of a mediaeval Frenchknight, which now stood proudly on the desk in his office.

The notoriety of da Vinci begs one to question why the workof the Old Masters endures with even more aggression today than it did fivehundred years ago. More than the work of the moderns, the orientals and thecontemporaries, the work of Old Masters, including Caravaggio, Giotto, Titianand Botticelli, is significant not only as a lucrative investment asset but asthe defining era of Western art. An enquiry into the art of the Old Mastershelps to establish certain aesthetic principles: the development of asculptural, linear and painterly style, and the conquest of volume, space,light and movement that have intrinsically shaped the evolution of fundamentalartistic principles ever since.

To appreciate the enormity of this artistic revolution it isnecessary to first understand the nature of the art that preceeded it in theform of the Byzantine art that was being produced before the end of theThirteenth century. Early Italian painting grew out of the mosaic decorationson the walls and vaults of Christian churches that were stylistically very highlyornate and formulated, and rigidly encumbered any form of expression.Thousands, even millions, of small cubes of coloured glass sometimes groundedwith tiny plates of gold or silver were sunk into soft motar, usually to greatamounts of money and time, so when Pietro Cavallini began producing his painted'al fresco' masterpieces a new form of expression had been born.

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Cavallini is perhaps regarded as the forefather of the OldMasters, bridging the gap between the Byzantines and the Italian schools,exchanging mosaic for the spontaneity and vigour of 'al fresco' painting. Paintingupon wet plaster with a full brush dipped in water colours the al frescopainter had to work quickly and freely, which consequently instilled within theirpaintings a natural, fresh quality that was no longer two-dimensional but coulddepict movement, depth and feeling more freely than the Byzantine mosaics.

On inspection of Cavallini's 'Head of Christ' one may appreciate the physical presence of the figure which conveys the power, grandeur and gravity that was at the time more familiar to depictions of Roman statutories. The transition of light to shade upon the moulded, almost sculpted, face of Christ along with the great circle of his halo conveys a heroic quality that is a far remove from the hardly-holy beardless youth depicted in the Byzantine mosaics.

The seminal works of the Old Masters can be seen inconjunction with the developments being made in architecture around theThirteenth century, which has left another great legacy in the great gothicCathedrals of northern Europe. The gravity that paintings by the Old Mastersholds is a phenomenon that can also be witnessed at the Cathedrals of Chartresor Strasbourg which too are patronised by millions of tourists every year,generating hundreds of thousands in revenue.

The apostolic figures carved into the stonework of these buildings are imbued with a dignity of their own that is both convincing and beautiful, and can be seen as a direct influence upon the pioneer Italian masters who aimed at a compelling reproduction of the natural human form. The gothic sculptor in many respects had an easier task at imitating the lines and forms of nature and could work free from the constraints of creating the illusion of depth through modelling in light and shade; the physicality of the stone itself achieved this.

A new feeling for nature and the human form; the power ofexpression; these are the artistic principles that endure even until today,pioneered by the work of the Old Masters. It is the work of Cavallini, and thelater Francesco Giotto di Bondone, that bridged the gap separating sculpturefrom painting, that translated the lifelike figures of gothic sculpture intopainting and rediscovered the illusion of creating depth on a flat surface. IfCavallini broke the spell of mediaeval conservatism, Giotto instigated ahistory of art that is the history of great artists. Painting around thebeginning of the Fourteenth Century and inspired by Cavallini, Giotto reactedagainst the limitations of form, movement and symbolism of mediaeval art toreveal paintings in a new light of nakedness and truth.

In direct opposition to the cramped miniature mediaeval paintings by artists who cared little for space and composition, the underlying ethic behind Giotto's work seemed to be dedicated to the creation of an event as if it were being enacted upon a stage. In his al fresco masterpiece 'The Mourning of Christ' the figures are positioned within a realistic space with the perceptible feeling of air between them, in lifelike attitudes of passion and mourning. Each figure reflects the grief of the tragic scene and captures a style of movement that would have been alien to the Byzantines.

Presenting the vital moments from predominantly Biblicalstories, Giotto rendered his Holy figures as human actors whose sparinggestures conveyed a degree of dignity and restraint unseen in such worksbefore. It was noted by an early chronicler that Giotto translated the art ofpainting from Greek into Latin and made it modern.In a manner similar to Dante he introduced a 'lingua vulgare' which enabledthose with no substantial knowledge of art an understanding of what he haddepicted.

The painters after the Romansalways imitated each other, andfrom age to age continually brought their art into decline. After these cameGiotto the Florentine, who being born in the solitary mountains inhabited onlyby goats and similar animals, and being guided by nature towards this art,began to draw upon the rocks the actions of the goats of which he was thekeeper; and thus began to draw in this manner all the animals found in thiscountryside; after much study he surpassed not only the masters of his own agebut all those of many centuries past. After this art receded because all imitatedexisting paintings, and thus it went on from one century to the next untilTomaso the Florentine, nicknamed Masaccio, showed by perfect works how thosewho take for their guide anything other than nature - mistress of the masters -exhaust themselves in vain.

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Nature, the mistress of the masters that da Vincidescribes in his laconic history of art has inspired the concept of three-dimensionalspace that we often take for granted in more modern pieces. The Old MasterMasaccio, whose perfect works da Vinci commends, represented figures, treesand hills in all of their volumetric fullness and carefully graded veils ofdepth. Through his work we see the conquest of space and volume where figuresacquire a weight and bodily mass that is firmly grounded in the living universeand give the impression of breadth, dignity and power; Masaccio was truly anartist of the Renaissance, a word in itself that is notably French forrebirth.

The culturally and historically significant period of theRenaissance is ingrained with the awakening of body and mind, the Cartesiandualisms of Descartes, and man's awakening to a sense of his own power that hadlain dormant and tattered by the mediaeval church. The importance of art fromthis era was recognised by the prestigious auctioneers at Sotheby's in aspecial theme sale, 'Art of the Renaissance,' back in January 2001. The saleof 91 lots featured paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture from that reflectthe diversity of the era, by Old Masters including Botticelli, Dürer,Giambologna and Veronese, fetching bids into multiples of hundred-thousanddollars:

The Renaissance, more than just the 'rebirth' of ancient artand ideas, was the dawn of the modern era. Art that finds inspiration from manand his achievements is a thoroughly modern concept that rings as true today asit did in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But, although theRenaissance is considered the benchmark of the modern era, it was a period ofalmost dizzying change and cultural activity.

This period of dizzying change and cultural activity catalysedpictorial innovation where technical advances meant that oil-based, as opposedto egg-based, tempura came into use at the end of the Fifteenth century inItaly and enabled artists to blend and shade more nuances in their palette andon canvas. This technique was favoured by Sandro Botticelli, whose famous'Madonna and Child' canvas demonstrates careful modelling of his figuresthrough delicate shades of light and shadow. The painting was featured atSotheby's 'Art of the Renaissance' auction with an estimate between $700,000and $900,000.

Art of the Old Masters, like Botticelli's 'Madonna andChild,' is honoured annually at Sotheby's auction rooms worldwide, highlightingthe important investment asset that these paintings provide. The 'ImportantOld Master Paintings' auction in January 2005 featured Lot 126, Botticelli's'Fortune' painted around the early 1480s and reminiscent of his famous 'Birthof Venus' from around the same time. In both paintings the mythological femalefigure stands out to sea and a personification of zephyr blows air throughpursed lips and puffed-out cheeks.

The art of Botticelli is famously one of the touchstones of the West's notions of feminine beauty and the piece demonstrates the Florentine artist's preoccupation with harmonious design and melodious lines that conjure the infinitely sensual feminine figure of Fortune. 'Fortune' was sold for $464,000 at auction. At the same auction 'Venus and Cupid' by rare Old Master Francesco Primaticcio sold for $164,000, and a recently rediscovered portrait of Saint Andrew by Jusepe de Ribera sold for a phenomenal $1,192,000.

Art as an important investment asset is something that theFine Art Fund, based in London, recognises. One of Lord Hanson's last businessventures before he died in October 2004, the company mixes art with finance inan unusual and ambitious mix that has attracted a steady stream of investors forthe past three years. Experts seek out established works they believe areundervalued and will appreciate rapidly in the global market, and as part ofthe deal loan Old Master works to investors to hang in their homes and offices.

The sectors the fund will invest in have shown between 8% and12% compound growth over the past 25 years. Compare this with global equitiesand you can see that art is an interesting and untapped market.

The potential of the untapped art market is demonstrated by theBritish Rail Pension Fund who, in 1974, invested 40 million, or 2.9% of itsportfolio in the art market. The works, which were sold off at the end of the1980s, generated 11.3% compound growth.

The art of the Old Masters is clearly the most importantsector of the art market, their worth reaching the thousands, even millions,both an invaluable investment opportunity and an endless source of pleasure andfascination for those who seek their seminal beauty. Transforming theByzantine methods of mosaic and miniature, the pioneer Old Master Cavalliniexchanged these rigid conservative methods for the spontaneity and energy of alfresco painting that has inspired generations of artists with the concepts andprinciples once stifled by the mediaeval church.

Severing the barrier between gothic sculpture and art, Cavallini, Giotto and their multitude of Old Master successors developed the fundamental notions of space, volume, light, movement and perspective that has shaped the evolution of art history even unto the present day. The art of beautiful surfaces; the art of space and light; the art of realistic observation; the art of receding space and geometrical form; the art of al fresco and colour: this is the centuries-old legacy that the Old Masters have left and which will endure for centuries to come.

It is 9.30pm in the Salle des Etats and the 'Mona Lisa' still has an audience, and while closing time fast approaches the night cleaner has begun to clear the mound of rubbish left by the endless hoards of bustling tourists at her invisible feet.


Brown, Dan: The da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, Germany,2004

Godfrey, F M: A Student's Guide to Italian Painting, 1250- 1800, Alec Tiranti, Great Britain, 1965

Gombrich, EH: The Story of Art, Phaidon Press, Hing Kong, 1995

Kemp, Martin: Leonardo da Vinci, The Marvellous Works ofNature and Man, J M Dent and sons, 1989

Leader, Darian: Stealing the Mona Lisa, What Art Stops usfrom Seeing, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004

The Sunday Times Business section, November 14th2004