Understanding the Evolution of Old Masters in a 10-Minute Guide with Sotheby’s Specialist

Many people have found Old Masters a difficult subject to understand because of its association with the long history of Europe. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone can show us the ropes in an easy way? We were lucky enough to meet someone who managed to give us a brief introduction of Old Masters' history, telling us what happened over the past centuries in a 10-minute tour.

Andrew Fletcher|Sotheby’s Senior Director Head of Auction Sales Old Master Paintings

Old Masters refers to paintings by European artists from the late 13th to the early 19th centuries. At the beginning, Old Masters mainly served for two purposes: religious paintings for churches; and portraits for patricians or noblemen. Therefore, the daily lives of common people were hardly the subject matters in Old Master works.

South Netherlandish School, possibly Tournai, circa 1418-25. Four Panels Depicting Episodes from the Life of the Virgin|£1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Here are some examples from the upcoming Old Masters Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in London. Painted by South Netherlandish School in circa 1418-25, these four panels depict episodes from the life of the Virgin, including the miracle of the blossoming rod, the marriage of the Virgin, the death of the Virgin and the assumption of the Virgin. There should be more panels in the original set but many of them were lost after all these years.

Hans Baldung, Called Grien. The Holy Family with Five Angels|£2,500,000 - 3,500,000

The Holy Family with Five Angels was painted by Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), who was a leading figure in the German Renaissance. He was a prolific artist of seemingly inexhaustible imagination. He conceived many of the works using his own imagination, rather than extracts from the Bible or other religious stories. For example, in The Holy Family with Five Angels, Grien put the Virgin sitting upon cushions with the naked infant Jesus upon her lap, with Saint Joseph standing beside them. The whole scene and image of angels were derived from his imagination.

The transition from the above four panels to The Holy Family with Five Angels shows the development of perspective technique. Images represented in the four panels are more of two-dimensional. On the other hand, The Holy Family with Five Angels shows a more three-dimensional image, with a perspective starting from the upper-left corner. In around one hundred years between the time these two works were done, the technique of perspective was reaching maturity.

Netherlandish or South German School, Late 15th Century, Portrait of Mary of Burgundy (1458–1482), in Profile|£1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Portrait is another mainly part of Old Masters. Let’s take a look at the following three examples in a chronological order. Portrait of Mary of Burgundy (1458-1482), in profile, was likely created by Netherlandish or South German School in the late 15th century. Like Andrew said, portraits from Old Masters mostly depicted patricians. This one is no exception.

At the age of only nineteen, Mary of Burgundy was the sole heiress to the huge territories of the Duchy of Burgundy, and thus the wealthiest and most eligible woman in Europe. Tragically, Mary died young in 1482 as a result of injuries sustained from a riding accident while hunting.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Portrait of a Man With a Spotted Fur Collar|£1,500,000 - 2,000,000

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was also an important painter in German Renaissance. He was a court painter to the Electors of Saxony for most of his career. The Portrait of a Man with a Spotted Fur Collar was an early portrait by Lucas Cranach, and was probably painted before the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century. The assertion was supported by the use of a panel made from Baltic oak, which is highly unusual in Cranach’s œuvre, suggesting the painting may have been painted around the time of Cranach’s visit to the Netherlands in 1508. It is further supported by the family motto in the painting, which is written in Dutch rather than German.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman|£3,000,000 - 4,000,000

The next painting is the Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman, created by the celebrated Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The present work is generally assumed to be a study Rubens did based on a Venetian prototype. The artwork captures the penetrating gaze of an evidently powerful man, a Renaissance man who is accustomed to leading, and to getting his own way. The bravura brushwork has no hint of hesitancy.

Trade network of Dutch East India Company in the 17th century

Then the Age of Discovery began from the 15th century and continued until the end of the 18th century, in which extensive overseas exploration emerged as a powerful factor in European culture, leading to the rise of global trade and as well as the development in economy, technology, science and architecture etc.

Balthasar Van Der Ast. Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Beaker on a Stone Ledge, Together With Insects and a Lizard|£600,000 - 800,000

Overseas trades had introduced different kinds of exotic things to the Netherlands during the exchanges. They brought in new inspiration to Old Masters painters at that time, including Balthasar van der Ast. The Dutch Golden Age painter specialised in still lifes of flowers and fruit.

One of the examples is Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Beaker on a Stone Ledge, displaying a glass beaker filled with a colourful variety of blooms, including an iris, tulips, narcissi, a daffodil, forget-me-nots, lily, cyclamen and a rose, while the bouquet as a whole teems with insects, including a beetle, fly, spider, caterpillar and in the lower right hand corner, an animated  little sand lizard. The painting has explicit vanitas associations, containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability.

Jacob Ochtervelt. The Oyster Meal|£1,500,000 - 2,500,000

Moving on to the next work, The Oyster Meal by Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682) is not about religious stories anymore. It offers a glimpse of the high lives and the pleasures of patrician life in seventeenth-century Dutch, carrying strong symbolic meanings.

The young man proffers a silver plate with six Zeeuwse platte oysters, which are emblems of sexual pleasure based on the belief that they are aphrodisiacs that go back to Antiquity. The disordered bedclothes and the birdcage hanging above it from which the occupant has flown are indications that the young woman is possibly a courtesan.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. Walton Bridges|£3,000,000 - 5,000,000

Wrapping up the tour was J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)’s Walton Bridges. This is the first of three full-scale pictures of views of the River Thames, created by the artist between 1805 and 1808, shortly after he had moved out of London to a house on the banks of the river near Isleworth. The subject matter had a great shift from religious stories and portraits in the early stages, to beautiful scenery and natural landscape. Such evolution was a result of social developments over the past centuries. Old Masters not only tell the story of the artworks themselves, but also stand as witnesses of the long history of Europe.

These great works that we saw in the tour will be offered at Sotheby’s London on 4th July. Please stay tuned for the auction results. 

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Old Masters Evening Sale
Lots offered: 69
Sale date: 2018/7/4|7pm