Getting into Old Masters: Portraits07 November 2022 Typically defined as the work of top artists working in Europe before 1800, Old Master art is one of the most traditional collecting fields. Defined by figures such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Turner, the field can seem intimidating. But don’t be put off. In this series we examine some of the basic definitions and categories of Old Master art.
Maybe you have a portrait of your old dad looking at you sternly over the mantlepiece. Maybe you have a little photograph of a spouse or child on a desk. It’s no mystery why you would have a portrait of a loved one, but why spring for an image of someone who lived hundreds of years ago?
Well sometimes it’s all in the blood – which is to say, if you know enough about your family heritage and keep an eye on upcoming sales, you can in fact find (very) old relations portrayed centuries ago. More often, you might look for a favourite historical figure, whether a royal or warrior or an artist. But even portraits of a stranger or anonymous sitter have their appeal.
In the before the 19th century and the advent of photography, paintings and drawings were the only way of sharing an image either with a family member or a wider group. These were often formal and can seem initially a bit staid. Keep looking and you’ll usually find a bit more interest either as you find out about the sitter, admire the depiction of their clothes, or enjoy the landscape or setting where they are posed.
If you’re interested in art for decorative purposes, Tudor portraits might appeal, since these are relatively flat and geometric, and offer blocks of darkness and colour.
As always, pictures tend to increase in price the closer it comes to an identity. That goes double for portraits where the sitter can be as important as the artist. However, particularly in the case of royal likenesses, images will tend to be copied. Make sure you do your research before making a bid.