Getting into Old Masters: Portraits

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.

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Catalogued as by a member of the studio of Anthony van Dyck, this portrait has an estimate of £2500-4000. It goes under the hammer at Tennants’ sale of British, European & Sporting Pictures on November 12. The sitter is Johann the Younger, Count of Nassau Siegen (1563-1638).

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.

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Offered with an estimate of £4000-6000 is this portrait of Anne, Countess of Manchester by a member of the circle of Peter Lely, the famed British artist who followed in the tradition of Anthony van Dyck. The painting goes under the hammer at Dreweatts on November 16 and bears signs of repair and patching.

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Roseberys offers many lovely portraits in its auction of November 16, but this rather down-at-heel pair bears looking at. The portraits are of a gentleman in a blue coat with gold brocade and a lady in a white dress with a blue ribbon date to the mid-18th century and are catalogued simply at ‘European School’. Though they wear their years, the likenesses shine through and there is some fine painting around the clothes. They are also more affordable at £400-600.

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In its Old Masters Paintings and Drawings sale of November 17 Bertolami Fine Art of Rome offers this portrait catalogued as the work of a 16th century German artist. Though the identity of both sitter and artist are unknown, the man with his almost-contemporary dress and slightly stylised mien, has a strong decorative appeal. The picture is estimate at €1500-2500.

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