While great art can speak to us from across the centuries, much can be lost in translation. Understanding the lives of the old masters can help us better comprehend what these artists wish to tell us. Here is a brief introduction to a few of the old masters and the connections we can draw between them.
Donatello, David, 1440 | Filippo Brunelleschi, Dome (Santa Maria del Fiore), 1436
Donatello (1386-1466) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)
These are two of the titans of the early Florentine renaissance. Together these two artists uncovered the nearly-lost classical aesthetic of ancient Rome in the early 15th century. Separately, they are responsible for the largest brick dome in the world at Santa Maria del Fiore and the first free-standing bronze nude sculpture produced in a millennium in the masterpiece David. Their relationship helped define what the renaissance would become.
Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Sir Thomas More, 1527 | Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-86
Hans Holbein (1497-1543) and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
These two artists did not share the same close relationship that Donatello and Brunelleschi did. However, both artists serve as exemplars of the northern and Florentine renaissance. Holbein and Botticelli radically altered the aesthetic of the cities where they worked, London and Florence respectively. Additionally, these two old masters enjoyed the patronage of the rulers of the day – both Holbein and Botticelli made art in the service of power.
Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, 1472 | Raphael, The School of Athens, 1510-11
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Raphael (1483-1520)
Raphael and da Vinci are two of the defining artists of the high renaissance. Despite the close proximity of their work, the two masters disliked one another intensely. Both artists worked for the rich and powerful of Italy, both producing works of sublime spirituality. The rivalry between these artists, their respective relationships to power and their shifting historical significance make up one of the most fascinating comparisons in western art history.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665 | Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1660
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
These two artists typify opposite ends of the Netherlandish art world of the 17th century. While Vermeer’s life is shrouded in mystery, Rembrandt’s every move – both successful and otherwise – is on display in his work. The tragedy of Rembrandt’s life contrasts with the relative anonymity of Vermeer’s. Their lives help us understand the Dutch golden age, where fortunes could be made and lost with alarming speed.
Written by Dr James Hicks, Consultant Lecturer, London