Old Masters are regarded as the finest artists ever to emerge from Europe. Their work, predominantly in oil painting, has for centuries set the art-historical benchmark for skill, craftsmanship and sheer emotional force. Though an informal title rather than a specific movement or style, the term is used to mark the greatest artists of the pre-modern and early modern eras, who lived and worked in Europe between the Renaissance and 1800. It refers to work produced in a wide variety of styles, including Mannerism, Dutch Realism, Rococo, Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
The criteria for qualification as an Old Master is not always clear. While many art historians avoid the term on the grounds that it is too general, it is commonly used by gallerists, dealers and auction houses in order to distinguish great from merely excellent painting. Old Master artists honed their craft through decades of study, most often at their local artists’ guild. The European guild system operated according to a strict hierarchy, in which aspiring master-craftsmen had first to serve time as apprentices, then journeymen. This training process could take decades, and ensured each guild member had a thorough education. After attaining the title of master, artists such as Sandro Botticelli (1455-1510) or Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) established workshops of their own, in order to train young apprentices and complete large-scale commissions.
The Ruzhnikov Collection holds a small number of Old Master works. These pieces have been selected by Andre for their ability to subvert expectations: the playfulness and humour displayed in them is at odds with the common perception of Old Master paintings as dark, austere and ‘heavy’. One example from our collection is A Goat and a Sheep in an Italianate Landscape (c.1690), by the German Baroque painter Philipp Peter Roos. This canvas combines the level of painterly skill we would expect from an Old Master (note the animals’ lifelike physique and fur) with a wicked sense of humour: the goat in the centre of the image arrests the viewer with its gaze.
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