How to Look at Old Masters Paintings?

Once I went on a package holiday to Germany. Our group had some spare time in Dresden. The tourists, including me, rushed to the Old Masters Picture Gallery with enthusiasm…

Passing by Correggio’s brilliant works in half an hour, I’ve seen the girls who had been sitting next to me on our tour bus. They looked bored. ‘Do you like it here? – one of them asked me, – To be honest, I expected more from the place. Madonna and child, child and Madonna – why couldn’t they paint something else?’

Great Leonardo and Many Others

The generally accepted term ‘Old Masters’ refers to all the distinguished artists who lived in European countries before the 19th century.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raffael, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, El Greco – the Old Masters’ names are sure to ring a bell with you.

Hans Holbein, Domenico Fetti, Peter Claesz, Franc Snyders, Altobello Melloni – the list may be continued for a long time – are a bit less famous. Possibly, you have never seen their paintings before. Well, that isn’t a problem – you have everything ahead of you!

What’re The Works About?

Old Masters didn’t express their unique inner world. They created pieces of art to embody the highest, unified beauty.

The complicated system of Christian symbols was the main frame of reference at that time. It’s logical the story of Jesus Christ’s birth and sacrifice constantly gave the painters food for thought. The tender image of Our Lady, her dual role inspired them too: pious Virgin Mary, a terrestrial woman, became the mightest of all saints.

Another clue to the understanding of the artworks lies in knowledge – albeit superficial the legacy of classical antiquity. It provided the people of Renaissance with answers to the questions which could not be asked in church.

Greek and Roman mythology was, in a sense, about worldly matters. Even gods sometimes behaved like human beings in the myth – be envious, for example. The ancient Greeks supposed that there wasn’t a chasm between spiritual and physical aspects of life. They thought a healthy body is evidence of a clear mind.

Humanism partly revived the ideal of the harmony.

Well, you’ve got my message: you’d better prepare a little for a meeting with such art. Read a couple of books before visiting a gallery.

If you are too lazy to do it, look through some articles about the collection of paintings with which you are going to familiarize yourself in the near future.

You don’t need to know every Christian saint or every resident of Olympus. It’s only necessary to gain insight into classical aesthetics.

Visiting a Gallery: Tips for Uninitiated

Pay attention to titles – they, for the most part, accurately reflect the themes or the images of old paintings.

If it seems that the Bible plots are difficult to understand, start with less complicated works – look for a landscape or a still life. Fine food can catch anyone’s imagination. The last vacation, my husband, who doesn’t keen on art, and I were in went to see an exhibition of works painted in the 16-17th century. He liked neither belles nor angels but he was very impressed with a piece of pie by an Old Master.

Let the art evoke emotions from you. Observe the lines, the hues, the juxtaposition of objects without hard trying to figure out what the painter meant. A catalog or Google will confirm or deny your spontaneous guesses a bit later.

Free your mind of stereotypes engendered by glossy magazines. Baroque standards of beauty do not coincide with ours. Pieter Paul Rubens and his contemporaries often depicted fat women. Please forget about their full hips, appreciate their pale skin and curly hair!

Don’t aim to go around the whole gallery. It’s much better to have fallen in love with 10-15, having looked at them than to be trudging from one floor to another and mumbling: ‘Oh, good heavens, I’m so tired!’

Open your heart. The paintings will fascinate you as soon as a chance will be given them.

Helen Dickinson
Helen Dickinson

Hi! I am Helen, an artist. My favorite art supplies are watercolor paints, brushes and paper, but I also enjoy experimenting with the other materials. Maybe, my knowledges will be useful for you.

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