Mistrzowie dawni. Szkic do dziejów dziewiętnastowiecznego pojęcia
In the first half of the 19th century in literature on art the term ‘Old Masters’ was disseminated (Alte Meister, maître ancienns, etc.), this in relation to the concept of New Masters. However, contrary to the widespread view, it did not result from the name institutionalization of public museums (in Munich the name Alte Pinakothek was given in 1853, while in Dresden the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister was given its name only after 1956). Both names, however, feature in collection catalogues, books, articles, press reports, as well as tourist guides. The term ‘Old Masters’ with reference to the artists of the modern era appeared in the late 17th century among the circles of English connoisseurs, amateur experts in art (John Evelyn, 1696). Meanwhile, the Great Tradition: from Filippo Villani and Alberti to Bellori, Baldinucci, and even Winckelmann, implied the use of the category of ‘Old Masters’ (antico, vecchio) in reference to ancient: Greek-Roman artists. There existed this general conceptual opposition: old (identified with ancient) v. new (the modern era).
An attempt is made to answer when this tradition was broken with, when and from what sources the concept (and subsequently the term) ‘Old Masters’ to define artists later than ancient was formed; namely the artists who are today referred to as mediaeval and modern (13th–18th c.). It was not a single moment in history, but a long intermittent process, leading to 18th- century connoisseurs and scholars who formalized early-modern collecting, antiquarian market, and museology.
The discerning and naming of the category in-between ancient masters (those referred to appropriately as ‘old’) and contemporary or recent (‘new’) artists resulted from the attempts made to systemize and categorize the chronology of art history for the needs of new collector- and connoisseurship in the second half of the 16th and in the 17th century. The old continuum of history of art was disrupted by Giorgio Vasari (Vite, 1550, 1568) who created the category of ‘non-ancient old’, ‘our old masters’, or ‘old-new’ masters (vecchi e non antichi, vecchi maestri nostri, i nostri vecchi, i vecchi moderni). The intuition of this ‘in-between’ the vecchi moderni and maestri moderni can be found in some writers-connoisseurs in the early 17th (e.g. Giulio Mancini). The Vasarian category of the ‘old modern’ is most fully reflected in the compartmentalizing of history conducted by Carel van Mander (Het Schilder-Boeck, 1604), who divided painters into: 1) oude (oude antijcke), ancient, antique, 2) oude modern, namely old modern; 3) modern; very modern, living currently. The oude modern constitute a sequence of artists beginning with the Van Eyck brothers to Marten de Vosa, preceding the era of ‘the famous living Netherlandish painters’.
The in-between status of ‘old modern’ was the topic of discourse among the academic circles, formulated by Jean de La Bruyère (1688; the principle of moving the caesura between antiquité and modernité), Charles Perrault (1687–1697: category of le notre siècle preceded by le siècle passé, namely the grand masters of the Renaissance), and Pellegrino Antonio Orlandi writing from the position of an academic studioso for connoisseurs and collectors (Abecedario pittorico, 1704, 1719, 1733, 1753; the antichimoderni category as distinct from the i viventi).
Together with Christian von Mechel (1781, 1783) the new understanding of ‘old modernity’ enters the scholarly domain of museology and the devising of displays in royal and ducal galleries opened to the public, undergoing the division into national categories (schools) and chronological ones in history of art becoming more a science (hence the alte niederländische/deutsche Meister or Schule). While planning and describing painterly schools at the Vienna Belvedere Gallery, the learned historian and expert creates a tripartite division of history, already without any reference to antiquity, and with a meaningful shift in eras: Alte, Neuere, and lebende Meister, namely ‘Old Masters’ (14th–16th/17th c.), ‘New Masters’ (Late 17th c. and the first half of the 18th c.), and contemporary ‘living artists’. The Alte Meister ceases to define ancient artists, while at the same time the unequivocally intensifying hegemony of antique attitudes in collecting and museology leads almost to an ardent defence of the right to collect only ‘new’ masters, namely those active recently or contemporarily. It is undertaken with fervour by Ludwig Christian von Hagedorn in his correspondence with his brother (1748), reflecting the Enlightenment cult of modernité, crucial for the mental culture of pre-Revolution France, and also having impact on the German region. As much as the new terminology became well rooted in the German-speaking regions (also in terminology applied in auction catalogues in 1719–1800, and obviously in the 19th century for good) and English-speaking ones (where the term ‘Old Masters’ was also used in press in reference to the collections of the National Gallery formed in 1824), in the French circles of the 18th century the traditional division into the ‘old’, namely ancient, and ‘new’, namely modern, was maintained (e.g. Recueil d’Estampes by Pierre Crozat), and in the early 19th century, adopted were the terms used in writings in relation to the Academy Salon (from 1791 located at Louvre’s Salon Carré) which was the venue for alternating displays of old and contemporary art, this justified in view of political and nationalistic legitimization of the oeuvre of the French through the connection with the tradition of the great masters of the past (Charles-Paul Landon, Pierre-Marie Gault de Saint-Germain).
As for the German-speaking regions, what played a particular role in consolidating the term: alte Meister, was the increasing Enlightenment – Romantic Medievalism as well as the cult of the Germanic past, and with it a revaluation of old-German painting: altdeutsch. The revision of old-German art in Weimar and Dresden, particularly within the Kunstfreunde circles, took place: from the category of barbarism and Gothic ineptitude, to the apology of the Teutonic spirit and true religiousness of the German Middle Ages (partic. Johann Gottlob von Quandt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In this respect what actually had an impact was the traditional terminology backup formed in the Renaissance Humanist Germanics (ethnogenetic studies in ancient Germanic peoples, their customs, and language), which introduced the understanding of ancient times different from classical-ancient or Biblical-Christian into German historiography, and prepared grounds for the altdeutsche Geschichte and altdeutsche Kunst/Meister concepts. A different source area must have been provided by the Reformation and its iconoclasm, as well as the reaction to it, both on the Catholic, post-Tridentine side, and moderate Lutheran: in the form of paintings, often regarded by the people as ‘holy’ and ‘miraculous’; these were frequently ancient presentations, either Italo-Byzantine icons or works respected for their old age. Their ‘antiquity’ value raised by their defenders as symbols of the precedence of Christian cult at a given place contributed to the development of the concept of ‘ancient’ and ‘old’ painters in the 17th–18th century.
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