Artistic Patronage

views updated May 18 2018


The patron served a fundamental function in the development of art in early modern Europe. In addition to being an active consumer of art, he was its initiator, often dictating form and content. Art patronage functioned as proof of wealth, status, and power and could also serve purposes of propaganda and entertainment. Conversely, influential contacts were essential to an artist's well-being.

Patronage was formalized by contracts defining cost, materials, dimensions, artist's participation, content, and time line; a sketch of the project was often demanded. Alternatively, secular and religious princes could retain artists on a monthly allowance, offering them board and provisions as court residents.

In his explanation of cause and effect, Aristotle defined the position of the patron when he distinguished the efficient cause (the artist) and the formal cause (the art object) from the final cause (the patron). The patron offered forms of support that placed him beyond the level of customer, but the balance between patron and artist was never equal and was often a source of tension.

Patronage changed as early modern institutions such as the city, capitalism, and minted coinage developed, leading to an enlarged world of goods, social diffusion of taste, a variety of new forms, namely, to a broad expanse of material culture with a demand for durable goods. For a full understanding of a patron's extravagance, it is necessary to assemble an accounting from his largesse in church construction, desired prestige in palace construction, and temporary decorations for state visits, festivals, dynastic marriages, and political exchanges. Political and social pressures were factors in limiting lavish display. In Venice and Florence, merchants were restrained in their patronage by sumptuary laws, which went so far as to limit the cost and color of clothing and the amount of jewelry worn.


Art patronage in the early modern era had its origins in religious practices as expressed by the fourteenth-century Tuscan merchant Francesco di Marco Datini, who noted that pictures were meant to move a person's spirit to devotion. Thus, the patron who commissioned a painted or carved work of art intended it first and foremost as a devotional object. The portrait placed on an altar or a panel painting or sculpture for a chapel was important primarily as a means of earning grace for the patron in redeeming his soul from the torments of purgatory. In Florence the early patronage of the prominent Medici family took the form of religious projects.

The iconography of a painting, sculpture, church, or palace was often traditional, but circumstances of patronage can be enlightened by iconology. For example, Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi, of 1423, depicts a story of the Epiphany, a biblical narrative of doctrinal importance as representing Christ's first contact with the Gentiles. Interest in the subject for the painting's wealthy Florentine patron, Palla Strozzi, came from its courtly theme of the reception of ambassadors, and from the fact that Strozzi was a member of the Florentine confraternity of the Magi. The page removing a large gold spur from the foot of the central standing Magus signifies the end of the journey but also alludes to the patron, who was a Knight of the Golden Spur. The unusual subject of Masaccio's Florentine fresco The Tribute Money of c. 1427, in which Christ and the Apostles pay a gate tax to enter the city of Capharnaum may have been stimulated by the deliberations of its patron, Felice Brancacci, on the Florentine city council concerning the institution of a new catasto, or head tax. In 1472 Andrea del Verrocchio rested his double tomb for Piero I and Giovanni de' Medici on the backs of tortoises as a visual form of the Medici motto, festina lente, or "make haste slowly." It has green, white, and porphyry marble representing the Medici colors and family dedication to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Antonio del Pollaiuolo's bronze Hercules and Antaeus of the 1470s rests on a triangular base as a signifier of the Medici triplet identifying its patron.

Patrons are often portrayed in paintings of religious subjects, such as Jan van Eyck's Madonna of the Canon van der Paele, where the eponymous donor is depicted graphically at the proper left of the Madonna and Child. Portraiture emerged as an independent genre from such donor portraits. Here patron and work product are one and the same. Initially, donor portraits began as static, profile depictions, likely inspired by images of emperors on Roman coins, but also distancing the donor from the more animated, frontally displayed religious figures, as in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Sassetti Chapel frescoes of 1486, in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, where husband and wife appear in rigid profile surrounded by scenes of Francesco Sassetti's onomastic patron saint. Other donor portraits can include tomb effigies and equestrian monuments.

In the fifteenth century, guilds began to exert corporate patronage in completing the niches of the Florentine grain exchange, Orsanmichele, with statues of their patron saints and assumed responsibility for other commissions such as Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors for the baptistry of the cathedral of Florence. Pope Sixtus IV's commission in 1481 of wall frescoes to decorate his new Vatican chapel with stories from the lives of Moses and Jesus asserted the primacy of the papacy. His nephew would continue the practice after 1508 with Michelangelo's frescoes for the chapel's ceiling and Raphael's frescoes for the Vatican Stanze.

Patronage was often made for propagandistic purposes. Unlike modern approaches to propaganda as a form of advertising or self-promotion, in Renaissance usage, art honoring the ruling family usually increased in intensity and splendor as visitors approached the seat of power. Ambassadors were often received in camera, that is, in the private bedchamber of the ruling prince, as in the Ducal Palace at Mantua (see Andrea Mantegna's frescoes of 14651474). Other princely examples of patronage include Giulio Romano's designs for the Gonzaga's frescoed Hall of the Giants in the Palazzo del Te, Mantua, 15301532, where the presumptuous Titans attempt to scale Mount Olympus only to be beaten back with their world crashing around theman object lesson, it would seem, to anyone attempting to overthrow legitimate authority.

In Colmar in 1515, the Antonite order commissioned a magnificent altarpiece from the limewood sculptor Nikolaus Hagenauer and the painter Matthias Grünewald with the function of offering hope and consolation to the amputees in their hospital wards suffering from the gangrenous effects of Saint Anthony's fire.

The emergence of print technology in the late fifteenth century, particularly engravings popularized by Mantegna and Albrecht Dürer, made art patronage more democratic, less expensive, and accessible to a broader public. Prints became a popular medium for expanding Renaissance values and Protestant propaganda. An esoteric middle-class audience began to collect small bronzes, prints, and eventually drawings. Works in multiples allowed the artist to substitute mass patronage for the singular patron, allowing volume on a small scale as an alternative to large, expensive commissions, as the European economy burgeoned, material culture grew, and artworks entered the world of durable goods.

In northern Europe, the Protestant Reformation led to civil disorder and the destruction of religious art, such as stained-glass windows, tomb sculpture, and altar panels. A new iconoclasm was founded on the conviction that devotion to such images verged on idolatry. Northern artists lost widespread church patronage, with artists such as Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Hans Holbein turning to other genres such as portraiture, landscape, and mythology to satisfy their secular patrons.

In Italy, a different kind of struggle took place between artist and patron as artists began to assert themselves. Humanist interests in central Italy in the writings of Pico della Mirandola on the dignity of man and the Pseudo-Dionysius on the primacy of the self formed the basis for the emergence of artistic personality. Artworks were generally credited to the patrons who commissioned them, as Pope Paul III reminded Benvenuto Cellini that without his patronage the sculptor was nothing. Artists could only counter such an evident claim by noting that their talent and inspiration were of divine origin.

Michelangelo was soon referred to as "Il Divino," as were Raphael, then Federico Barocci later in the sixteenth century. Soon patrons began to request simply "a Michelangelo," "a Raphael," or "something from your hand" as a testament to an artist's original style and talent. But in the sixteenth century patrons also began to reject commissions by artists who were too willful, such as Domenico Beccafumi or Pontormo, particularly with the emergence of mannerism, a style often marked by idiosyncrasy and overintellection, adopting approaches to traditional iconography that seemed to skirt heresy.

In Venice, patrician patronage became the provenance of Titian to the exclusion of his younger rivals, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano, who looked to the Scuole, or religious confraternities, for patrons. At the end of the century, Veronese developed an opulent style of great appeal to the Serenissima's patrician class. In Florence, the ruling oligarchy consisted of four hundred merchant families who were responsible for all the artworks commissioned there. The most prominent among them included the Medici, Sassetti, Capponi, della Palla, and Pucci. Although the Medici name stands out for its early association with churches, chapels, and palaces, for mythologies commissioned by Lorenzo de' Pierfrancesco, and for works by Pontormo and Bronzino for Duke Cosimo I, the greatest patron family who continued to request works over several generations from such major artists as Titian, Correggio, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto, Raphael, Parmigianino, and so forth, and whose history remains to be written, was the Pucci family.

A new type of patron to emerge at the end of the fifteenth century was the female patron, generally in the form of abbesses and widows. Isabella d'Este set the tone in Ferrara in the 1490s with her patronage of Mantegna and her pursuit of works by Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci. There was also the confident abbess Gioanna da Piacenza for whom Correggio frescoed an esoteric classical program in about 1519. Widows who came to prominence largely due to dowry inflation in the sixteenth century included Atalanta de Galeotto Baglione, Elena Baiardi, Laura Bagaretto, Elena Orsini, and Maria Bufalini. They commissioned works from the most prominent painters such as Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Titian, Parmigianino, Daniele da Volterra, and Federico Barocci.


In the seventeenth century, an age of absolutism as the church and nation states began to consolidate their power, patronage became monopolized. The papacy used Gian Lorenzo Bernini to produce grand statements in his Vatican architecture and sculpture that by their splendor and scale affirmed the truth of the Roman Catholic faith. In Rome the Jesuits and other religious orders engaged Francesco Borromini, Pietro da Cortona, and Giovanni Battista Gaulli for large projects that expressed the confidence and expansive optimism of their patrons.

Patronage took other forms in the Protestant Netherlands as art entered the marketplace, where paintings were literally sold with meat, cheese, fish, and produce. Artists created new genres to solicit patronage from an emerging mercantile class. Popular themes included windmills, seascapes, still lifes, harbor scenes, church interiors, landscapes, and so forth. Jan Vermeer excelled in domestic interiors. Frans Hals produced group portraits, and Rembrandt catered to a sophisticated Amsterdam audience for his biblical subjects, portraits, and etchings.

In Flanders, the magnificent painter and courtier Peter Paul Rubens, like Bernini in Rome, moved with ease in courtly settings, but he also took commissions for church paintings. He served the Gonzagas in Mantua, then painted large cycles of family histories for Marie de Médicis in Paris and Charles I in London.

Patronage in France in the seventeenth century was dominated by Louis XIV, who established the arts to aggrandize the regime, with artists working in concert under the direction of Charles Le Brun and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the king's minister of culture, with work delegated to specialists. In 1663 Colbert reorganized the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648 under the guidance of its native son, Nicolas Poussin, to educate artists and dictate taste. The king moved the French court to Versailles, where he expanded his father's hunting lodge into a palatial flood plain with the contributions of François Mansart, Louis Le Vau, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and AndréLeNôtre. The Academy exerted its authority over the arts into the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Poussin spent his career in Rome painting mythologies for a professional upper middle class.

In Spain, Philip IV engaged Diego Velázquez as the official painter of his court, whereas his contemporaries, Francisco de Zurburán and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, sought patronage from religious orders.

On the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court at Versailles dispersed with officials returning to Paris to commission modest hotels filled with entertaining paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, while Jean-Siméon Chardin depicted morally uplifting genre scenes for a modest bourgeois patronage. Royal patronage persisted in Bavaria in palace decoration, with Domenico Tiepolo emerging as the major painter in several regal courts in Germany and Spain.

In Rome, as the church finally came to grips with papal nepotism at the end of the seventeenth century, patronage of the great cardinals became more modest. This was inevitable as many major churches and palaces had been constructed in the previous decades, and leading artists of the previous generation, such as Pietro da Cortona and Bernini, had died. Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, as vice chancellor of the church, dominated patronage in Rome for half a century with his sponsorship of the Academy of the Arcadians, opera performances and oratorios by Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli, and paintings by his resident artists, Francesco Trevisani and Sebastiano Conca. He dominated taste in Rome, eclipsing six popes beginning with the sixteen-month reign of his great-uncle Alexander VIII in 1689. Ottoboni preferred modest works of the Holy Family expressing tender religious sentiments given focus by strong lighting effects, characterized by the blue and white hues of his livery.

Another type of patronage emerged in Rome with the advent of the grand tour, as French and particularly English travelers to the Holy City commissioned souvenirs of their travels in the form of landscapes, portraits, and views of the great monuments of antiquity. On returning to his native country, each "Milord inglese" would commission portraits from Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, or anecdotal tales from William Hogarth, or, in France, from Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The grand tour alerted visitors to Italy to the remains of Roman antiquity, dictating changes in taste to neoclassicism. This led to the commissioning of works of ancient history and mythology from such artists as Anton Raphael Mengs, Antonio Canova, and Jacques-Louis David. In architecture, patron and artist became one when Lord Burlington designed his Chiswick House in London, and Thomas Jefferson his Monticello in Virginia.

See also Britain, Art in ; Florence, Art in ; France, Art in ; Medici Family ; Netherlands, Art in ; Papacy and Papal States ; Rome, Art in ; Venice, Art in ; Versailles ; Women and Art.


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Edward J. Olszewski

patronage, artistic

views updated May 14 2018

patronage, artistic. Patronage goes beyond the act of purchasing art. Traditionally a patron offered the means of support to the artist, a home, a pension or place, as well as specific payments. The monarchy, church, and aristocracy were the great patrons of medieval architecture, art, and music: Edward the Confessor built Westminster abbey, Henry III rebuilt it, and Henry VII added the east chapel; Henry VI endowed Eton College, Christ's College and King's College, Cambridge. Many of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges were founded by clerics: Peterhouse, Cambridge, by Hugh de Balsham, bishop of Ely (1284), New College, Oxford, by William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester (1379), Corpus Christi College, Oxford, by Richard Foxe, bishop of Winchester (1517), Christ Church, Oxford, by Cardinal Wolsey (1525). Among the many aristocratic patrons were Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (d. 1447), and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (d. 1470), whose gifts of books formed the basis for the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The tradition of religious patronage declined after the Reformation, as much of the wealth of the church was alienated and clerics ceased to dominate political life as Morton and Wolsey had done. Elizabeth I encouraged the cult of majesty, patronizing artists like Hilliard and Hans Eworth to convey her image of royal splendour. Inigo Jones was involved in architecture, decoration, and the design of masques for the courts of James I and Charles I, and the first poet laureate was Ben Jonson in James I's reign. Thomas, earl of Arundel, patron to several painters including Rubens, introduced Van Dyck to Charles I, the last great royal patron of arts. The Civil War put many artists out of work or into exile, yet patronage continued. Peter Lely prospered under Charles I and II, as well as under Cromwell, who, along with other parliamentarians, sat for portraits by Robert Walker. Cromwell also loved music and retained a small group of domestic musicians. The Restoration brought back the Stuarts but not intensive royal patronage. Charles II recognized his duty to the arts but salaries or pensions were often erratically paid. He was, though, an enthusiastic patron of the theatre and horse-racing, while many of the noblemen who followed him out of exile both practised and patronized literature.

The beginnings of the 18th cent. saw increasing political patronage of the arts. The Kit Kat Club, a group of in- fluential Whigs, whose members included the writers Congreve and Addison, artists Vanbrugh and Kneller, and politicians Walpole and Newcastle, extended patronage over all aspects of art and music. Among traditional patrons, returning grand tourists commissioned or rebuilt great houses, and filled them with decoration, paintings, sculpture, silverware, and furniture. Chandos was patron to Handel and the duke of Richmond patron to Canaletto, who spent nine years in England. Lord Burlington befriended William Kent, financed his publications, and collaborated on several of his Palladian designs. George I and George II enjoyed music and patronized Handel and the opera, and employed the sculptors Rysbrack and Roubiliac.

Increasing prosperity meant a role in patronage for the general public. The Three Choirs Festival of Worcester, Gloucester, and Hereford was founded in 1713; books were published by subscription; prints and engravings and later caricatures from artists like Hogarth and Rowlandson sold in large numbers. New money from industry went into the arts: Wedgwood the potter was patron of George Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby. In the 19th cent. the Pre-Raphaelites found support among the industrialists of the midlands and north of England, and throughout the century wealthy art lovers like Angerstein, Tate, and Wallace made generous gifts to public galleries. At a lower level, the newly formed borough and county councils filled their foyers with sculptures and their corridors with portraits of chairmen, mayors, and aldermen.

Patronage of art is now institutionalized. Few individuals in a century of heavy taxation have the wealth to support the arts but royalty still sits for portraits, even if the commissioning organization pays the artist. New town corporations place lonely sculptures on wind-swept grassy banks. But in the main it is orchestras or bodies like the BBC who commission new music, and universities which find funds for painters or poets in residence. Funding comes from a diversity of sources, from the Arts Council to the National Lottery. An artist is unlikely to have a home provided by a patron. He will be paid but not by a long-term stipend. He may receive the freedom of a city but not a government office. He retains his independence, which Dr Johnson valued more than a patron, ‘who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery’.

June Cochrane