The Artist in Society

views updated

The Artist in Society



Artistic Training. During the late Middle Ages artists were affiliated with craft guilds that regulated the education of apprentices and the entry of masters into the guild structure. An apprentice lived at his master’s house for two to seven years while he received instruction in basic skills, such as grinding pigments and mixing them for paint. At his master’s workshop he would be given more challenging tasks as his skills improved and finally be awarded a journeyman’s certificate by the guild. Some journeymen, such as Albrecht Durer, went on lengthy trips to improve their skills and visit other workshops. The production of a masterpiece for the guild was the final challenge before being allowed to set up an independent workshop as a master craftsman. Since much of the work created in the master’s workshop was collaborative, the style of the work created had to be uniform. For this reason, paintings or sculptures of lesser quality are sometimes listed as a creation of the workshop rather than the master, as is the case with Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s Tabletop of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1485). The primary concern of these guilds was to stay competitive, control outside competition, and ensure the quality of the work produced.

Prior to 1450 the artist was viewed as a skilled craftsperson, and the distinction between fine arts and the decorative arts was not made. Traditions among the workshops varied with the type of work produced, and there is little documentary evidence regarding the roles that women played in the fine arts.

Medieval Workshop. Monastic workshops were centers of book production, as well as painting, glassmaking, and metalwork—where resources and space were available. The copying and illustration of sacred texts was a spiritual discipline practiced by monks and, to a lesser degree, nuns. Monasteries and convents were also active in commissioning and producing inexpensive devotional images and votive prints for the pilgrimage trade and the broader lay market. They continued to stimulate the production of religious books and prints into the Renaissance. By the late Middle Ages, laymen also had established workshops in urban centers for the creation of religious and secular work. Many of these independent craftsmen, including playingcard makers, were designated in archival records as “Jesus makers.” Wives and daughters often took part in craft and artisan activities within the family workshop and were especially prominent in the luxury trades, such as embroidery, bookbinding, goldsmithing, and silk-making. Over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, guild ordinances increasingly restricted the economic participation of women, even within the family household workshop. By the end of the sixteenth century, women had virtually disappeared from these organizations.


Leonardo also executed in Milan, for the Dominicans of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a marvelous and beautiful painting of the Last Supper. Having depicted the heads of the apostles full of splendor and majesty, he deliberately left the head of Christ unfinished, convinced he would fail to give it the divine spirituality it demands. This all but finished work has ever since been held in the greatest veneration by the Milanese and others. In it Leonardo brilliantly succeeded in envisaging and reproducing the tormented anxiety of the apostles to know who had betrayed their master; so in their faces one can read the emotions of love, dismay, and anger or rather sorrow, at their failure to grasp the meaning of Christ. And this excites no less admiration than the contrasted spectacle of the obstinacy, hatred, and treachery in the face of Judas, or indeed, than the incredible diligence with which every detail of the work was executed. The texture of the very cloth on the table counterfeited so cunningly that the linen itself could not look more realistic.

It is said that the prior used to keep pressing Leonardo, in the most importunate way, to hurry up and finish the work, because he was puzzled by Leonardo’s habit of sometimes spending half a day at a time contemplating what he had done so far; if the prior had had his way, Leonardo would have toiled like one of the laborers hoeing in the garden and never put his brush down for a moment Not satisfied with this, the prior then complained to the duke, making such a fuss that the duke was constrained to seed for Leonardo and, very tactfully, question him about the painting, although he showed perfectly well that he was only doing so because of the prior’s insistence. Leonardo, knowing he was dealing with a prince of acute and discerning intelligence, was willing (as he never had been with the prior) to explain his mind at length; and so he talked to the duke for a long time about the art of painting. He explained that men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least; for, he added, they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect ideas which they subsequently express and reproduce with their hands. Leonardo then said that he still had two heads to paint: the head of Christ was one, for this he was unwilling to look for any human model, nor did he dare suppose that his imagination could conceive the beauty and divine grace that properly belonged to the incarnate Deity. Then, he said, he had yet to do the head of Judas, and this troubled him since he did not think he could imagine the features that would form the countenance of a man who, despite all the blessing he had been given, could so cruelly steel his will to betray Ms own master and the creator of the world. However, added Leonardo, he would try to find a model for Judas, and if he did not succeed in doing so, why then he was not without the head of that tactless and importunate. The duke roared with laughter at this and said that Leonardo had every reason in the world for saying so.

Source: Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists: A Selection, volume 1, translated by George Bull (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965), pp. 262-263.

Social Position. By the fifteenth century the artist’s social position in Italy shifted with the association of painting, sculpture, and architecture with the liberal arts. Training included the study of the human body, classical antiquity, and life drawing. Patrons of the arts, such as Lorenzo de’ Medici, newly conscious of these needs, made available their collections of antique and contemporary art to artists such as Michelangelo. Italian artists began to market themselves through the publications of manuals, commentaries, and treatises. Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell' Arte (circa 1390) was an early handbook of workshop practices such as the art of tempera painting. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Commentarii (circa 1450s) discussed his new understanding of the relationship of sight to the structure of the eye. His book is the earliest surviving autobiography by an artist. In it he demonstrates his conscious awareness of his own place within Florentine history. Leon Battista Alberti, a humanist cleric who worked for the papacy, was a prolific writer whose Latin treatises engaged a humanist audience deeply interested in art. His works were circulated in Latin and in Italian. De pictura (On Painting, 1435) was the first known theoretical treatise on painting. His book included discussions of the principles of the pictorial arts such as composition, spatial perspective, and the reception of light. Alberti’s treatise on architecture, De re aedifictoria (Ten Books on Architecture, 1435-1436) was highly influential for Renaissance city planning. He promoted Neoplatonic ideals about the perfection of the cosmos through geometrical forms, particularly for churches.

Women in the Arts. For female artists the access to these new skills was limited by the restrictive norms of gender roles in Renaissance society. A new emphasis on domesticity increasingly confined women across the social spectrum to the household. While humanists generally believed that upper-class women should be trained like their male counterparts in studies of Latin, classical literature, philosophy, and history, they still envisioned women primarily as wives regardless of their class and extolled modesty, silence, and discretion as female virtues. Well-educated aristocratic women applied their skills within the confines of the domestic household and court. Raised in a noble family where humanist educational ideals popularized in works such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiono (The Courtier, 1528) were influential, a female artist such as Sofonisha Anguissola (circa 1532-1625) was in many ways an exception. While her father encouraged her artistic development, even actively brokering her career as an artist, portraits, commissioned by nobles and princes, remained solidly within the established codes of courtly society.

Markets for Art. While private commissions and donors continued to drive artistic production throughout the Renaissance, some artists began to produce work on speculation for the open market by the end of the fifteenth century. Many lesser artists began selling their works at huge international fairs in northern European cities. New print technologies made it possible to produce relatively inexpensive works that could be stockpiled and sold at open-air stalls, print shops, or in a secondhand market regulated by a middleman. Artists such as German artist Albrecht Dürer became attuned to the broadening market for less expensive genres, such as woodcuts and engraving. His invention of a personal monogram (AD) allowed him to claim ownership of his creative designs, to create a name recognition that associated his work with high standards and quality, and to undercut other artists who appropriated his style.

Connoisseurship. The humanist reverence for antiquity dictated relatively rigid standards of taste. Rivalry between collectors often inflated prices. Many collectors were willing to pay premium prices for classical sculptures. Michelangelo may have deliberately buried his sculpture Sleeping Cupid (circa 1495) in order to have it unearthed and pronounced an antique by collectors. For princely connoisseurs art became an important arena in which to demonstrate their magnificence, individuality, and aristocratic distinction through artistic taste. By the late fifteenth century, collectors also began to accumulate prints in large numbers. The Nuremberg humanist scholar Hartmann Schedel collected and pasted prints into his books and manuscripts, suggesting a broadening respect for quality prints among some elite collectors who traditionally invested in more-prestigious objects, such as antique manuscripts, medals, and coins. Print artists, such as Marcantonio Raimondi, who were accepted as full members of humanist and courtly circles in Bologna, Rome, and other humanist centers, were indicative of the new status of the print as art form in Renaissance Europe. He also exemplifies the increasingly intimate relationship between artists and collectors, who were engaging in a mutual enterprise to develop a common vocabulary of critical response. From this exchange the Renaissance elite established a new canon of aesthetic taste.

Production of Fame. Most medieval craftsmen and artists produced their works in anonymity. By the late Middle Ages, however, they began to use various seals and markers to indicate responsibility for the quality of their product. Even though the fourteenth-century Florentine artist Giotto only signed two of his paintings, his name became synonymous with artistic achievement by the late 1300s, thanks to the attention his work was given by later writers and chroniclers. By the mid fourteenth century many artists in Italy began to be aware of the importance of promoting themselves and their memory, either writing about their lives or encouraging others to write about them. An increasing sensitivity to individual artistic talent, style, and achievement closely connected to humanist sanctions of fame, immortality, and wealth. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s discussion in his Natural History of the status, wealth, and prestige that artists enjoyed in classical society became the model that was used to justify the growing prestige accorded to artists in the Renaissance. Intellectual and artistic exchanges between Italy and northern Europe helped promote and sustain this model north of the Alps. Durer employed multiple strategies to promote the status of the artist and the elevation of the arts. As a young boy he began to draw and later paint a remarkable series of self-portraits that reflect an intense self-consciousness about his social position, artistic talent, physical health, and keen awareness of his own fate and mortality. In a striking portrait he painted at the age of twenty-six, in which he styled himself as a man of fashion, wearing fine doeskin gloves, the young Dürer recorded for posterity his upward movement in society. His upright posture, restrained comportment, and fine clothing were all important markers of status in Nuremberg society and Europe generally. From self-portraits to major commissioned altarpieces, such as the Madonna of the Rosegarlands (1506), Dürer remained acutely conscious of his posterity and the need to propagate his physical presence, memory, and talent for immortality.


Michael Baxendall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1500 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Wendy Slatkin, Women Artists in History; From Antiquity to the 20th Century (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985).

Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove, 1996).

Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy, 1350-1500 (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

About this article

The Artist in Society

Updated About content Print Article


The Artist in Society