After the longest nap in the history of the naps – that had to be taken by force thanks to none other than Christianity – the ‘art market’ woke up with the early Renaissance in the 14th century. Two novelties had taken place: on one hand people had developed a new taste, almost a fetish, for finely bound books that developed into a whole other complex market. On the other, Medieval guilds were still regulating the quality of art which partially castrated individualism amongst artists. But among all this, in Florence, a hero was born.
Hello Giotto – the absolute most important painter of the early Renaissance who introduced perspective and the third dimension to painting. Yes, that is why painting is what it is today. Basically, and he changed the rules of the game for everyone.
At the same time, a new type of art patron emerged. The most well known were the… come on, you know who… Their name starts with an ‘M’ and ends with ‘edici”. It was a Florentine family of merchant bankers, led by Lorenzo de Medici, who modified the art patron/artist relationship as for the first time artists were given freedom. Not a lot of it, but more than they had had before. They had freedom to name their own price, to travel, and to choose their own materials. Under their roster of artists, one of the best known and a personal favorite of mine is Sandro Botticelli. He was the apprentice of Filippo Lippi, another Medici artist.
This association of artists with celebrity patrons and other fellow celebrity artists became a fame booster, exactly like it is today in contemporary art. Think: Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst, Gertrude Stein and Picasso/Matisse etc., Peggy Guggenheim and the Surrealists. Francesca von Thyssen, Ella Cisneros, and the list goes on.
During the late 15th and 16th centuries wealthy patrons were amassing small collections. All of a sudden prices were being boosted by provenance, a vague relationship between dealers and buyers began, and for the first time artists had a growing international reputation. A great example of this is Titian. Demand for his work soared high above the clouds all over Europe and King Phillip II of Spain commissioned him to paint Metamorphosis, a beautiful series of three works that now belong to the National Galleries in the UK.
The concept of museums also came about officially during the Renaissance in Italy. Pope Sixtus IV in 1471 – the same Pope that commissioned Botticelli to paint parts of the Sistine Chapel in Rome – founded the oldest public collection in the world, the Capitoline Museums. However, the most important museums in the world that are still around today all opened their doors during the 18th century: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the British Museum in London, the Hermitage in Russia, the Louvre in Paris, Museo del Prado in Spain, etc.
The 17th century came around and a buying power amongst the upper class exploded especially in the Netherlands that was under Spain’s rule at the time. Art was clearly a symbol of wealth and a hierarchy of themes had even developed: history of painting or mythology was on top, second was portraiture, third was genre/landscape and fourth was still life. Huge amounts of works were being produced so prices remained low but quality remained high.
There was also a surge in academies – actual schools of art not just for artists’ apprentices but for anyone that wanted to study fine arts. Alongside that came the official birth of the professional art dealer that we know and love and maybe some despise today. Vermeer and Rembrandt had dealers and the former was a dealer himself. The funny thing is that both of them died penniless men. If they could see where their works are today!
From this point it’s all down hill, or up, whatever way you choose to look at it. By now (18th century) everything that we know today (museums, auction houses, artists, dealers and academies) had already come into existence and developed into what we know them to be. Sotheby’s was even founded in 1744 and Christies came not long after in 1766.
Maybe the only thing that has drastically changed in our contemporary art age is the fact that using oil paints is considered almost unconventional and archaic? You be the judge.
And so, my friends, this concludes the second part of our brief but intense little history of the art market.
That was exhausting.