The Role of the Artist in the Renaissance

“In contrast to the modern notion of the artist as a solitary genius, most artists before the 14th century toiled in anonymity in the service of their patrons, whether Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, or medieval bishops.”
Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages:  The Western Perspective, 13th ed., Backpack Edition Vol I:  “Antiquity,” Wadsworth/Cengage, 2010, 2016, cover page.

Nanni di Banco, Sculptors at Work, from the predella of Quattro Santi Coronati, Or San Michele, c. 1408-1415

This carved relief was made by Nanni di Banco, one of the leading sculptors of the Early Renaissance.  It was commissioned by the Guild of Stoneworkers and Woodcutters to decorate the church of Or San Michele, and it provides insights into the changing status of the artist in the Renaissance.  On the left, we see stone workers carving a spiral column and measuring a capital, and on the right we see sculptors at work on a small statue of baby — perhaps a putto (an angel based on antique figures of Cupid), or the Christ Child.  Working side by side, there is no distinction between the “manual labor” of the stone workers, and the “creative” work of the sculptors.  While these professions are considered to be very different today, they were not regarded this way in the centuries before the Renaissance.

In the Middle Ages, the artist was considered a craftsman, no different from a carpenter or bricklayer.  They worked with large teams in workshops, rather than alone, and they were valued for their skill rather than their intellect or creativity. As artisans, their social status was similar to other skilled laborers, and they rarely achieved the celebrity status that artists enjoy today.  Moreover, works of art were commissioned by wealthy patrons, who expected their employers to follow orders, rather than express their own creative vision. Creativity was neither expected nor valued.

But things began to change in the Renaissance.  With the rediscovery of classical art, and new techniques such as the use of oil paint and perspective, increasing value was placed on artistic innovation and creativity.  Artists began to believe that their profession deserved a higher status because it involved intellectual work rather than mere manual skill.  After all, artists in the Renaissance had to know mathematics and geometry; they studied anatomy, classical culture, theology, and philosophy.  All of this contributed to the idea that painting, sculpture, and architecture should be considered one of the “liberal arts,” rather than a menial trade.

Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was published in 1568 and was one of the first works of art history. Celebrating the talent and creativity of the artists of the Renaissance, Vasari ensured that these artists would be remembered and admired for their achievements.

With this new recognition came a new appreciation for artistic creativity.  Patrons began to seek out artists precisely because of their unique style or approach, and in 1568 Giorgio Vasari published The Lives of the Painters — one of the first works of art history.  Vasari’s book was largely biographical in approach, and ensured that the artist’s of his day would enjoy the fame he felt they deserved.  This new appreciation for creativity and artistic “genius” was fully manifested in the High Renaissance, when superstars like Michelangelo and Leonardo were treated as near equals to the Popes and Kings that employed them.

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1498. Prado Museum

Artists began to acknowledge their importance through self portraits.  In this painting by Albrecht Dürer, the artist portrays himself as a gentleman, dressed in fine clothes and wearing expensive doeskin gloves.  The painting expresses a sense of personal pride and self-worth that reflects the changing status of the artist.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait, 1498, oil on panel, 52 x 41 cm (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1670-1675.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1670-1675. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The new ideas about the role of the artist is summed up in this painting by Jan Vermeer, a Dutch painter of the 17th century.  The picture takes place in an artist’s studio.  It is a well appointed interior, signifying status and wealth.  The artist is dressed as a gentleman, rather than a worker, and he is painting a model posed as Clio, the muse of history.  She wears a laurel wreath and holds a trumpet — emblems of the “fame” that history will bestow upon the artist who records her likeness.
Fame, genius, and creativity are key components of our modern definition of the artist, and it all began with the artist’s self-discovery in the Renaissance!

Learn more:  Patronage and the Status of the Artist (Smarthistory)

Next lecture

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.