The Changing Status of the Artist

How our modern notion of artistic “genius” came into being

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Self-portrait or “Philosophy” (c.1645) by Salvator Rosa. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Image source Wikimedia Commons. The Latin inscription reads, “Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence.”

The word artist has an illustrious ring about it. From Michelangelo to Mozart, we tend to think of artists as individuals in possession of special gifts of creativity. Deeply intertwined is the notion of “genius” — suggestive of some sort of exquisite sensibility integral to artistic creation.

Yet artists weren’t always considered in this way. The journey from artisan to artist began with the medieval guild system in which a “masterpiece” had a very different meaning compared with today.

Artist as craftsman

The old European guild system was an important part of the social fabric in European towns and cities between the 11th and 16th centuries.

A guild was an association of craftsmen or merchants, usually focused on a specific craft like leather-working or metal-smithing. Guilds were formed for professional reasons, partly to maintain standards of quality in the crafts they produced and partly for the economic protection of the craftsmen themselves.

To qualify for membership of a guild, the apprentice usually had to present a “masterpiece” — an example of their very best work — as proof of their skill.

The guild system slowly declined during the 16th and 17th centuries due to the changing framework by which artisans gained employment. Instead of relying on the guild for assurance of their skill, master-craftsmen were becoming sought after by their own names, becoming capitalistic entrepreneurs and forming their own workshops.

In the field of art and painting, an artist’s workshop might be commissioned to make an altarpiece or a fresco for a church, or else a painting for private ownership. Sometimes a painting might be paid for by the square-foot. At other times, it might be the artist’s materials and time by which the price is tallied up.

All of this differs from how we tend to think about the value of an artwork today. These days, the question of why artworks sell for millions of dollars is not usually answered by taking out a tape measure and measuring the dimensions of the work in question.

This change in how we think about an artwork’s value goes hand-in-hand with the changing status of artists. This history involves a struggle for social recognition and a fight for the inclusion of painting, sculpture and architecture to be counted among the disciplines of the liberal arts.

Artist as learned individual

Artists of the late 15th century, most notably in Italy, grew concerned about their status in society. They sought to elevate themselves above the level of craftsmen. One way of doing this was to make allusions to their erudition. By expressing the theoretical foundations of their work, artists were able to assert themselves not only as skilled artisans but as “scientists” in their field of representation.

One outstanding example of artistic learning was the treatise, Della Pittura (“On Painting”) written by the artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti. Published in 1450, On Painting reinforced the assumption that the ultimate aim of an artist was to imitate nature. Alberti was also a keen mathematician and turned his considerable knowledge to the science of optics — the study of the behaviour and properties of light — to argue that geometric perspective was the foundation tool of artistic and architectural representation.

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Alberti’s diagram showing pillars in perspective on a grid in Della Pittura. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Alberti’s writing was especially influential on Leonardo da Vinci, who later echoed Alberti’s stress on the mathematical underpinning of drawing and painting: “Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this, perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.”

Such an emphasis on learning was part of the wider revival of the study of classical antiquity. This was a period that saw the restoration of the “Liberal Arts” of grammar, poetry, rhetoric and moral philosophy. Ancient Greece and Rome were revered as benchmarks of human achievement, and patrons of the arts, along with the artists themselves, sought to educate themselves in the classical texts that were being rediscovered across Europe at the time.

Throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries, Italy enjoyed great prosperity. Be it through the maritime trading of Venice or the financial operators of Florence, great wealth was brought to the ruling classes. In turn, these ruling elites enjoyed a high-average of education and culture. The same elites would become the patrons and supporters of a new “Humanistic” art.

The sense of self-confidence that accompanied this learning remains palpable in the buildings and artworks of Renaissance Italy made at the time, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Raphael’s School of Athens, painted for the palace rooms of the Vatican City in Rome.

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The School of Athens (1509–1511) by Raphael. Fresco at the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Raphael’s fresco painting, completed in 1511, is an idealised depiction of Classical antiquity in which a whole crowd of philosophers and mathematicians are depicted. At the very centre of the painting, Raphael has placed the two most revered thinkers of ancient Greece, namely Aristotle (on the right, with his hand outstretched) and Plato (on the left, pointing up).

Notably, the use of perspective in the painting gives the illusion of the temple extending from the real space of the Vatican rooms into this idealised Classical past, as if the contemporary setting of 16th century Rome was linked directly to the glories of ancient Greece.

Artist as perfectionist

The idea that an artist possesses some sort of special power — a “genius” — has its roots in the development of the Renaissance artist as a practitioner of not only the craft of painting but also in the art of discrimination. In other words, a talent to select and arrange elements of the real-world into an harmonious whole. As Alberti wrote, beauty arose from “the harmony of all parts in relation to one another,” and subsequently “this concord is realised in a particular number, proportion, and arrangement demanded by harmony.”

The principle theory of artistic development within the Renaissance tradition was crystallised by the 16th century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari. In his work, The Lives of the Artists, Vasari used a three-part structure, roughly corresponding to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, to describe how artists during these three periods progressively rediscovered the standards of the Greek and Roman ancients.

Vasari’s concept was that the art of his own time was the culmination of three centuries of progress of skill and technique, a progress that had as its overall aim the goal of representing the world with ever more naturalism. This meant not only the ability to paint realistically but also to do so with a sense of disegno (“design”, “drawing” or “draughtsmanship”) and personal maniera (“style” or “manner”). The ancient artists of Greece and Rome had been in possession of such talents. Over the previous three centuries, Vasari’s own countrymen had re-learned them.

Thus, for an artist like Raphael, his specific achievements in art were not just individual; they were part of a process, of one artist learning from those artists who came before him. Vasari put is like this: “The most gracious Raphael of Urbino, who, studying the works of old and modern masters, took the best from all, and having gathered them together, enriched the art of painting with that complete perfection.”

Artist as Genius

It is truly in the Romantic era that the concept of “artist as genius” came into its clearest expression. After the intellectual high-point of the Renaissance, during which artists moved from guild-based artisans to learned creators, the next great shift in the status of the artist began during the 18th century when the Romantic movement took root across much of Europe.

The emergence of Romanticism was complex, since it was born out of a series of overarching events that had a profound impact on the course of European history.

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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Source Wikimedia Commons

Initially rooted in the German aesthetic movement of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), which celebrated the emotional turbulence of individual experience as opposed to an objective view of human nature, Romanticism went on to emphasise private inspiration, subjectivity and the primacy of the individual point of view as primary hallmarks of artistic creativity.

A painting such as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818) by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich captures the spirit perfectly. Like so many of paintings by David Friedrich, the image focuses on a person gazing out over nature. We gaze out alongside him as a companion in the moment. The terms for this device is Rückenfigur, or figure seen from behind, a compositional device by which the viewer can more readily identify with the scene.

The man himself appears to have hiked up a mountain and can be seen looking out over the precipice. He is an explorer — though we sense driven more by a spontaneous impulse rather than by professional pursuit. The way his hair catches in the wind, his overtly noble stance with one leg raised, his frock coat and walking cane, all give the impression of an educated town-dweller who has chosen to spend time in the wilds of nature rather than in human society.

More subtly, Friedrich’s painting also expresses another aspect of Romanticism: a sense of nationalistic pride. Capturing the beauty and grandeur of the Germany landscape, Friedrich repeated what many other artists were doing in their own countries at this time. Romanticism, closely bound up with the emergence of newly sparked nationalism after the French Revolution, tended to emphasise local folklore, traditions and landscapes. In this way, Romantic artists provided the visual imagery that fed into national identity and pride.

The overall characteristic of this new emotionalism was in contrast to the prevailing ideas of classical restraint, which sought a universal language of beauty. To some extent, this involved a rejection of the rational learning of the Renaissance. The English writer Joseph Addison, who was an early proponent of the virtues of “genius”, remarked in 1711 that genius creates “by the mere Strength of natural Parts and without any Assistance of Arts or learning.”

Instead of theory, Romantic painters turned their attention to a direct engagement with nature, often choosing to paint out of doors rather than via the theoretical principles of perspective. Artists filled their sketchbooks with close observations of weather conditions and the effects of light, all of which became a more mainstream subject of art as the 19th century progressed.

Through all these strands, the position of the artist evolved: from the Renaissance ideal of an intellectual artisan improving on tradition, to the artist as a singular visionary who looked to his own direct experiences as the source for his art. In the latter form, it is not tradition that provides the foundation to great art but a kind of exquisite sensibility possessed by the individual. In other words, genius.

Perhaps the French painter Gustave Courbet expressed the new found dynamic most clearly: “I cannot teach my art nor the art of any school, since I deny that art can be taught, or, in other words, I maintain that art is completely individual.”

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My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m the author of How to Read Paintings. Read more about my art writing here.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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