C hristopher Apostle vividly remembers the first time he was moved by a Rubens. The head of the Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department in New York was nine and visiting the Alte Pinakothek in Munich when he came across The Great Last Judgement, circa 1617. “It’s an incredible picture of people going to heaven, but much more interesting to my little mind were the people going to hell,” he says. “I remember thinking, how could somebody paint like this? How unbelievably jarring and emotive. It shocked me into understanding what the power of art was.”
The biblical, classical and historical subjects of Old Master paintings, loosely defined as European art dating from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century, are often considered by museum curators to be more difficult for contemporary audiences: religious symbolism is opaque for many people, while classical stories are less well-known. Rembrandt’s portraits or Vermeer’s domestic scenes embodying an everyday, secular beauty are perceived as more universally appealing. One of the most anticipated exhibitions of 2023 is the largest-ever dedicated to Vermeer, which features works by the 17th-century Dutch Master drawn from international collections at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, opening 10 February. Regardless, Old Masters shows from across the spectrum continue to succeed: pre-pandemic, an extraordinary 9,000 people a day saw Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre in 2019–20, while Raphael was a critical and popular hit at the National Gallery in London earlier this year.
What explains these artists’ enduring appeal? For Apostle, their power is wrapped up with the language of art – “something the Old Masters created”. They found a new and highly realistic way of seeing that dissolved the border between the painted world and ours. “Whether it’s fruit or the Madonna or a portrait of a dour-looking Dutch person, we’re able to see these pictures and have the same human experience [as a viewer centuries ago],” says Apostle. “A scary-looking portrait [might] remind us of our grandmother, who we loved but was quite tough. The still lifes were produced with such skill that we can’t help but be amazed. These artists captured in different ways something that still resonates with us – and in a language we all understand.”
London-based painter Sahara Longe is part of a generation of young artists reimagining Old Masters. “There’s a huge strength behind them,” says Longe. “They emerged from years of training and dedication that can only come from learning to paint at a very young age.” Longe, who was born in 1994, trained at Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence, an atelier that adheres to the Renaissance tradition of drawing and painting figures from life. As a student, she made copies of work by Rubens, using linseed oil to achieve an antique glow. Where Longe departs from her forefathers is in her choice of models: Black figures – family and friends – who rarely appeared in historical paintings as subjects in their own right, are front and centre on her canvases.
Lucius Elliott, head of Sotheby’s The Now Evening Sale, which focuses on art made in the past 20 years, identifies different types of contemporary art currently taking inspiration from Old Masters. One, he explains, is by artists like Longe who subvert the tropes and “white, heterosexual space” of the genre. He points to Kehinde Wiley, who harnesses portraiture – traditionally used to consolidate the power of white sitters – to celebrate Blackness and counter stereotypes of Black masculinity. And Salman Toor, whose figurative depictions of queer South Asian men recall the compositions of artists such as Titian and Vermeer. At The Now Evening Auction in New York earlier this November was a painting by the Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola; her fictionalised tableaux of wealthy people of colour imagine a world in which colonialism never existed.
Another current approach, Elliott says, is about co-opting the spirit of a painting or a period, often with an emphasis on beauty. One example is the in-demand Flora Yukhnovich, born 1990, who reimagines aspects of the Rococo to explore desire and the female form. The London-based artist’s abstractions pull together the theatrical painterly worlds of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau and 21st-century visual culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and aspiration. In 2023, Yukhnovich will be the first artist to take part in a new series of solo exhibitions responding to the historic collections of the Ashmolean, Oxford.
Epic history paintings by Géricault and Delacroix, and many-figured scenes by Bosch and others, have long echoed in the canvases of Cecily Brown, born in 1969, who left London in the 1990s for New York. Her vigorous, semi-abstract paintings are frequently inspired by depictions of the nude throughout history – she opens a concise survey at the Met on 4 April.
“Artists that take inspiration from Old Masters are often co-opting the spirit of a painting or a period”
Perhaps it’s their use of that language described by Apostle – with its recognisable imagery and symbolism – that makes artists who reimagine Old Masters popular. Portraits of women by Polish artist Ewa Juszkiewicz verge on familiarity: their silk dresses; the books, flowers and fans in their hands; their poses (almost always seated) and their body language, leaning gently on velvet cushions. Juszkiewicz reinterprets European paintings mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries that show women in artfully arranged finery. The catch: in her versions, folds of fabric and lush florals engulf the sitters’ heads, screening their features.
“Conventions and patterns in the art of that period provoke me and inspire my own painting explorations,” says the 38-year- old, who has distorted historical portraits by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Joseph Karl Stieler and others. “My goal is to disrupt the stereotypical perception of femininity and to liberate what is hidden behind layers of convention: individuality, expression and vitality.”
The Old Masters remain relevant because of the historical inequities they reflect, then, but this is always bound up in how their pictorial revolutions continue to inspire for their own sake. The UK’s Glenn Brown, born 1966, is celebrated for mining art of the past using exaggerated palettes and paintwork. The effect is often grotesque, though his surfaces are as virtuosic as the artists he quotes. His two-part retrospective at the Sprengel Museum and Landesmuseum in Hannover this February works in comparisons with Gustave Courbet and Anthony van Dyck among others. And a new show at Gagosian New York reveals a recent interest in graphic works by Northern Renaissance masters in particular. Speaking with Jacky Klein for the gallery in 2021, Brown explained the era’s appeal: “Drawing never got better, and it never will, I think”.
As for Apostle, occasionally he revisits that remarkable painting by Rubens in the Alte Pinakothek, and casts his eyes once more over the bodies being sucked into the abyss. “I still go back. I keep seeing things. It really is quite disturbing.” He pauses. “I’m still amazed by it.”
Cover image: Ewa Juszkiewicz, Untitled (after Johann Ender), 2021. Photo: © Ewa Juszkiewicz, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian