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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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In exploring artistic developments in the centuries with which we are concerned here, the first structure or institution to consider is that of patronage. As in the Renaissance, many artists worked for patrons, who commissioned them to execute works of art in accordance with their requirements. Patronage played an important role throughout the period, most obviously in the case of large-scale projects for a specific location that could not be undertaken without a commission. Exemplary in this respect is the work that the sculptor (and architect) Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) carried out at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for a succession of popes from the 1620s onwards. Landscape gardening is another case in point. Artists also executed on commission for a patron works that, though not actually immoveable, involved too much risk to be executed ‘on spec’, in the hope that someone would come along and buy them after they were completed, either because they were large and expensive or because they did not make for easy viewing. Both considerations applied in the case of David’s The Oath of the Horatii, a huge picture of a tragic subject painted in an uncompromising style, which was commissioned by the French state. An artist greatly in demand such as the sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) would also tend to work on commission; in his case, the grandest patrons from across Europe sometimes waited for years to receive a statue by the master, even though he maintained (as both Bernini and Rubens also did) a large workshop to assist him in his labours.

Finally, portraiture was a genre that, with rare exceptions, such as the portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), required a patron to commission an artist to take a likeness.