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glossary for Old master paintings

A to Z

Our Abecedario skips “Animal” and “Zigzag”, but it has (almost) all the practical terms you might encounter and ought to know (but dare not ask). Conservation-related terms are written by Dianne Dwyer Modestini and denoted with [DM]. She is the Clinical Professor for the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.


The effect of atmosphere and distance on an object. Usually applied to landscape views in which for example the color blue becomes increasingly prominent as a landscape recedes, giving an effect of depth. To be distinguished from diagrammatic renaissance perspective and mostly associated with the development of naturalistic landscape from the seventeenth century on.

Herri met de Bles, Landscape with Metal foundary, ca. 1540, oil on panel © Národní galerie Praha (NGP), Prague
An example of aerial perspective
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Autograph literally means a signature, and in art history the term is applied to a work of art of indisputable authenticity, whether signed or not.


Bozzetto means a sketch and is usually applied to preparatory studies in oil for larger finished compositions, as distinct from modelli (models) which were also preparatory but less sketchy and closer to the final result. Widely used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by artists working in the baroque style, notably Rubens, van Dyck, Luca Giordano and Tiepolo. Bernini also made sculpted bozzetti, which today are greatly admired. Because of their spontaneity and virtuosity in the handling of paint, bozzetti are much prized by collectors, as well as providing a vivid indication of the creative process.

Peter Paul Rubens, Lion Hunt (oil sketch), 1621-22, oil on panel. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Photo by Yuan Fang
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The term normally refers to small highly finished paintings suitable for display in a cabinet, which can mean a small room like a study or a piece of furniture in which art can be shown. Here they can be seen in a more intimate context suitable to their size as opposed to a bigger space where they might be overshadowed by larger works. Typical cabinet pictures are small stylized virtuoso paintings on panel or copper from the late mannerist period in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries or more realistic works from the Dutch Golden age in the next generation.

Adriaen Jansz. van Ostade (Haarlem 1610–1685), Seated Lady with a Flax Winder, 1666, oil on panel, private collection
Measuring 22.2 x 19cm, this ex-Rothschild collection panel is an example of a cabinet picture.
Further explore


A term applied to museums when they sell works of art from their collections. Years ago, museum collections were regarded as inviolate since selling something considered dispensable at the time might later, with changes in taste, be regarded as a mistake. Disaster struck in this way in the 1950’s when one American museum sold many of its best American pictures, then regarded as provincial compared to European. Today, deaccessioning is seen as a legitimate fund-raising tool in the absence of state or federal support but is always subject to careful review and the money designated for acquisitions only not operating costs.

Antonio Susini, The Crouching Venus, private collection © Nicholas Hall
This notable sale by Nicholas Hall had been deaccessioned by an American museum.
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Latin for “Behold the Man,” an image of Christ crowned with thorns presented to the people by attendants, to be distinguished from Christ the Man of Sorrows where he is shown alone. Intended to arouse sympathy for Christ’s fate and hence a stimulus to piety. The subject was popular in the Netherlands as it gave artists the opportunity to combine the rendering of luxurious costumes and set against the stoic naked figure of Christ. The subject is movingly expressed in the Florentine baroque painter Cigoli’s painting in the Pitti Palace, Florence. Titian’s great Ecce Homo in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, is more of an action picture with Pilate rather clumsily attempting to control a potentially dangerous situation.

Daniele Crespi, Ecce Homo © Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
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A category of painting featuring elegant figures not doing anything very much except enjoying a dalliance in an idyllic sylvan setting. The invention of the subject is credited to the French eighteenth-century artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. Fêtes Galantes became part of the standard repertoire of eighteenth-century French painting, reflecting the aspirations of the court at Versailles to a refined, idle lifestyle which came to an abrupt end with the Revolution of 1789.

Antoine Watteau_Le Conteur ("The Romancer"), private collection © Nicholas Hall
Watteau is the foremost painter of fête galante.


An educational and cultural tour of Europe, especially Italy, favored by Northern European aristocrats in the eighteenth century, notably the British. At an earlier period, such jaunts were regarded as corrupting, as in the ditty “An Englishman Italianate is the Devil incarnate” but eventually their usefulness was acknowledged as an opportunity to collect and bring home works of art and in spreading the values of the Enlightenment.

See also: Enlightenment


Canaletto, The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day © Royal Collection Trust
Canaletto was among the favorite artists collected by Grand Tourists.
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Food for Thought


A genre of paintings which, as distinct from portraits, landscapes or still-lifes, represent a multiplicity of figures. History paintings are not necessarily paintings of historical subjects: mythological and religious paintings, for example, are considered history paintings. The term was introduced by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century (Peinture d’histoire) in its desire to hierarchize the various genres in which painters were invited to specialize. History painting represented the highest genre, and also the most difficult to achieve as it required more imagination and erudition than the mere depiction of a model, be it a portrait or a still-life. The history painter was, in fact, expected to be able to handle all genres at once: landscape for background, still-life for realistic details, portrait for expression, and to fuse them into a single convincing image.

Jacques Louis David, Intervention of the Sabine Women © Musée du Louvre, Paris
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Deliberate destruction of images for ideological reasons. Sectarian disputes, religious hostilities, regime changes are but a few reasons for images of rulers, statues of saints or divinities, symbols of power, to be removed and destroyed.  Byzantium’s iconoclastic movement that lasted for over a century, from 726 to 842 AD, is one of the longest “temporary” upheavals against religious images. Iconoclasm however is not limited to Christianity. Already in ancient Egypt, Akhenaten’s reform triggered the mutilation or destruction of countless representations of Egypt’s traditional gods.  Iconoclasm is often associated with austerity and purity of religion: while Luther was not opposed to some religious images, Jean Calvin invoking the scriptures was opposed to their use. Judaism and Islam have been traditionally opposed to human representations of God, considered sacrilegious. Political events, such as the French Revolution, notoriously mutilated and suppressed religious images—such as figures of saints until then prominently displayed—and also statues and representations of deposed rulers. Political iconoclasm is a common practice reaching out well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the Russian Revolution, to the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhist sculptures in Afghansistan in 2001 and the statues of Confederate generals taken down by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pieter Saenredam, The Interior of the Church of St. Catherine, Utrecht, 1636 © National Trust, Upton House
The white-washed interiors of protestant churches in the Dutch Republic, which Saenredam is known for, are a result of the iconoclasm.
Learn more about Pieter Jansz Saenredam



Study of the human figure after a live model. The practice, which seems common and essential today, took a long time to be admitted in art schools. Although artists may have used nude models privately for a long time, the practice was not allowed by the Inquisition. It was not until Annibale (1560–1609) and Agostino (1557–1602) Carracci, along with their cousin Ludovico (1555–1619), created the Accademia degli Incamminati in Bologna (1582) that drawing from life was institutionalized. Life drawing was also taught at the schools of the French Académie but not to beginners who had to first master the art of drawing from plaster casts. In nineteenth century Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) was famously expelled in 1886 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for having a model remove his loin cloth in front of female students.

Lodovico Carracci, The Dream of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1593, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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How to


One of several terms used to describe a painting, usually of small dimension, executed as a “model” for a larger work. Because there is no really adequate word in English to apply to this type of painting, several foreign words have been used in the artistic literature:  esquisse, bozzetto, ébauche, modello, riccordo. The more generic and often used English term “sketch”, is misleading, as it is also—and more traditionally—used for drawings or drawing studies. As opposed to the esquisse, a mandatory step required from the French aspiring artists from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century to enter such competitions as the Prix de Rome or the competition for admission into the Académie Royale, the ebauche, which is strictly speaking an unfinished painting, the etude (“study”), a fragmentary representation (head, hands, for instance), the modellois a finished painting, sometimes loosely executed and intended to be shown to a patron for approval. Modellican also be paintings—often monochrome—given as models for engravers. None of these should be confused with riccordi which are reduced versions of lager works executed for various reasons: visual records of an artist’s own work, or small autograph reproductions of particularly successful and marketable compositions. In a well-documented case, the painter Jean Restout (1692–1768) is known to have executed riccordi as guidelines for restorers of his works.

Jacob Jordaens, Skech for Triumph of Prince Frederik Hendrik of Nassau, 1651, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Brussels. Photo by Yuan Fang
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Overpaint is retouching applied during a past restoration that is not confined to areas of loss but covers up the artist’s paint. Often it is quite old, difficult to remove and, and may pre-date the most recent restoration. It may have been applied to suit the restorer’s idea of how a passage should be painted, to camouflage elements of a composition considered to be undesirable, or to cover severe damage. In many instances well-preserved original can be recovered by removing overpaint. [DM]

Master of Vyšší Brod, Virgin and Child Enthroined, ca. 1340-45, tempera on panel © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Before and after the removal of overpaint on the Virgin and Child Enthroned by the 14th century Bohemian artist known as the Master of Vyšší Brod, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had acquired in 2019.


One of a pair. If not originally conceived as such, it is a “marriage”, usually an unhappy one.  If sold separately, it could be a happy divorce.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Anna Cuspinian, 1502, oil on panel © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur
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Retouching describes the paint applied by a restorer to replace areas of loss or damage, which disrupt the visual harmony of an image. Contemporary conservation guidelines specify that the materials used be easily reversible and that retouching be confined to actual areas of loss, however, for passages of paint that have been abraded by past cleaning and lost their final modelling layer, it is permissible to go over the original paint with thin glazes. Under ultraviolet light retouches appear dark because they do not fluoresce but rather reflect back the purplish light of the lamp. [DM]


A technical word, from the Italian fumo (smoke) for which there is no exact English translation.  It is a softening of contours achieved by shading and blending tones. Sfumato confers an illusionistic quality to portraits. The word is most often applied to the effect as practiced by Leonardo da Vinci who displayed his mastery of the technique in his portrait of the Mona Lisa among others.

Giampietrino, Madonna and Child, Galleria Borghese, Rome © Alamy Stock Photo
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An academic exercise intended to introduce personal expression in the representation of the human figure. Classical tradition and teachings, based on ideals of abstract and stereotyped beauty, relied on the body to express emotions “choreographically”, while neglecting facial features. This was corrected at the French Académie in 1759 with the institution of a special competition requesting the artists to create a painting or sculpture of a face (from 1784, a bust, or demi figure) depiction a specific emotion: fear, smile, ire, modesty, meditation were among the subjects proposed to the competitors. Outside the Académie itself, Têtes d’expression, developed into a genre much appreciated by the public, as can be seen in Greuze’s numerous depictions of varied sentiments. In Germany, the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783), started producing around 1770 his celebrated sculptures of grimacing heads, perhaps the most disturbing representations of human expression.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, An International Wag, 1770/83, ‘Character Head’ no. 6. Belvedere, Vienna. Photo by Yuan Fang
Recent exhibitions


Canvas supports deteriorate over time and become brittle, making them vulnerable to a variety of mishaps, such as tears, broken tacking edges, and buckling. To correct these damages and deformations, paintings have frequently been backed with a supplementary canvas, usually linen, glued to the back of the original with a variety of adhesives: glue paste; wax resin; synthetic polymers of various sorts. It is extremely rare for a painting that predates the nineteenth century to be unlined. All of the techniques require the use of heat, pressure and, in the case of glue linings, moisture. While some old glue paste linings were carefully done and have not altered the original surface texture, other relinings have left it flatten. Relining is still occasionally necessary but has fallen out of use in modern conservation practice, replaced by less invasive treatments such as strip lining. [DM]


Varnish is applied to saturate the colors of a painting, particularly the dark passages of oil paintings, which tend to become matte and blanched once they are fully dry. Painters’ practice regarding initial varnishing varied widely with school and period. Early Italian egg tempera paintings were sometimes given a coat of glair, or beaten egg white, to seal the surface, avoiding the thick coatings of resin in oil that would overwhelm the fresh hues of the technique. In general, it was thought advisable to refrain from varnishing for a certain period of time until the fresh paint film had a chance to settle. Early oil varnishes are not easily soluble and the methods used to remove them, including caustic substances, often damaged the original paint. By the end of the fifteenth century thinner coatings made from resins such as mastic or dammar dissolved in turpentine were available and continue to be used until the present day. All natural resin varnishes deteriorate and discolor, becoming yellow and even brown. By the late nineteenth century some painters, notably the Impressionists, rejected the practice of wholesale varnishing carried out before the opening of Salon exhibitions, known as the vernissage, and specified that their canvases should be unvarnished, glazed, or given a thin coating of wax. Since that time, varnishing has become a vexed topic. Once admired for the golden glow it imparted, its removal sparked numerous cleaning controversies, notably at the National Gallery in London. In the twentieth century scientists and conservators began to experiment with the use of synthetic polymers as a substitute for natural resins, believing that they would be more stable. A number of acrylic resins were used and even provided as commercial formulations. Many were rather large molecules with a high viscosity and failed to saturate the surface, especially dark passages. Over time they had a tendency to become gray and opaque, either due to absorption of dirt or because they formed a film that separated from the paint surface. It was also supposed that they would be more easily soluble than natural resins, but this proved to be a disappointment as some of the resins cross-linked and all of them required the use of toxic benzenes to remove. Some low molecular weight synthetic resins are presently used in varnish formulations and scientists have identified some additives to stabilize natural resins, particularly mastic, still preferred by many conservators because of its superior handling properties and predictability. [DM]

Partial removal (left half) of darkened varnish: Jacopo da Pontormo, Cupid and Apollo, 1512-14, oil on canvas. Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, Lewisburg © The Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU and Nicholas Hall
View artwork above in exhibtion ‘Grey Matters’




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