A History Of Art Commissions

Here are a few historical and famous art commissions to convince you of the beauty of commissioning works of art.

famous art commissions

by Tanya Singh

A couple of hundred years ago, buying and selling art was not the same as it is today. In fact, art itself did not have the same function or value that it does now. In the Middle Ages, most artists, who we now know as the Masters, primarily created works of art that their patrons had requested. From portraits to biblical scenes, the rich and the famous simply ‘ordered’ what they wanted and the artist had to produce.

famous art commissions
The Invention Of Oil Painting, Theodoor Galle, c. 1591

Not exactly what we would call artistic freedom but it did have its advantages – artists didn’t have to wait for their paintings to sell, unlike in today’s times. Nonetheless, that period is when the concept of art commissions was born. We have come a long way from then, but commissioning works is still widely practiced, except in a more fluid manner in terms of artistic freedom.

Today, art commissions do not have the same connotations as they did a hundred years ago. Collectors now understand and appreciate the value of the artist’s intention and creative process and therefore, it is possible to commission a work of art without restricting the artist in any way. Commissioning artworks gives you, as the collector, an opportunity to collaborate with the artist, and it is an experience that everyone with a keen interest in art should go through at least once in their life.

Just in case, you are not convinced about the beauty of the experience, here are a few historical and famous art commissions to inspire you!

Colosseum

famous art commissions
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An exceptional work of art in its own right, the Roman Colosseum is one of the oldest commissions in the world. The Roman society at the time was actually anti-intellectual and considered artists equivalent to skilled labor. However, the emperors recognized the importance of art and architecture in establishing favorable public opinion about the authorities. The Colosseum was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72. An iconic symbol of Imperial Rome, it used to have a number of mythological sculptures and frescos, created by the ancient Roman artists.

Apse of Sant Climent de Taüll

famous art commissions
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most appreciated masterpieces of the European Romanesque art period, this fresco was commissioned to an unknown artist, widely recognized as the Master Of Taüll, in the 12th century for the church of Sant Climent de Taüll at the Vall de Boí, Alta Ribagorça in the Catalan Pyrenees. The fresco was removed from its original home in 1919 and is now at the National Art Musuem Of Catalonia, Barcelona.

The Last Supper

famous art commissions
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The transition of the artist’s position in society from skilled labor to gifted individuals took hold thousands of years later during the Renaissance in the 15th century. Leonardo da Vinci, the face of the Renaissance art movement, completed hundreds of commissioned works during his time. One of his most well-renowned works, The Last Supper, was commissioned to him in 1495 for the monastery church of Santa Maria della Grazia, Milan. However, as far as artistic liberty is concerned, da Vinci was an exception. We all know about the theories about the numerous symbols and codes that he managed to paint into the biblical imagery, from the end of the world to Mary Magdalene.

The Sistine Chapel

famous art commissions
Source: The Telegraph

Another equally revered work from the same period id Michelangelo’s masterpiece – the frescos at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo worked on the ceilings of the chapel for almost four years (1508-1512). The Sistine Chapel completely transformed the course of Western art and is regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization.

The Taj Mahal

famous art commissions
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Widely known as a symbol of love, the Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal in 1632. The incredible structure was designed and built by a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. Apart from the fact that it was a commissioned architectural piece, there are a number of theories associated with the structure that most people don’t know. It is said that after the construction of the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan supposedly ordered the execution and dismemberments of thousands of laborers involved in the construction just so that nobody would be able to create this masterpiece again.

Victor Chocquet Seated

famous art commissions
Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the Modern Era, the position of the artist was suddenly elevated to a free, creative spirit. Commissions fast became a rarity, and the few artists that did take them only did so for the financial support it provided. Post-Impressionist artist, Paul Cezanne met Victor Chocquet, a wealthy art collector, through Renoir and subsequently developed a deep friendship with him. Chocquet commissioned a number of portraits and paintings to help Cezanne financially. This particular piece was painted in 1877.

Mural

famous art commissions
Source: Artsy

Peggy Guggenheim, a well-renowned art collector from the famous Guggenheim family, and the concept of art commissions, can perhaps be given all the credit for ‘discovering’ the greatest artist in American history. In 1943, she commissioned Jackson Pollock on the suggestion of her artist friend, Marcel Duchamp, to paint a mural for her Manhattan townhouse. Pollock had not even had a single solo exhibition at this time, let alone selling or taking up commission works. Apparently, after agreeing to the commission, Pollock did not produce anything for several months. Frustrated by this, Peggy Guggenheim decided to give him an ultimatum. She told him that if he did not finish the painting until January the next year, she would stop paying him the stipend. The next morning, Pollock had completed his first ever drip painting.

 

Following the Modern art movement, a revised system of commissioning art was established – one that satisfied collectors while also providing the artist all the creative freedom. Today, art commissions have become a common phenomena.Art ‘stars’ like Jeff Koons and Chuck Close have been creating commissioned pieces throughout their career. From public authorities to major organizations, everyone has hopped on the train and art commissions have since become a prestigious opportunity for artists.

Useful Article: Commissioning Artwork – What Collectors Need To Know

If you are a keen collector, you must try commissioning a piece at least once. It is truly an inspiring experience, and who knows, you might like it a lot more than purchasing ready-made pieces. If you’re interested in commissioning an artwork by one of Agora Gallery’s artists, please contact us at info@agora-gallery.com.

Have more questions? Ask us in the comments or write to us at blogs@agora-gallery.com.


Tanya Singh is a budding art historian and writer. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate studies at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. With a versatile portfolio, she has over three years of experience in writing as well as editing.

One comment

  • It’s interesting to see how far back commissions have been a thing. It makes sense that paying an artist to do art for you is something that would be done! Maybe that’s something I should have done, since I’m having a hard time looking for a specific art piece that I want to have in my home.

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