What Makes a Masterpiece? | Summary and Q&A

March 12, 2020
The Art Assignment
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What Makes a Masterpiece?


What defines a masterpiece and who determines its status? This analysis delves into the history, perception, and relevance of masterpieces in the art world.

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Key Insights

  • ❓ The concept of a masterpiece evolved from demonstrating competence to emphasizing extraordinary quality and virtuosity.
  • πŸ₯° The idea of a "canon" in art history has been critiqued for its exclusivity and bias.
  • πŸ‘… Masterpieces often possess an air of timelessness but can fall in and out of favor as tastes change.
  • βŒ› Recognition as a masterpiece requires both critical and popular attention, sustained over time.
  • πŸ§‘β€πŸ­ The perception of a masterpiece can be influenced by societal and cultural factors.
  • πŸ§‘β€πŸŽ¨ Artists constantly redefine mastery, incorporating conceptual skill, restraint, collaboration, and experimentation.
  • ❓ Defining mastery is subjective, depending on individual values, traditions, and preferences.
  • πŸ‰ The term "masterpiece" carries historical connotations of mastery, gendered implications, and notions of control and dominance.


When the word β€œmasterpiece” is used to describe something, there are a few assumptions I make about whatever it is, whether it’s painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, performance, opera, dance, literature, film, a video game, a meal, or what have you. Like, I’m probably going to think it demonstrates some serious skill on the part of whom... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How did the concept of a masterpiece originate?

In the late 13th Century France, artisans created "chef d'oeuvre" to prove their competence and gain apprentices. Later, during the Italian Renaissance, the emphasis shifted to extraordinary quality and virtuosity.

Q: Who decides what qualifies as a masterpiece?

Initially, guilds determined the quality of work. However, the field of art history, particularly influenced by Giorgio Vasari's book, "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects," played a significant role in shaping the perception of masterpieces.

Q: Can a work cease to be considered a masterpiece?

Tastes change, and artworks that were once celebrated can fade from glory. They may no longer resonate with contemporary audiences or fail to meet evolving standards of critical and popular attention.

Q: What distinguishes a masterpiece from other works?

A masterpiece must represent exceptional quality, but it also needs to set itself apart in some way. It should exhibit uniqueness and stand as the best within its genre or oeuvre.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Masterpieces were originally created to demonstrate mastery and competence in a particular craft, but later emphasized extraordinary quality and virtuosity.

  • The concept of a masterpiece became intertwined with divine creation in Christian cultures, while also evolving to represent the best work of an artist's career.

  • The term "canon" in art history, referring to a curated list of important works, has been criticized for its exclusivity and bias.

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