In some ways, all art is “custom art.” Most of the great masters had a patron, who would commission his artist to create a certain piece of artwork, for a specific purpose. These days, a paying customer does the same thing-he or she makes a request for something to be created, and the artist creates it.
A big difference between then and now, however, is that today, anyone can approach an artist and make a request. These days, that’s often done through a website. Suppose you’re buying a new house, or renovating your current home, and you want art to fill it. Or you’re a business owner and want elegant art to decorate your offices. You approach an artist with that request, and he or she fills it. No matter what your taste or purpose in the art you like, the artist can fulfill what you want. It’s like buying something before it’s created.
That’s exactly what the patrons of the past did. Kings and popes, for example, supported not only artists, but musicians. Patronage of the arts from the ancient world onward, even to today, was very important in the history of art. It happened most frequently in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and in places and times with a royal or imperial system dominated by an aristocracy that dominated society and controlled most of its resources.
Michelangelo, for example, was commissioned between 1508 and 1512 by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Michelangelo resented the commission because he felt that the work only served the Pope’s need for grandeur, but the ceiling, and especially “The Last Judgment,” is widely considered his crowning achievement in painting.
The very wealthy used patronage of the arts to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Much of portraiture art was commissioned by patrons, who wanted a visual representation of themselves. Portraits are often important state and family records. Every U.S. president since George Washington has had to sit for a portrait for historical records. Portraits have historically memorialized the rich and powerful, but as time has gone by, middle-class patrons, as well as corporations, groups, and clubs, have commissioned portraits of their families and colleagues.
Some patrons, such as the Medici of Florence, used patronage to “cleanse” wealth ill-gotten through usury in the 14th century. Art patronage was also important in the creation of religious art; the Roman Catholic Church, and later Protestant churches, sponsored art and architecture to decorate cathedrals and churches. Art patronage has been, up until relatively recently, been neglected in the study of art history. It’s certain that much of the art created throughout history has been due to the patronage of these individuals.
Art patronage, in its historical and traditional forms, began to end in the 19th century, with the rise of bourgeois and capitalist social forms in Europe. A more publicly-supported system of museums, mass audiences, and mass consumption has now replaced the old system of patronage. These days, the nature of the patrons has changed, from aristocrats to state governments and from churches to charitable institutions.