Old Masters & Art Branding

Owing to the Artystyczna Podróż Hestii Foundation, I had the opportunity to participate in the (Un)common ground conference last week. The conference was the first in Poland to address issues related to art branding. The topic was introduced on Polish ground thanks to Igor Gałązkiewicz’s book under this very title (published in 2016), but for many – including me – it still remains completely unfamiliar. Art branding exploits the relationship between art and commercial brands. As I understand it, the role of business in this relationship lies both in financially supporting contemporary artists through purchasing policies and in extracting strategies emerging from the art field. The latter can have various facets: communicative, developmental, creative, or responding to the changing challenges of the present.


Many of the speakers at the conference were practitioners – people who deal on a daily basis with developing corporate collections, setting brand communication strategies and building relationships between the worlds of art and business. Understandably, the only “players” in this arrangement are contemporary artists who are invited to collaborate with brands and companies and supported through purchases for corporate collections. However, for me, a person passionately and professionally involved in art of old masters, the question arises whether the last one also has a chance to teach business something in this newly forming relationship?

One of the paths of such cooperation can be seen in the ERGO Hestia collection. Collecting 17th century works of art from the Netherlands and Flanders is a direct consequence of the company’s identity. Founded in Sopot, it strongly identifies with the local history in which Gdańsk has long played a major role. As a port city belonging to the Hanseatic League, it maintained strong commercial contracts with the Netherlands, which is reflected in the art and architecture of the city. Hence, the decision to focus the collection on Netherlandish paintings fits well with the Tri-city tradition.

Fot. Bartosz Bajerski / Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

I found the performance of Vadim Grigoryan, an advisor to luxury brands, most inspiring in mapping out further paths for collaboration between business and art. He outlined the future trends that, in his opinion, will dominate human needs in the near future. As catalysts, he pointed to Bauman’s “liquid modernity” in which no traditional and established social structures remain relevant, requiring individuals to be flexible and open-minded in their search for new ground. This uncertainty has been further aggravated by the pandemic. It has deprived us of our previously fixed points of support, such as work and interpersonal relationships. As a rescue from total loss, Grigoryan invoked the strategy of the water lily, which floats in accordance with the flow of the water, but underneath hides a long stem that holds it to the ground. In the same way, we can be helped in our fluid uncertainty by being rooted in the values we believe in.

lilia wodna

Grigoryan pointed out three areas that he believes are extremely important to grow in today’s world. At the same time, these are values that the brands should adhere to if they want to remain attractive to their target audience. He defined them as: Naturing (widely understood dependence on nature and awareness of being a part of it), Craft (craftsmanship understood as respect for what we produce and providing it with the highest quality), Art Thinking (transferring the principles of artistic action to the work of the company).


In my opinion, an affair with contemporary art is not the only path available for developing these relationships. Old masters offer food for thought from all three areas identified by Grigoryan. For centuries nature has accompanied artists in their work – it has provided painting materials and inspiration for creation, it has been competed with and imitated. Understanding these complex relations can often be surprising today. The level of craftsmanship was one of the determinants of the value of a work of art until the dawn of the industrial era. It seems less intuitive to find common ground with “Art Thinking” because it requires a certain amount of historical expertise. However, it is not a difficult or secret knowledge, sometimes it is enough to ask the right questions. The most important tool is to start thinking critically about what we see. In this way looking becomes also an exercise through which we can learn something from early modern art.

One of the most pronounced “branding” strategies we can observe around the Italian Renaissance. It owes its unique position to the writings of Giorgio Vasari, in which he promoted a vision of art development based on the creative potential of Tuscan artists. It remains relevant today – still in just one breath we enumerate as the most important artists of all time: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. And although hardly anyone remembers who Vasari was, we live in his vision of the importance of the Italian Renaissance.

The process of looking at old masters in search of contemporary values I would compare to a mindfulness exercise. It’s about focusing on extracting the individual threads of content that are entangled in the multitude of stories. How to do it? I will try an exercise with the first painting that came to my mind: Giovanni Battista Moroni’s The Tailor. The work, painted around 1570, shows a man looking at us as if we’ve disturbed his work. In one hand, he holds large tailor’s shears; with the other, he holds a black cloth with a white outline of the cut marked on it.

Mężczyzna, sztuka dawna, krawiec
Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor, 1565-1570, National Gallery of Art in London


Who was this man who looks back at us so vividly? Was he a recognizable figure at the time he was painted? We do not know his name. We can only determine his occupation by his posing while doing the work. Did he commission his portrait himself, or did the artist create a generic type, highly individualized, but showing the profession rather than the man?

For a long time, portraits were reserved for the highly born. By the sixteenth century, however, they were becoming more widely available. Moroni never traveled beyond the Bergamo area, there he portrayed members of the upper class, and over time, also citizens of more modest status, artisans who could afford to have their image commissioned, as this tailor did.

The work is painted without a preliminary sketch, but with extraordinary care. By itself, it proves the artist’s mastery in the craft of painting. It is also his trademark – although Moroni painted many other portraits of much more important personalities, for the collective knowledge he remained the author of this work in particular. How did it happen that the painter’s “brand” was built around this particular work? It happened somewhat by accident. The painting was the first work by this Bergamo master, which was bought to the collection of the National Gallery of Art in London in 1862. Thanks to its aesthetic qualities, including the vividness of the model’s gaze, the painting quickly gained a number of admirers and received extremely positive reviews in the British press. This opened the door for further purchases of work by Moroni, a previously little-known painter, to the National Gallery.

This example is merely an exercise, but it reveals the potential hidden in works created centuries ago. In the popular consciousness, old masters have little to offer. Their attractiveness and innovation is hidden under the patina of the past, and blocked by the rigid framework of “canonical” stories. And yet, all these “dusty” works were once contemporary. Around them, too, various strategies were “at work” in order to bring them fame and introduce them into the canon. If they proved ineffective, the work was forgotten. It is also worth learning from their examples, even if it will only serve as a footnote to the story of liquid modernity.

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