From Mesopotamia to 1980s New York, the History of Art Patronage in a Nutshell

Jon Mann
Feb 6, 2016 8:59PM

As soon as humans started planting things in the ground, they scratched out settlements, threw up walls, and corralled whatever wealth they could. And where property accumulated, patronage followed.

Patronage, the financial sponsorship of artists by individuals or institutions, paved the way for some of history’s most enduring works of art—so much so, in fact, that history only began regularly recording the names of the artists themselves around the time of the Renaissance. Before then, artists were largely seen as manufacturers and realizers of the grand ideas of powerful patrons with the knowledge and means to commission art.

At the birth of civilization, kings and conquerors sponsored art to enhance their prestige and decorate their power. In the Italian Renaissance, noble families sometimes funneled questionably obtained wealth into works of art as a manner of money laundering. And as artists began working speculatively in the 19th century—producing works on their own, without predetermined buyers—patronage adapted to accommodate this change within the art market. Below, we explore how developments in patronage have affected parallel developments in art itself, and how this relationship continues to evolve into the 21st century.

A Statue of Gudea:

Early Patronage in the Cradle of Civilization

The Mesopotamian ruler Gudea, who reigned from roughly 2144–2124 BC, provides a stunning early example of personal, religious, and kingly patronage. Though Gudea only ruled a section of Sumeria for 20 years, 27 statues of the king have been found and classified by archaeologists. They are among the most cherished artifacts of the Ancient Near East, and nearly half of them are in the collections of major museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though each statue is unique, they all share the same style and have recognizable facial features, dress, and an upright, broad-shouldered pose with clutched hands.

Based on where they were found and the inscriptions they bear, we know that these statues functioned as standins for Gudea in temples, serving as evidence of his piousness to the gods and, as importantly, of his wealth and power to temple visitors. The inscriptions themselves also reflect Gudea’s ability to command expensive materials and sponsor talented artisans.

Most of Gudea’s statues were carved from diorite, the dark, hard-to-work stone that the Egyptian pharaohs also used to render their portraits immortal. Diorite was both notoriously difficult to carve and quite rare, requiring expensive quarrying and transport to obtain. Gudea’s marshaling of the stone served not only to honor the gods, but also to heap glory on himself. And in the end, the gambit worked: much of what we know about Gudea comes to us from his statues and where they were found. Despite only ruling one portion of the Fertile Crescent for just two decades, his patronage of the arts has furnished him with a tidy 4000-year legacy.

Sponsoring the Italian Renaissance


In Renaissance Europe, patronage reflected a re-emergence of humanist thought, which recognized and encouraged the cultural achievements of individuals. Upper-class patrons celebrated their own accomplishments by using their wealth to support the arts. A number of tight patron-artist relationships in Italy—the de’ Medici family and Michelangelo, for example, or the Sforza family and Leonardo da Vinci—produced several of the era’s most lasting works.

Michelangelo Buonarroti famously worked for a series of de’ Medici patrons. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (as Pope Leo X) and Guilio di Guiliano de’ Medici (as Pope Clement VII) hired the Florentine sculptor to carve their tombs and design the New Sacristy in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. Shortly before his death in 1534, Clement commissioned Michelangelo to paint one of his most enduring works, The Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Leonardo da Vinci enjoyed the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, who, as Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499, commissioned the painter to decorate the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. There, Leonardo painted The Last Supper, an early fresco masterpiece of the High Renaissance.

However, acting as a sponsor of the arts also served an important propagandistic function in the Machiavellian political climate of Renaissance Italy. Pope Julius II (né Guiliano della Rovere, pope from 1503–13) is most famous today for his art patronage in Rome. In 1506, he oversaw the demolition of St. Peter’s Basilica, which he went on to rebuild and fill with the work of newly minted master artists. One such artist was Raphael (1483–1520), who, at the behest of Julius, painted The School of Athens (1509–11).

A masterpiece of High Renaissance fresco, Raphael’s monumental painting placed the greatest minds of classical philosophy in a perfectly ordered, utopian plaza of Greco-Roman design—a fitting theme for the Stanza della segnatura, Julius’s personal library. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and their intellectual colleagues from across the ages converse, debate, and teach, while marble statues of Apollo and Minerva preside in their roles as patron god and goddess of the arts.

How better to disguise the fact that Julius had marched on Italy twice under the banners of French kings in 1495 and 1502 in the hopes of taking the papacy from political rivals than to connect his tenure to the pursuit of higher ideals? How better to silence challenges that he had obtained the papal seat through bribery and simony (the selling of holy orders and church offices) than to use his considerable wealth to commission art that would glorify the Catholic Church?

While Julius’s papacy lasted only 10 years, his sponsorship of the arts would influence centuries of painting, sculpture, and architecture. The subsequent 1513 election of Pope Leo X—an art-loving Medici—ensured that Julius’s immense project of updating the Vatican would continue unabated.

The “Artist as Genius” becomes the “Artist as Speculator”

Renaissance humanism suggested that artists were individuals of genius gifted with tremendous talent, and—as such—it might be worth remembering their names. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that artists could make works on their own time (and own dime) and hope that someone might purchase them. Before then, it was the great art academies that turned out nearly every artist capable of selling their work, and as such, those institutions governed the display and sale of art.

The Realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) led the charge against the French Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1855, after the institution rejected three of his 14 submissions to the “Exposition Universelle,” a world’s fair-type exhibition hosted in Paris. Among the refused canvases was The Painter’s Studio: a real allegory of seven years of my artistic and moral life (1855), which the jury deemed too large to display.

Courbet turned the dismissal into an opportunity, renting the grounds next to the “Exposition” and erecting a temporary Pavilion du Réalisme (Pavilion of Realism), where he displayed 40 of his works for sale. He wrote a Realist manifesto for its catalog, championing an artist’s personal study of art and nature over any “preconceived system” represented by academic teaching.

Detail of Gustave Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio” (1855). Note the figure of Charles Baudelaire on the far right and patron Alfred Bruyas, the standing figure in the center. 

The Painter’s Studio itself is as much a visual diatribe against the academic art institution as it is a testament to what Courbet considered the right kind of patronage. In the nearly 12-by-20-foot painting, Courbet positioned three groups of figures. On the left are figures representing everything that he deemed wrong with the arts: a priest, a merchant, and a “hunter”—who looks suspiciously like Emperor Napoleon III. One also finds an impoverished man and woman huddling around a guitar, a knife, and a hat on the ground—still-life elements of the academic tradition. On the right, Courbet is visually supported by the art critic Champfleury, the poet Charles Baudelaire, the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and—of course—Courbet’s most prominent patron Alfred Bruyas.

In the center of all of this, the painter himself labors away at a landscape painting of the Loué River Valley, the site of his provincial hometown of Ornans, while a peasant boy and a female nude look on admiringly. Between the academic patronage of the State on the left and the genuine support of his artistic peers on the right, Courbet works proudly—the literal picture of artistic self-sufficiency.

Indeed, Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism is broadly recognized as the first instance of an independent exhibition by a solo artist. Later exhibitions of Realist and, eventually,  Impressionist  painters in the late 19th century broke further from the system of academic patronage, leading to a boom in art-dealing and allowing artists a greater stake in the sale of their work.

A Modern Case Study:

The Patrons of Keith Haring

Even as a young artist, Keith Haring, who would eventually become one of the best-known names associated with New York’s East Village art scene of the 1980s, found enthusiastic patrons in every corner of the art world. In 1982, at the age of only 24, he was represented in a one-man show at the trendy Tony Shafrazi Gallery. In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan, where a visitor could view murals for free and purchase affordable retail items featuring his distinct style and symbols. Art institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris commissioned him to create on-site murals and, in 1986, the same year that he painted his (uncommissioned) Crack is Wack mural on a handball court in East Harlem, Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn brought him in to decorate the interior of their hospital.

Even that old bastion of institutional patronage, the Catholic Church, put Haring to work: he was asked in 1989 to decorate a wall of the Church of Sant’Antonio in Pisa. 

But in the end, Haring’s talent, hard work, and overwhelming positivity won out, resulting in endless opportunities to practice his art across the globe. This is captured poignantly in a Polaroid of his 1985 mural commission for St. Patrick’s Daycare in San Francisco. Taken in a community center in the traditionally low-income South of Market neighborhood, the photograph shows happy children playing in front of Haring’s exuberant, moving figures, with a two-dimensional cartoon cameo from Haring himself in the corner, waving and gesticulating with his paintbrush.

Jon Mann