Masolino da Panicale was a significant painter from the 15th century who worked alongside the likes of Masaccio and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Some believe he may have been the first artist to paint using oils, even ahead of Jan van Eyck, but this has never been proven comprehensively.
It is unfortunate that this groundbreaking artist has never received the type of focus from academics as have the figures with which he collaborated. The lack of research into his work has also left a number of pieces with contested attributions and also a number of question marks around his own life's journey. We believe he was born in around 1383 and potentially may have been taught by Ghiberti in Florence by the time he reached 20. Around 15 years later appeared his finest achievements, two artworks that were produced with the help of Masaccio, namely Madonna with Child and St. Anne (1424) and some fresco work in the Brancacci Chapel (1424–1428). Much of the rest of his career was filled with large amounts of travel, which perhaps explains why it has proven so difficult to produce a detailed summary of his career.
He spent several years in Hungary on various projects and also workied in Rome too. Florence itself was the main hub for the Italian Renaissance at this point and so it was inevitable that he would return there from time to time in order to complete some high profile commissions. These included his successful time alongside Masaccio, who at that time was amongst the most famous artists in all Italy. Whilst being rumoured to have worked with oils on a number of personal projects, the artworks that we have left from his career are predominantly frescoes installed in religious buildings around the country. This has meant that very few original paintings from his career have ever left Italy, which is one of the downsides of fresco art, and perhaps this has limited the growth of his reputation outside of his nation's boundaries.
Brancacci Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
The Santa Maria del Carmine Church has had a turbulent time over the past few centuries, with various elements destroyed in a fire and also some renovations and replacements to some of the installed artworks. The building has been enlarged and amended on multiple occasions but thankfully the frescoes completed by Masaccio and Masolino remain relatively untouched. Their own contributions were finished off by Filippino Lippi and have been considered by some to have been the first Renaissance master work. Elsewhere on this site you can also find some more recent work in the Rococo style but efforts have been made to ensure that the whole construction works together as a single entity, despite the different periods in which the work has been carried out.
The artwork displayed in this page was titled The Annunciation, and is dated c. 1423/1424. It is now housed at the National Gallery of Art in the US, and is one of the very few paintings from this artist to reside outside of Italy. Tempera was used to put this composition together, though perhaps touches of oil were added on top in order to balance the colours. Masolino was rumoured to be working with this medium at the time, and so is a feasible idea. It was given to the institution directly from the prestigious and extensive collection of Andrew W. Mellon, who himself became well known within the art world. One of the interesting features in this painting would have to be the use of perspective, which looks peculiar to us today, but is entirely in line with Gothic influences of that period.
Relationship with Masaccio
Sadly, Masaccio would not live long enough to truly peak as an artist, but he was still able to become one of the most famous artists in Italian history. He early demise left behind a number of incomplete projects which were taken on by Masolino who understood his colleague's intentions just as well as anyone. He was also one of the only artists with the technical skills to do justice to Masaccio's earlier planning and preparation. Despite this opportunity, which he took willingly, he was never able to surpass the impact made by his friend, though has left behind a significant impact upon the Renaissance that most modern historians are well aware of. Not only is he likely to have worked with oils for the first time, within this country, but he also displayed the use of a technical term that we now know as the 'Vanishing Point'. It is clearly evident in his 1423 piece, St Peter Healing a Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha, for example.
Masolino is known to have been influenced by the style of Masaccio whose personality was also particularly strong and confident. They had a studio together which started to push more towards the latter's wishes after Masolino had chosen to spend time in Hungary. On his return he accepted the new situation but soon amended things after his colleague's death. He had worked in a slightly more gothic approach in his early years and elements of this returned once he had regained full control over the direction of his studio. It is perhaps his interest in the older style of Gothic art that ultimately led to his reputation falling behind that of Masaccio, even though he was around for so much longer. When one considers the technical innovations that he made, as well as the prestigious company that he kept, perhaps Masolino deserves a little more coverage from art historians than he has received in recent centuries.
The artist is also known to have helped push the merits of landscape art within some of his paintings. Whilst it would be centuries before mainstream artists produced compositions which only included natural elements such as this, Masolino would incorporate a number of stunning backdrops within some of his later works. This approach was then extended further within the Renaissance and eventually we were to accept landscape art as a respectable genre in its own right, leading to the likes of Romanticist artists like Turner, Constable and Friedrich. Unfortunately, some of the artist's frescoes are now far from in perfect condition and so some of these background features are much harder to see today with the naked eye. Those that remain in historic buildings will always be harder to preserve, where it becomes far harder to control the conditions in which the artwork is stored. But to move them from their installed positions would also be an unfortunate policy to follow without very good reason.
Whilst we believe that perhaps Masolino was the very first Italian artist to produce paintings with oil, it is now virtually impossible to prove this beyond doubt. Traditionally, we have always believed that the use of oils began in the Northern Renaissance, where its popularity spread quickly and eventually came over to Italy. This was one of the main reasons that art historians have long argued for the importance of artists right across Europe during the Renaissance, rather than just Italy as some in the media tend to focus on. Additionally, even if Masolino had experimented with oils before the likes of Van Eyck, it would still not be a major element to Italian art as compared to those in the Netherlands for many centuries and so perhaps was not that historically significant. However, when you include the likes of the use of a Vanishing Point, as well as the leading figures from whom he learnt along the way, there is clearly an importance in the career of this unique painter.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.