Friday, December 23, 2011

Artistic labour and occupational choice in Baroque painting

by Federico Etro


December 23, 2011

To some, the world of art and world of economics are diametrically opposed. To others, such as the author of this column, they are part of the same. This column looks at the wages of painters during the 17th century Baroque art movement and asks what insights it can provide for art lovers, economists, and those who consider themselves both.

Exhibit 1. Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, Paris, Louvre Museum ©

Economists are always on the lookout for new data to test their theories. But rather than sit around itching for the latest surveys or commissioning new randomised trials, researchers might want to dig up what we already have. With a bit of luck, the pages of history can be a rewarding friend. Take for instance the well-documented details of painters in 17th century Italy, at the height of the Baroque age. This is an example of a high-skilled labour market and can provide a fruitful area for study.

One of the most impressive and rapid features of the Baroque art movement was the innovation that led mass productions of new genres of painting – to the economists among us, this is a form of horizontal product differentiation.

Beyond old genres such as figurative paintings (including religious, mythological, and historical subjects) and portraits, the new genres of the Baroque art market included still lifes (reproducing animals, fruits, flowers, and lifeless objects), landscapes (reproducing the countryside or the urban environment), so-called genre paintings (reproducing daily life scenes, as in Exhibit 1 by Caravaggio) and battles (reproducing fights without necessarily a specific historical content). Each genre represented a specific sector of production, and painters either specialised in one or few genres or they could switch between them according to the market opportunities driven by price differentials (think of Caravaggio, who introduced still lifes and genre paintings and yet was often engaged in figurative paintings and portraits).


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