The name, “Old Master” is derived from Germanic, “Alte Meister”, referring to the early works by Durer and his copyists, and, thereafter, to all of the finest draughtsmen emblematic of mastering the line to execute fine drawings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “A pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; esp. a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.” Even pupils of a Master are considered under the rubric of “alte meister”, the honorific being determined through association with the relevant school of a Master, or teacher.
The term is also used to refer to a painting or sculpture made by an Old Master, a usage datable to early writings wherein Les Maitres d’autrefois of 1876 by Eugène Fromentin an artist himself, referred to the important masters in historical context. Fromentin wrote poetically about the role of the artist. Talking about the effects of light, the aroma in the air of cities worthy of remembrance, he discusses the Dutch capital redolent of ash fires and damp. In his memoir, “The Masters of Past Time, Or Criticism On The Old Flemish Dutch Painters”, Fromentin captures the nature of the giants of that era, talking about the notion of “Dutch Masterpieces”, the very term conjures groups of men formally dressed, conferring about issues of scientific and political importance. He writes about “The Syndics” when discussing Hals’ “Regents of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital” in a fresh revelation of what we today refer to as a “masterpiece”: we instinctively turn in our mind directly to Fromentin’s use of that prescient terminology.
There are comparable terms in Dutch, French and German; the Dutch perhaps being the first to make use of such a term, in the 18th century, when oude meester mostly meant painters of the Dutch Golden Age, like Frans Hals and Rembrandt.