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Innovations by painters between Renaissance and Rococò: Towards an economic theory of art history

Art, as any form of creativity, advances through innovations. But what is the cause of new artistic ideas? What can art history tell us about the relationship between demand and innovation? This column argues that during the Renaissance, it was demand for art – and entrepreneurial painters seeking to profit – that drove greats such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Canaletto to innovate.

During the Renaissance, painters’ works were priced on quality and novelty. I will argue that their innovative activity was also driven by profitability, from a Schumpeterian perspective.

Innovations in painting

According to Galenson (2009) there are two kinds of innovations in painting;

  • Conceptual innovations (think of introducing perspective).
  • Experimental innovations (think of mastering colours in a novel way to reproduce shadows and lights).
The Galenson hypothesis

If the art market is a competitive market, it should price painters for introducing these innovations. The Galenson hypothesis is that experimental innovators keep improving with age and the price of their paintings should reach a peak at a very old age: examples have been Leonardo, Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Monet, Degas and Cézanne. Conceptual innovators do not need much time to develop their innovations because these conceptual innovations are often pathbreaking changes that are derived from a radically new approach. The Galenson hypothesis is that these innovators tend to reach their maximum quality at a young age, and therefore they should not exhibit a significant relationship between age and quality as priced by the market; examples have been Van Eyck, Masaccio, Raphael, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

Testing the hypothesis

Galenson has successfully tested his hypothesis on modern and contemporary painters on the basis of auction prices (Galenson and Weinberg 2000); only the prices of experimental innovators increase with the age of execution, up to a very old age. The recent availability of a new dataset on primary sales of old master paintings (Etro and Pagani 2012, 2013) has also made it possible to test the Galenson hypothesis for painters active between late Renaissance (second half of the 1500s), the baroque period (1600s) and the Rococò period (early 1700s). The econometric analysis allows one to obtain the price of a representative painting and check how this changes with the age of the painter1. What emerges is that the price increases by about 3% a year on average, reaches its peak around the age of 62 and then starts declining. Since we focus on well-established masters with recognised reputations, this suggests that some of them must have been experimental innovators that kept improving their art over time, as perceived and priced by the market. The result is clearly shown in Figure 1, which describes the age-price profile from econometric estimates2.

Figure 1. Age-price profile for baroque painters in Italy

Constant experimenters

In order to obtain additional evidence on the Galenson hypothesis, Figure 2 reports the life cycle of the price per square metre for some famous and high-quality painters of different generations: Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Domenichino and Sebastiano Ricci. An increasing path of the normalised price of paintings is clearly visible. Most interestingly, all of them could be seen as belonging to the category of experimental painters in Galenson's terminology. Tintoretto developed his style during the second half of the 1500s and his sketchy technique gave him an impressionistic device to create powerful theatrical images throughout his entire career, until the last year of his life in which, 76 years old, he completed one of his masterpieces, the Last Supper (S. Giorgio Maggiore, Venice). Sebastiano Ricci was the beginner of the Venetian renaissance in the Rococò period (after a century of artistic provincialism), traveling across Europe, absorbing and recounting, in an original way, the most advanced international experiences of his time. Also Guido Reni and Domenichino experienced a deep and long evolution toward an ideal classicism which led them to increasing fame and appreciation. The words of Reni may be the best witnesses of his constant experimentalism: “The most beautiful painting is the one I am doing, and if tomorrow I will do another, it will be that one”.

Young radicals

Caravaggio followed a completely different path. He approached painting from a radically new perspective: introducing (and giving unprecedented dignity to) new subjects such as still lifes and genre paintings, adopting a new way to bring external light into the pictures, and pursuing an unprecedented, extreme realism. All of these innovations immediately emerged in his early works, during his twenties. Even looking at Caravaggio's compensations we do not find any increasing pattern with age. Figure 3 shows the price per square metre of his altarpieces included in the dataset; if anything, the erratic path is in line with the hypothesis that we are in front of a conceptual innovator, in the terminology of Galenson.

Figure 2. Age-price profile for selected experimental innovators

Figure 3. Age-price profile for a conceptual innovator

But did the art market drive innovation in painting? Having established that art was a market which priced innovations, we may wonder whether the market drove these innovations. To answer this question we need to study how the profitability of painting was related to artistic innovations. Focusing our attention on the Venetian market we are able to compare, over centuries, the evolution of the price (adjusted for inflation) of a representative painting with a path of artistic innovation that was different from what was going on in the rest of Italy.

Lessons from the Venetian art market

These centuries were characterised by two periods of innovative creativity in Venice. The first period is the ‘golden age’, which started with the innovations of Renaissance masters such as Antonello, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and the young Titian. The golden age was continued by the work of Mannerist masters such as the older Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. In particular, Antonello replaced tempera with oil colours, Giorgione and Titian introduced artistic innovations in the use and mix of colours, and Veronese and Tintoretto pushed mixing colours to its limits, effectively introducing a new radiant palette and a new sketchy style. The 17th century is usually regarded as the dark age of Venetian art, in which even the leading painters kept imitating the style of the earlier masters without introducing substantial innovations. It was only at the end of the 1600s that a second period of artistic innovation started in Venice and a new style based on the bright and sparkling colours used by Tiepolo in his frescoes and Ricci in his canvases influenced the international Rococò style, while the vedute of Canaletto (who started employing a camera obscura to achieve maximum accuracy) were renovating the landscape genre. In a Schumpeterian perspective, such a path of artistic innovations could have been driven by a U-shaped pattern of the real compensations for painters.

Figure 4. Price index for paintings in the Venetian Republic

Greater profits meant more innovation

Looking at the data of our representative painting in Venice we find exactly such an inverse U-shape. Figure 4 shows the time trend of the price of a representative Venetian painting. The year of minimum compensation for artworks can be estimated as 1634, when the price was approximately 40% lower than a century before and a century later. This result is potentially consistent with the Schumpeterian hypothesis that prices affected not only the (endogenous) number of active painters, but also their search for innovation, productivity and quality. The late 16th century was characterised by high supply of local innovative talents; many of them moved from the countryside to Venice in order to exploit profitable opportunities. Furthermore, this period was characterised by a decrease in the demand for art.

This is associated with the decline of the Venetian commercial leadership after the discovery of America, which helped reduce art prices and, arguably, generate a gradual artistic decline. The late 17th century and early 18th century, instead, were characterised by a limited supply of local painters and the increasing globalisation of the art market. This lead to new foreign demand – Canaletto had a stable demand for his cityscapes from foreign tourists visiting Venice – and higher prices; this, in turn, may have fostered the new artistic renaissance.


In conclusion, where art is traded in a competitive market, artistic innovations are market driven. Not by chance, artistic innovations aimed at enhancing realism such as the use of perspective, the adoption of a full set of oil colours, the reproduction of correct shadows, or the use of external sources of light did not emerge in painting traditions without a well developed art market or based on demand from a wealthy elite that was entirely centralised (such as Byzantine art, Chinese art, Indian art or Islamic art).

They did emerge where the art market was competitive and demand derived from a large group of decentralised and often private buyers (such as Italian art and Flemish/Dutch art). Here, the artists stopped being craftsmen paid with a constant wage and became entrepreneurs who looked for profits. As the painter and art critic Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1568: “If in our century there were enough profits, we would paint greater and better works than the older masters." Vasari was the first to mention competition as one of the sources of Florentine leadership in Renaissance art. He was a precursor of an economic theory of art history.


Etro, Federico (2010), “Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio and their rivals: Evidence of competition in the market for altarpieces of the 17th century”, VoxEU.org, 4 November.

Etro, Federico and Laura Pagani (2012), “The Market for Paintings in Italy During the Seventeenth Century”, The Journal of Economic History, 72(2).

Etro, Federico and Laura Pagani (2013), “The Market for Paintings in the Venetian Republic from Renaissance to Rococò”, Journal of Cultural Economics, published online 8 November 2012.

Galenson, David (2009), “Conceptual revolutions in twentieth-century art”, VoxEU.org, 4 July.

Galenson, David and Bruce Weinberg (2000), “Age and the Quality of Work: The Case of Modern American Painters”, Journal of Political Economy, 108(4), 761-77.

1 See Etro (2010) for other aspects of the same data.

2 More specifically, the figure plots the residuals obtained after regressing the price over a full set of explanatory variables with the exception of age and its square.

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