Continental Old Master paintings have traditionally been seen as embodying the highest values of art: the expression of human feelings; the transmission of moral values; craftsmanship and ‘beauty’. In Britain for many centuries the work of artists like Raphael, Leonardo and Rubens was the ideal to which artists should aspire, and thus has often been more highly valued than contemporary art and work by British artists. Larger museums have often attempted to create collections that could tell the story of European art on their walls, from Giotto in fourteenth-century Italy to David in Napoleonic France.
However earlier paintings were often not signed. Successful artists usually had extensive studios in which pupils would work on and copy their master’s paintings. The influence of an artist’s work would be spread further by their pupils and followers, by prints, and by trade and pillage. The work of popular and valuable artists has always been copied by honest students, forgers and commercial copyists. In addition, the subjects of paintings can also easily be lost. The wealth of stories in Biblical and other religious texts, classical mythology and literature is not now as familiar as it was.