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What makes a masterpiece?

Most of the paintings in our forthcoming exhibition, Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, are securely dated and attributed; mostly we know which monarch bought them. But what makes them important? What do they still have to offer? Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, discusses four possible qualities which were valued by the makers of these works and which can still offer an insight into these paintings today: Realism; Use of Materials; Design; Expression. Are we missing something? What do you think makes a masterpiece?

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Royal Collection staff discuss their favourite Masterpieces

Explore the exquisite details and hidden stories below.

This is a precious record of a moment when De Hooch and Vermeer were both working in Delft evolving a distinctive style; the evidence of dated works (like this one) suggesting that De Hooch was making the running. De Hooch's reputation was certainly enhan
de Hooch's 'Cardplayers in a sunlit Room'
A British 20th-century ebonised architrave frame; with gilt hazzled sight and fluted frieze.
Rembrandt's 'Agatha Bas'
This and another picture (RCIN 404416) form a pair, much larger than the other twelve views on the Grand Canal, and were engraved as the final two plates of Visentini's Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum (Venice, 1735), thus providing an uncontested date
Canaletto's 'The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day'
The figure is identified by the cameo on her breastplate as Pallas Athene, the warrior, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens. Parmigianino has stylised and distorted the figure of the goddess to create a mannerist ideal of beauty.
The subject in this pa
Parmigianino's 'Pallas Athene'
Vermeer's 'Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, "The Music Lesson"'
Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-82) is thought to have trained in Haarlem with his father, Isaack van Ruisdael, and his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael. Ruisdael had moved to Amsterdam by 1657 and stated before an Amsterdam notary in 1661 that he was 32, thereby in
Ruisdael's 'Evening Landscape: A Windmill by a Stream'
This is a precious record of a moment when De Hooch and Vermeer were both working in Delft evolving a distinctive style; the evidence of dated works (like this one) suggesting that De Hooch was making the running. De Hooch's reputation was certainly enhan
de Hooch's 'Cardplayers in a sunlit Room'
Rembrandt's 'The Shipbuilder and his Wife'
It is not perhaps surprising that Rembrandt, the greatest artist of seventeenth-century Holland, should have been so self-indulgent in depicting his own likeness. Rembrandt literally paints his autobiography by means of some forty pictures, as well as thi
Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait in a Flat-Cap'
Vermeer's 'Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, "The Music Lesson"'
The painting is an outstanding example of Jan Steen’s art in all respects. The elaborate treatment of subject-matter reveals a profusion of references that would have been readily recognisable to his contemporaries, attesting to the painter’s
Steen's 'A Woman at her Toilet'
This portrait of the successful Venetian merchant Andrea Odoni (1488-1545) is one of the most innovative and dynamic portraits of the Italian Renaissance by Lorenzo Lotto, recently returned to Venice after thirteen years in Bergamo and anxious to impress
Lotto's 'Andrea Odoni'
This magnificent landscape almost certainly came from Rubens’s own collection. It was described in an inventory drawn up between 1634 and 1649 as a ‘view of Laken’ (a village near Brussels often spelt ‘Laeken’), which is how
Rubens' 'The farm at Laken'

Parmigianino (Parma 1503-Casalmaggiore 1540)

Pallas Athene

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606-Amsterdam 1669)

Agatha Bas (1611-1658)

Pieter de Hooch (Rotterdam 1629-Amsterdam 1684)

Cardplayers in a sunlit Room

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679)

A Woman at her Toilet

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-Delft 1675)

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman

Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768)

The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640)

Milkmaids with cattle in a landscape, 'The Farm at Laken'