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For other uses, see Masterpiece (disambiguation).
In painting, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503–1506, is the archetypal masterpiece.

Masterpiece (or chef d'œuvre) in modern use refers to a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill, or workmanship.


Originally, the term masterpiece referred to a piece of work produced by an apprentice or journeyman aspiring to become a master craftsman in the old European guild system. His fitness to qualify for guild membership was judged partially by the masterpiece, and if he was successful, it was retained by the guild. Great care was therefore taken to produce a fine piece in whatever the craft was, whether confectionery, painting, goldsmithing, knifemaking, or many other trades. The practice has continued in some modern academies of art, where the general term for such works is now reception piece. The Royal Academy in London is one institution that has acquired a fine collection of "diploma works" as a condition of acceptance.

The term probably derives from the Dutch "meesterstuk" or German "meisterstück", and the form "masterstik" is recorded in English in 1579 (or in Scots, since this was from some Aberdeen guild regulations), whereas "masterpiece" is first found in 1605, already outside a guild context, in a Ben Jonson play.[1] "Masterprize" was another early variant in English.[2]

In English the term rapidly became used in a variety of contexts for an exceptionally good piece of creative work, and was "in early use, often applied to man as the 'masterpiece' of God or Nature".[3]

Modern use[edit]

In modern English the word conventionally refers to the best piece of work of a particular creative artist or craftsman[4] but it has come to be used to refer to any work seen to be of high quality, including non-creative works,[5] luxury or rare goods of all kinds,[6] and even mass-produced goods. The word has been adopted as the brand name for a range of watches by Rolex, toys by Transformers, cosmetics by Max factor and stuffed animals by Steiff.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ OED:"Masterpiece". See also: Encarta. Archived 2009-11-01.
  2. ^ OED:"Masterprize"
  3. ^ OED, and examples
  4. ^ "Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-11-01. 
  5. ^ Historical Thesaurus is a masterpiece worth waiting 40 years for Henry Hitchings, The Telegraph, 23 October 2009. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  6. ^ Champagne and celebrities hit Masterpiece London luxury fair David Brough, Reuters, 27 June 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2014.

External links[edit]