From the ancient world onward, patronage of the arts was important in art history. It is known in greatest detail in reference to medieval and Renaissance Europe, though patronage can also be traced in feudal Japan, the traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms, and elsewhere—art patronage tended to arise wherever a royal or imperial system and an aristocracy dominated a society and controlled a significant share of resources. Samuel Johnson defined a patron as "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help".
Rulers, nobles and very wealthy people used patronage of the arts to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. That is, patrons operated as . Most languages other than English still use the term mecenate, derived from the name of Gaius Maecenas, generous friend and adviser to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Some patrons, such as the Medici of Florence, used artistic patronage to "cleanse" wealth that was perceived as ill-gotten through usury. Art patronage was especially important in the creation of religious art. The Roman Catholic Church and later Protestant groups sponsored art and architecture, as seen in churches, cathedrals, painting, sculpture and handicrafts.
While sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artwork is the best-known aspect of the patronage system, other disciplines also benefited from patronage, including those who studied natural philosophy (pre-modern science), musicians, writers, philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, and other scholars. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons. Figures as late as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven also participated in the system to some degree; it was only with the rise of bourgeois and capitalist social forms in the middle 19th century that European culture moved away from its patronage system to the more publicly supported system of museums, theaters, mass audiences and mass consumption that is familiar in the contemporary world.
This kind of system continues across many fields of the arts. Though the nature of the sponsors has changed—from churches to charitable foundations, and from aristocrats to plutocrats—the term patronage has a more neutral connotation than in politics. It may simply refer to direct support (often financial) of an artist, for example by grants. In the latter part of the 20th century, the academic sub-discipline of patronage studies began to evolve, in recognition of the important and often neglected role that the phenomenon of patronage had played in the cultural life of previous centuries.