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Guilds were associations of people engaged in the same trade or business. In Italy they were known as Arti, and it was necessary to belong to one to obtain work in any town. The guilds had their own chapels and in their devotional activities they often resembled confraternities. Many guilds of painters were guilds of Saint Luke, the patron also of painters' confraternities. Guilds remained active in some parts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but their importance diminished in direct relationship to the rise in importance of other professional associations, such as the Pictura in the Hague in the 17th century and, above all, the Academies.

The guilds were important patrons of the arts, and commissioned altarpieces, statues (especially of their patron saints) and, in Florence, architecture.

Painters did not always belong to an independent guild. The Florentine painters for instance were a part of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, the doctors' and spice merchants' guild. Elsewhere they were associated with sculptors. In the Netherlands, painters on cloth sometimes belonged to different guilds from painters on wood.