Art History

Copying the Masters

Eugène Delacroix,  Pietà,  1850, National Museum, Oslo

Eugène Delacroix, Pietà, 1850, National Museum, Oslo

Vincent van Gogh,  The Pietà (after Delacroix),  1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh, The Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Copying the work of “Old Masters” has been a tradition of artistic training for centuries. It served a very practical purpose. Live models were expensive and hard to come by. Public sculptures and paintings, on the other hand, were readily available and easier to study since they did not move. (Photographs, of course, were not available as reference material until the 19th century.)

Once a student had successfully copied the masters, he (or she, though mostly “he” due to the art world’s exclusivity and the “improper” connotations of women drawing nudes) could begin drawing from live models.

Beyond reference, “masterpieces” also inspired artists to create meaningful compositions, skillful marks, and pungent color combinations. Since the time of Cennini (1400), artists were encouraged to develop their skills by copying.

When you have practiced drawing for a while… take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters.
— Cennino Cennini, The Book of Art, 1400c

The practice became more even more quintessential starting in 1793 when the Louvre became a public museum. In addition to access to the artwork, artists were given an easel free of charge so that they could copy. The museum became a center for aspiring artists to train themselves and converse with others.

Winslow Homer, Art-Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery, Paris, From "Harper's Weekly", January 11, 1868, p.25, wood engraving

Between the museum and his time at St. Remy, Vincent van Gogh made more than 30 copies of works by other artists. The majority were copies of Jean-François Millet’s work. In addition to serving as means of learning, he believed his copies were works in themselves. Bringing his own style to the compositions, he made the work unique (noted, he made sure to cite the original artist). Much like a musician/orchestra might perform Bach or Beethoven. Or, for a contemporary analogy, Weezer or Reel Big Fish performing A-ha’s “Take on Me”.

If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour [...] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.
— Vincent van Gogh, Letter 607 to Theo

I participated in this centuries old practice for the first time when I was about 10. I copied Albrecht Dürer’s The Rhinoceros. At approximately 18” x 24”, it was the largest drawing I had ever made plus it looked gnarly. Even my older brother liked it and kept it safe after I tried to get rid of it.

While the work was gnarly and impressive, it was a waste of time to copy another artist’s work (or so I thought). Why not enjoy the artist’s work and practice from nature instead? When I visited Europe for the first time and saw students drawing in front of sculptures and paintings, I thought it was odd and antiquated. Why did they bother?

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1515, National Gallery of Art, Washington

At NYSS, after drawing intently from “nature” for hours on end, copying another artist’s work suddenly seemed heavenly and incredibly useful. Perhaps it was how Graham presented the project. We didn’t make “copies”, we made “transcriptions”.

Copying encouraged me to take a closer look and ask more questions. Why did Beckmann choose to include this over that? Why did Matisse make that a pattern? How does that color behave in that van Gogh? How does this Cezanne composition play with space?

Since my time at NYSS, I checked out several art books from the Houston Public Library that feature drawings by Dürer, Da Vinci, and other such masters. In addition to reading and visiting exhibitions, copying (or “transcribing”) the masters is now a part of my art practice.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Does copying play a role in your art practice? Would you want a copy of master’s artwork?

Reading:

Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”, Art of Eric Wayne

“stuck inn xi: the art damien hirst stole”, 3ammagazine, Charles Thomson

“Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France,” Nicole Myers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“How Skilled Copyists Leave the Louvre with a Masterpiece Every Year”, Jessica Stewart, My Modern Met

Watching:

Mastering Tradition: An Artist Awakening Through Practicing the Past, National Gallery of Art

Feeling or Thought

The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), 1799

Francisco Goya

Etching

21.5 cm x 15 cm

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Are you a romantic or a realist? Do you prefer to feel or think? What is more important - imagination or reason?

Realism followed Romanticism which followed Neoclassicism which followed Rococo. Between 1700 and 1900, western art’s values bounced between feeling and reason over and over. Neoclassicism, defined by rationalism and classical antiquity, developed in reaction against the ornate and delicate Rococo style.

The leap from Rococo to Neoclassicism is apparent in the following paintings. The Swing (1766) is delicate, intimate and fanciful. It exemplifies the Rococo style. Portrait of Louise-Antoinette-Scholastique Guéhéneuc (1814), on the other hand, is orderly, formal and noble. Its reflects the moral values of Neoclassicism. Between 1766 and 1814, western art jumped from sentimental to rational.

Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette (The Swing)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

1766

Oil on canvas

2’ 8” x 2’ 2”

Wallace Collection

Portrait of Louise-Antoinette-Scholastique Guéhéneuc, Madame la Maréchale Lannes, Duchesse de Montebello, with her Children

Baron François Gérard

1814

102 3/8 x 72 1/16 in

Oil on Canvas

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This jump in values occurred yet again with the development of Romanticism. Reason and science were the guiding forces of the late 1700s. However, by 1800, the benefits of technological advances and reason were questioned. Romantics argued that freedom was only real if men had freedom of thought, feeling and imagination. And so, western art became infatuated with feeling yet again.

There are many great Romantic artists, writers and philosophers. Eugène Delacroix is one of them. His painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) is an exciting example of Romantic art. It is dramatic, expressive and heroic. Liberty defiantly leads Parisians against Charles X . The triumph of freedom is tragic, emotional and glorious. Traces of Neoclassicism are hard to find.

Liberty Leading the People

1830

Eugène Delacroix

Oil on canvas

8’6” x 10’8”

Louvre

Romanticism also gave rise to the genre of landscape painting. While artists were certainly celebrating nature’s beauty, they were also using landscapes to comment on spiritual, moral, historical, and philosophical issues. Artists felt and expressed their feelings by way of landscape. Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner are the most well known Romantic landscape artists. Friedrich explored nature’s transience and divinity. Constable instilled nostalgia for the past before the Industrial Revolution. Turner underscored turbulence and emotion.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1817

Caspar David Friedrich

Oil on canvas

37 3/10 × 29 2/5 in

94.8 × 74.8 cm

The White Horse, 1818-1819

John Constable

oil on canvas

127 x 183 cm (50 x 72 1/16 in.)

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner

90.8 x 122.6 cm (35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in.)

Oil on canvas

Realism, developing just after and somewhat alongside Romanticism, focused on “real” experiences and the everyday. While I respond well to Romanticism’s emphasis on nature and emotion, I also find Realism’s insistence on empiricism noble and important.

Realists turned their attention to the everyday. For the first time, ordinary people and trivial activities were brought to the forefront and (eventually) became relevant to the general public.

In Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers two working-class men break stones. The scene documents a real event without drama and accurately depicts details. Using what was in front of him, Courbet makes a conclusion and shares his theory: poverty is inescapable. The young man on the left will remain in poverty and will likely continue breaking stones through old age like the older man to the right.

The Stone Breakers, 1849

Gustave Courbet

Oil on canvas

5’3” x 8’6”

Of course, Realism and its strong emphasis on rationality were left by the wayside with Impressionism. Again, the arts swung back to feeling over thought.

These swings between thought and feeling ring true to my everyday. My own values seem to swing between the two on a daily basis. Do I listen to my instincts or my thoughts? Do I create artwork that reflects my immediate response or that is carefully planned? It is easy to get stumped between the choices. However, the best course of action, is to make a choice and take a step forward.

All of my sources on the time periods discussed derive from the emphasis textbook Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

Currently reading:

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir , Marina Abramovic

Should Every American Citizen Be a Yoga Teacher?, Alice Hines, The New York Times

Re-Imagining Yoga Teacher Training, J. Brown

90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, Allison Yarrow

Currently listening to:

Social and Emotional Artistic Learning (SEAL), Art Ed Radio

Empire State of Mind, On the Media

The End of Empathy, Invisibilia

The Roman Mazda Virus, Reply All