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?


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


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