We were lucky enough to acquire recently two captivating paintings from around 1840 which are copies after old masters. One is inscribed on the reverse, Madonna del Granduca, and is unmistakably after Raphael’s masterpiece depicting Mother and Child. It got us thinking about the notion of copying, and the layers of meaning that start to unpeel when an artwork has a specific precedent.
Of course, the very foundations of the old master workshops in Renaissance Italy were built on copying. Students would start training young, some even before they were ten years of age – Michelangelo, for example, entered the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio aged thirteen. Pupils would often lodge at their master’s household, and they would initially perform tasks such as preparing panels and grinding pigments.
And they would learn to draw by copying – from a variety of sources including works by their masters, drawings in special collections held in the workshop, and also celebrated works on display in their own cities. Michelangelo copied paintings by the older Florentine master Giotto in the Santa Croce church in Florence. Only then would they progress to painting, executing the less important parts of a composition such as the landscape background.
Michelangelo, Two Figures after Giotto, 1490-2, Louvre, Paris
Giotto di Bondone, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Raphael was later famously copied by Rubens. In 1630 Rubens recreated Raphael’s portrait of the 16th-century courtier Baldessare Castiglione, in part a form of rivalry with the earlier master. Rubens changed several details, such as painting the sitters hands in full.
The commercial danger that copies pose in today’s global market was explored in a show staged at the Dulwich Picture Gallery earlier this year. Made in China saw a Chinese oil painting fake hang on the hallowed gallery walls alongside the works of the masters. Visitors were challenged to scrutinise the paintings and spot the imposter. A show such as this, whilst praising the skill of the copyist, nevertheless sets apart the "empty" technical copy from the genius of the original - and highlights the notion of copying as deceit. The replica was revealed to be Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Young Woman:
And so we return to our painting after Raphael, and copying not as forgery but homage. In painting the Madonna alone, the artist has given her new life and a singular poise. The painting has a striking poignancy – not only for the absence of the Child, but also in its focus on the Mother's expression of melancholy. Stripped of her halo, she is transformed into a tender vision of earthly womanhood.
And we return to Picasso’s words: Good artists copy, great artists steal. These words, whilst being irreverent, are supremely hopeful too. Taking from others needn’t be a death but the starting point for something new.
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