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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Copies in the Academy

By Elizabeth Mix

Copies in the Academy

Official government-sponsored art schools in Europe such as the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Royal Academy in London, are known by the general term "Academy"; work produced through these organizations at the end of the nineteenth century is frequently termed "Academic Art," especially to distinguish it from work produced and displayed outside the confines of the Academy, namely Impressionism and the avant-garde movements that followed it.  Artists trained in these academies studied the work of previous artists and created copies of them as a method of learning specific techniques, such as creating the illusion of three-dimensional space or effective compositional strategies.  Two collections of essays provide an orientation to academic practices: Paul Binski and Marcia Pointon's National Art Academies in Europe 1860-1906: Educating, Training, Exhibiting treats academic practices in Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Brussels, while Rafael Denis and Colin Trodd's Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century positions the academic tradition against the avant-garde movements, demonstrates the connection of the academy to national identity, and documents the exclusion of women from the academies.  An essay by Paul Duro in the latter book identifies multiple kinds of imitation that occurred in the academy and explains the tradition of copying and the pedagogy that supported this practice.

The most complete primary source for the description of the practice in France is found in Gerald Ackerman's full translation of the nineteenth-century Charles Bargue Drawing Course, which was intended as a practical handbook for academic artists.  It illustrates academic training, which included copies of plaster casts of sculptures and drawings by master artists.  The British equivalent, Charles Lock Eastlake's Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, originally published in 1847 as Materials for a History of Oil Painting, is less a practical guide than a historical survey of techniques.  More contemporary reflections on the academic practice of the copy are found in Carl Goldstein's Teaching Art: Academies and Schools from Vasari to Albers and Albert Boime's The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, both of which devote a chapter to the academic copy.  Boime explains that copying was part of the development of the artist and a practice encouraged by governments that ran the academy and commissioned copies from students and masters.  Copying was seen as requiring significant skill in the choice of the model, analysis of the design, and technique.  Sketched copies ranged from expressive (and therefore seemingly unfinished) to highly detailed drawings.  Over time, sketch-copies that revealed the copying artist's hand became more valued by the artists and collectors than more literal copies.

Dean Larson's Studying with the Masters: Lessons from Rubens, Velásquez, Turner, Degas, Monet, Sargent, Matisse demonstrates the continuation of the academic practice of copying today.  Larson intends this how-to manual to transmit academic practice to a younger generation of artists.  After stressing how copying trains the eye and the hand, Larson analyzes the materials (pigments, brushes, and varnishes), surfaces (panel and canvas), and techniques of his chosen artists, providing step-by-step instructions to create copies based on a specific stylistic focus (e.g., Peter-Paul Ruben's three-dimensional form, J. M. W. Turner's light, Henri Matisse's color, and Edgar Degas's composition).  The final chapter encourages the reader-artist to take what has been taught through the copying exercises to foster development of personal style.  This too was part of the tradition of the academic copy discussed above—its purpose was never to slavishly copy, but to truly learn techniques from the masters that would aid a student's development of a personal artistic style.

Alfred Moir, in Caravaggio and His Copyists, demonstrates that beyond the academic practice of copying, study of this tradition can serve a wider purpose.  He traces as many copies of Caravaggio as possible, answering questions about where, how, when, and why these copies were made; who made them; and how they were acquired by particular collectors and museums.  He asserts that copies are a means of authenticating paintings by Caravaggio, explaining that were they not by the artist, no one would have bothered copying them.  He also notes that copies reveal trends in tastes that developed among collectors.  Included are translations in medium—from paintings to drawings and prints—and also what Moir terms "variants"—copies with slight or significant changes in composition from the original, including reversals and mixing of inspirational works.  The bulk of this book consists of an appended list of copies Moir located, along with extensive notes regarding their provenance and literary sources for the subjects Caravaggio treated that inspired the most copies.

Works Cited