Artists copying art in France’s most famous museum have been a permanent fixture for almost as long as huge paintings adorn its walls.
The practice of copying and recreating Old Master paintings in the Louvre dates back to the museum’s opening in 1793, when any artist could come in and use a freely available easel to copy a masterpiece.
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Drawings and paintings from this period reveal that in the mid to late 19th century, you could barely walk through the public galleries of the Louvre for the artists – both men and women – standing in front of their easels.
Who were these “copyists”, what did they paint and why did they choose to faithfully copy the works of other artists rather than create their own?
Learning technical skills
In today’s age, where originality and innovation are celebrated above all else, it can be hard to comprehend the fascination that copy-making once held on artists.
In the 19th century, however, recreating famous works was a key step in becoming a professional artist, teaching them the technical skills needed to create their own masterpieces.
The practice of copying had been incorporated into the art school system since the 17th century, and by the 19th century it was aided by the fact that the capital School of Fine Arts was located opposite the Louvre.
Modern artists still copied the old masters
Some of the giants of modern art, including Dali, Picasso and Degas, all copied the Old Masters from the Louvre.
Many of the painters who would later become known as Impressionists trained by copying paintings in the museum.
Cézanne, who first registered to copy a work by Poussin there in 1863, once said “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read”.
Edouard Manet first met Berthe Morisot when she was in the Louvre in the late 1850s copying a canvas by the Venetian painter Veronese.
They were both going to innovate in painting, while understanding the importance of mastering the masters.
Constant presence of copyists at the Louvre
Famed impressionist artist Berthe Morisot wasn’t the only woman to copy masterpieces from the Louvre to chart her own path in art.
Paintings and drawings from the 19th century show that many women learned by copying.
One male copyist in particular, Louis Béroud, proved their constant presence by painting several canvases of women at work.
Béroud, however, is most famous for being the artist who discovered the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa.
He had come to paint it and found a hole where the painting should have been!
The Louvre has introduced new rules to control the growing number
Although any artist could paint the masters when the museum opened, the large number of artists in the 1860s forced officials to introduce a few rules.
Artists were only allowed if they could produce a letter of recommendation from a “master” or art school, and had to register the name of the painting they wished to copy.
For the most popular works, the museum imposed a time limit on the artists, limited the number of artists allowed to occupy the space in front of this work at any time, and organized waiting lists.
Copyists have privileged access to paintings
Despite these seemingly strict regulations, the museum also granted copyists many privileges not available to the general public.
Until 1855, the Louvre entirely reserved days for artists to paint.
From 1855, when the museum opened daily to the public, they allowed copyists to come to work before official opening hours, presumably so artists could squeeze in a few productive hours before the masses arrived.
Particularly appreciated copyists, or those who came on the recommendation of a famous artist, could even have the original work sent home for a limited time!
Booming copy market
Not all artists copied works to improve their skills. Some indulged in it professionally, as the demand for copies of masterpieces from the Louvre was strong throughout the 19th century.
The state commissioned many copies of famous paintings depicting illustrious people and important events to decorate the walls of their administrative buildings and palaces.
There was also a thriving market for copies of great religious paintings, such as those by Caravaggio.
The devastation which the revolutionaries had wrought in the churches of France meant that there was an urgent need for suitable picture canvases to fill their walls.
Copyists still work in the Louvre today
Today, only 250 copyists are allowed to set up shop in front of the museum’s artwork, and a two-year waiting list shows plenty of hopefuls waiting backstage to pick up a palette and brush.
Those granted access have up to three months to work on their copy.
Once completed, authorities then study the work to ensure it meets strict Louvre protocols – canvases must be one-fifth smaller or larger than the originals and bear the signature of the contemporary artist, and not from the master.
They then stamp the back of the artwork and escort the artists out of the building with their own masterpiece.
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