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Old Master Paintings

A Brief History of Old Master Copies

This July, our Old Master auctions were led by Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman - a powerful likeness of a man gazing directly at the viewer. It is a painting that grants us a fascinating insight into Rubens’ own personality and love for Italian art. It is a work that clearly meant a lot to him, as it remained in his collection until his death. And it is a picture that Rubens, one of Europe’s greatest and most creative artists, chose to base on a Venetian portrait dating from the previous century, which he most probably owned himself.

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Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman, sold for £5.4 million at Sotheby’s London, 4 July 2018

Rubens’ attitude towards reproducing an image was very different to the way we have come to view copies of Old Master paintings today. It was the Romans who first replicated artworks, copying Greek sculptures, and repetition was considered the best way of learning throughout the medieval period. During the Renaissance, the cult of the artist’s identity grew so that copying a work was as much an education as a means of honouring the master. For example, in the late 16th and early 17th century, the success of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop was based on the reproduction of his father’s works. We will be offering two large copies of some of the most entertaining of these compositions in this auction.

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After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. Estimate: £10,000–15,000.
The original painting hangs in the famous ‘Bruegel Room’ at the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna.

It was a matter of pride to possess one's own version of a great artwork. King Charles I had up to 60 copies of Old Master paintings, commissions or gifts, including many which reproduced original works from his own collection. And copies took on a commercial aspect as the art market gained momentum during the 17th century.

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Follower of Gerard Ter Borch, Woman playing a lute with a cavalier. Estimate: £3,000–5,000.
This is a period copy after a painting that depicts a subject particularly popular with 17th-century Dutch collectors.

This trend exploded during the 18th century, when Grand Tourists created a demand for versions of the paintings they had seen in European galleries, and it developed during the 19th century. At least two works in our sale - copies after Dolci and Rubens - derive from paintings in the Uffizi in Florence, and were most likely produced for the tourist market.

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After Carlo Dolci, Mary Magdalene. Estimate: £200–300.
This painting is signed on the reverse by the 19th-century Canadian artist, Antoine-Sébastien Falardeau, who travelled to Florence to copy works in the Uffizi.

Today, in an age of reproduction, copies have come to be associated with a lack of originality, and have been valued less on account of their non-autograph status. Even in the latter half of the 19th century artists and museums would have disagreed with this notion. The copy of the Rembrandt ‘Self Portrait’ in our sale, for instance, also exists in a version by the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour, who spent much of the 1850s copying Old Masters in the Louvre, which actively encouraged artists to do this.

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After Rembrandt, Self Portrait. Estimate: £1,000–1,500.
The original portrait hangs in the Louvre, of which Paul Cézanne said: ‘[it] is the book from which we learn to read.

After the success of our first online auction devoted to Old Master Copies a year ago it is clear that the market for replicas - contemporary to the originals, or later - is stronger than ever. This auction offers another opportunity to own fascinating interpretations of some of art history’s most famous images - some of which are now known only through copies - at estimates ranging from a few hundred to over ten thousand pounds.

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After Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers playing dice. Estimate: £6,000–8,000.
This painting records a lost original work by Valentin, one of the greatest French artists to inherit the legacy of Caravaggio.

Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department presents the second edition of the online sale Old Master Copies: Imitation and Influence, bidding open between 5 – 13 September. For further information please contact Georgina Eliot.

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