The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Copies of Iconic Masterpieces
By Molly Harrington | Dec 22, 2019
I n today's culture, individuality and uniqueness are valued quite highly – but these concepts have not always been essential to artistic achievement. Young artists of the early modern period were permitted only to copy their master’s works until they fully mastered the various techniques required to produce an oil painting and became independent masters themselves. Well into the 19th and 20th centuries, formal artistic training involved copying great masterpieces by Renaissance and Baroque artists. Painted copies were, and are, rarely intended to deceive potential buyers; rather, they allow the artist to explore another artist’s working method and master different approaches to color, shading, the human figure, compositional arrangement and more. The upcoming Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale and Old Masters Online feature several remarkable works that speak to this long tradition, dating from the Renaissance through the modern era.
Followers of Leonardo da Vinci
T his image, among the most recognizable in the world, finds its source in Leonardo da Vinci's iconic portrait in the Musée du Louvre, the Mona Lisa, thought to depict Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine silk merchant Francesco Giocondo1. That original, painted on a poplar panel, was a mature work by Leonardo that represented the culmination of his artistic achievements. A testament to the masterpiece's timeless appeal, replicas of the Mona Lisa were made for centuries to follow. Some copies, including the present work, record the vestigial columns that were thought to have been removed from the original composition at an early stage. Some of these early copyists attempted to "complete" Leonardo's composition by introducing columns at the sides, since two fragmentary columns appear in the original. Extensive technical examinations of the Louvre's panel, however, have conclusively demonstrated that it was never cut down at these edges.
Likely painted in the 17th century, the present canvas is of a high quality, preserving the captivating impression, soft atmospheric haze and enigmatic smile of Leonardo's model. Comparable copies have recently sold at auction, including one at Sotheby's New York, 31 January 2019, lot 171 ($1,695,000)2 and at Sotheby's Paris, 19 November 2019, lot 3 (€552,500).3
1. Oil on poplar panel, 77 by 53 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. no. 779.
2. Oil on canvas, 73.5 by 53.3 cm.
3. Oil on canvas, 83.5 by 59.5 cm.
T his panel is the only to-scale replica known of Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness (circa 1482-1485), which is today in the Vatican Museum1 – making it a highly important addition to the scholarship of the artist. Certainly painted in close proximity to the original, this painting preserves not only the compositional details but also the overall impression of one of Leonardo’s most mysterious images. In addition to size, this panel also closely compares in the use of monochromatic tones, sensitive modeling and a walnut medium.
The circumstances for the Vatican Saint Jerome largely remain a mystery. Stylistically, the work relates to examples from the artist's first Florentine and Milanese periods, and it may be one of the “certain Saint Jeromes” found in a long inventory of works in his possession from about 1482. But despite the fact that the Vatican Saint Jerome remained largely unmentioned until its reappearance in the collection of the artist Angelica Kauffmann in Rome around 1800, the work must have been known among Leonardo’s close circle in his lifetime and in generations to follow. Its visual impact is recorded in painted and printed examples that largely preserve the composition, such as in a panel of the same subject attributed by Petdretti to an early Lombard follower of Leonardo and in a woodcut frontispiece for the Antiquarie prospetiche Romane Composte per prospective Melanese depictore by an unknown late 15th-century Lombard artist.2
At some point in its history, probably in the early 19th century, the Vatican Saint Jerome was cut and the head of the saint was removed. According to various accounts, the scattered pieces were reassembled by Cardinal Joseph Fesch by about 1813. It remained in his collection, until a few years after his death in 1841, having been acquired privately by a dealer in about 1845. In September 1856, after a long and successful campaign lead by the painters Tommaso Minardi and Luigi Agricola, the Italian state acquired the painting for the Vatican Museums.3
1. Oil and tempera on walnut, 102.8 by 73.5 cm, Vatican City, Monumeni, Mesi e Gallerie Pontificie, inv. no. 40337.
2. Oil on panel, 35 by 24 cm, Torre Canavese, Datrino Collection. See C. Pedretti in Il Cinquecento lombardo: da Leonardo a Caravaggio, Milan 2000, p. 133, cat. no. III.31, reproduced. This painting also appears attributed to Marco d’Oggiono in the Fondazione Zeri Archive, ref. no. 32745.
3. For a further discussion of the Vatican Saint Jerome and its early provenance, see C.C. Bambach, in Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, exhibition catalogue, New York 2003, pp. 370-379, cat. no. 79.
After Hieronymous Bosch
T his large, impressive triptych closely echoes one of the most recognizable images in the canon of western art: Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.1 Of slightly smaller dimensions and recording only the interior scenes of the original, the present object preserves the enigmatic details and iconic visual impact of Bosch's masterpiece, painted in the last decade of the fifteenth century.
1. Overall height: 205 cm, overall width: 384.9 cm, oil on oak panel, Madrid, Museo del Prado, inv. no. P002823.
Circle of Michael Sweerts
T his painting follows Michael Sweerts's ambitious masterpiece of the same title, formerly in the collection of Saul P. Steinberg1 and now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.2 That painting, also on canvas and of nearly identical dimensions, illustrates Sweerts's admiration for Nicolas Poussin and was among the last paintings he made in Rome, where he worked from 1646 until about 1654-1655. That the present canvas follows the original so closely suggests the artist responsible worked directly in front of Sweerts's own.
1. Sold New York, Sotheby’s, January 30, 1997, lot 34.
2. 118.7 by 170.8 cm, inv. no. AC 1997.10.1. See R. Kultzen, Michael Sweerts, Doornspijk 1996, pp. 6, 19, 40, 41, 106- 107, cat. no. 63, reproduced in color plate XIX.
Circle of Antonio Allegri, called Correggio
T his is a 16th or 17th century copy after Correggio's original canvas depicting La Zingarella in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.1 The name of this painting derives from the Madonna's headdress, which was commonly associated with gypsies. The present painting captures the appearance of Correggio’s work before it was cleaned and restored in 19352 when many details, including the rabbit (left), the forest floor foliage and the palm leaves (upper right) were removed. All other period copies likewise reproduce these now lost elements, confirming that if they were indeed overpaint to the composition, they must have been by Correggio’s own hand.
1. Oil on panel, 46.5 by 37.5 cm. See D. Ekserdjian, Correggio, New Haven and London 1997, p. 61, reproduced p. 62, fig. 58.
2. Ibid., reproduced before restoration fig. 59. 62 SOTHEBY’S MASTER PAINTINGS & SCULPTURE DAY SALE 63
After Diego de Silva y Velázquez
T his painting is a 19th century copy after Velázquez's original Feast of Bacchus in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.1 In Velázquez's first mythological painting, he combined the study of the male nude with a color palette and figural types drawn from his rougher genre paintings from his years in Seville. The unidealized figure at center looks directly at the viewer, inviting us to imagine ourselves in this fantastical scene, and has been interpreted as a satire in antiquity and classical learning. With this combination of classical fable and everyday, lower-class subjects, Velázquez demonstrated that naturalism could serve all subject matter, not only genre painting. Nineteenth-century artists were especially drawn to Velazquez's unidealized rendering of figures, which was paralleled in the works of contemporary artists like Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet.
1. Diego Velázquez, Feast of Bacchus, c. 1628-9, oil on canvas, 165 by 225 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. no. P001170.
After Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio
F rom the bright green background to the convex and circular shape, this arresting image closely follows Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa, one of his most technically accomplished visual inventions. Today, that painting is preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, where it was widely copied as early as the 19th century.
Caravaggio's original was commissioned around 1598 by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte as a gift for Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.1 The Gorgon Medusa is a recognizable figure from Greek mythology; with snakes for hair and a monstrous gaze, she turned anyone who looked directly at her to stone. Even after her death at the hands of Perseus, who used a mirror to avoid direct eye contact in his attack, her decapitated head still petrified those who dared look her in the eye. In Caravaggio’s exploration of this composition, he used his own face for that of Medusa’s by using a convex mirror, in essence granting him immunity from her gaze. Though decapitated, she is rendered with palpable life, and her furrowed brow, silent scream, and shocked gaze, suggest the moment captured is the fleeting one between life and death.
The anonymous artist of the present shield, who was likely active in the nineteenth century, has notably and carefully preserved all of these details of the Medici shield that have helped secure its intriguing fame for centuries.
1. 58 cm diameter, oil on canvas laid on panel, Florence, Uffizi Gallery, inv. no. 1351/1890.
Follower of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A.
T his work is a high-quality replica based on Joshua Reynolds's larger Portrait of Mrs Billington in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.1 The sitter of this portrait was a celebrated singer and actress in Europe known as Elizabeth Weichsel until she married John Billington, a double bass player, in 1783. She is depicted here as Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.
1. Oil on canvas, 239.7 by 148 cm. See D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A complete Catalogue of his Paintings, plates, New haven and London 2000, reproduced p. 575, fig. 1557.
Circle of Madeleine Boullogne
T his dramatically lit vanitas still life relates to a renowned canvas by Madeleine Boullogne, also signed and dated 1674, that is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mulhouse.1 It is probable that the example in Mulhouse is the painting Boullogne exhibited at the Salon of 1704 under the title Pensée de Mort. While the two works are similar in their overall composition, they differ somewhat in their use of color tone and handling of the brushstrokes.
The motif of a skull set atop a book with the front of a skull reflected in a mirror also appears in an earlier canvas from around 1645-1650 by Simon Luttichuys.2
1. Oil on canvas, 90 by 122 cm., inv. no. D71.2.51. See Merle du Bourg 2014, p. 52, reproduced.
2. See Ebert 2009, pp. 360-1, cat. no. Sim. A7, reproduced in color p. 125, fig. 71.
After Cristofano Allori
T his painting is a 19th century copy after Cristofano Allori's original canvas in the Buckingham Palace, London.1 This became one of Allori’s best-known compositions, as the existence of numerous versions of the subject by the artist and his workshop attests.
1. Oil on canvas, 120.4 by 100.3 cm, inv. no. RCIN 404989. See https://www.rct.uk/collection/404989/judith-with-the-head-of-holofernes