Old Masters Copying Older Masters – Part 1

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in September of 2022.

Although this site is mostly all Sight-Size all the time, there are important digressions. This article is one and may be of interest to all representational artists.

gerome-michelangelo-belvedere-torsoJean-Léon Gérôme, Michelangelo Being Shown the Belvedere Torso.
The Belvedere Torso shown in the painting above is a much copied sculpture from Antiquity.

The statement that “good artists copy; great artists steal” has been attributed to many. History is replete with examples of both sides, and not just in art but also in other fields. Is the assertion true? The answer, I think, depends upon both the reason for the copy and how well it was done. Let’s avoid the controversy and look at some old masters copying older masters.

There are a many reasons for copying old masterworks. Among them are learning a proven technique, learning to see nature as drawn in line or paint, searching for the noble ideal, creating a replica for yourself or another, incorporating the masterwork in part or whole into your own work, and memory.

The training of painters in past centuries regularly involved copying old master drawings and paintings. To that end, most museums happily allowed students into their buildings for that purpose (some still do). But the practice was not limited to students. Even fully trained old masters copied older masters.

Most student copyists endeavor to copy their chosen source exactly. Less exact copies, called free copies, are useful as memory-jogs, much like a photographer’s or designer’s clip file. Since everyone’s cell phone has a camera, free copies are far less prevalent now than in the past. That’s a shame, because even a free copy is a learning opportunity. Plus, the physical act of doing it is itself a visual memory reminder.

giotto-death-and-ascension-of-saint-john-michelangeloDetail from The Death and Ascension of Saint John.
On the left, Giotto’s original. On the right, Michelangelo’s copy.

Michelangelo Does Giotto

Already mentioned was that student copying was one of the reasons for a museum. Well, that was generally post-Renaissance. Before then most students had to content themselves with the local Catholic church or chapel. That was the case for the young Michelangelo.

Take a look at the pair of images above. On the left is a detail of Giotto’s fresco The Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist from the Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce, Florence. On the right is Michelangelo’s pen and ink drawing of it. Michelangelo’s copy was drawn when he was 15 years old, 180 years after Giotto painted the fresco. Personally I think that he outdid Giotto, given how the folds are realized in Michelangelo’s copy. The drawing appears to be a study of folds as much as a clip file drawing copy.

Michelangelo Does Masaccio

Michelangelo’s copy of Giotto was clearly done during his student years. So were his copies of Masaccio that you see below, both from the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria Del Carmine, Florence.

masaccio-baptism-michelangeloDetail from the Baptism narrative in the Brancacci Chapel.
On the left, Masaccio’s original. On the right, Michelangelo’s copy.

The first copy pair (above) is from the Baptism narrative. This time Michelangelo was a bit more literal than he had been for his Giotto copy. That said, notice both how the figure’s knees are at opposite angles to Masaccio’s version and the ribs-to-stomach connection is less well represented. This drawing, by the way, is newly attributed to Michelangelo.* It’s purported to be one of his first figure drawings.

masaccio-tribute-money-michelangeloDetail from the Tribute Money narrative in the Brancacci Chapel.
On the left, Masaccio’s original. On the right, Michelangelo’s copy.

The second pair (above) shows Saint Peter, from the Tribute Money fresco in the chapel. This time he deviated from the master in more significant ways. Notice how he made Peter’s pose more realistic: the shoulders are more tilted, and the right leg is evident as hinted at in the folds of the fabric. Michelangelo’s Peter appears to be handing the money down to the soldier, as opposed to stiffly reaching out as in Masaccio’s version. This drawing shows that Michelangelo was an astute observer of nature. He began with Masaccio’s representation and then imposed nature upon it.

An interesting anecdote is that one of Michelangelo’s fellow students (Pietro Torrigiano) punched him in the nose while they were copying Masaccio’s in the chapel. Michelangelo seems to have been either a bully or overly proud of himself, and Torrigiano finally had enough. Both Vasari and Cellini tell the story, the latter quoting Torrigiano bragging about breaking Michelangelo’s nose: “this mark of mine he will carry with him to his grave.

Rubens Does Titian

Skipping ahead a century or so we find Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens copying the Venetian master Titian. This is wholly unlike Michelangelo’s copy-work, who copied to learn and in the process improved upon the master. Instead, Rubens was paying tribute.

Rubens went on a diplomatic assignment to Madrid when he was 52. In addition to his governmental duties he found time to fulfill commissions, befriend and advise Velazquez, and to copy Titian. His copy of Titian’s Adam and Eve (below) is not entirely one-to-one, but numerous elements are nearly so. Witness many of the leaves, satan’s tail, and even the possible pentimento where Adam’s back meets the background sky.

adam-eveAdam and Eve.
On the left, Titian’s original. On the right, Rubens’ version.

As much as Rubens idolized Titian, in many ways he was a form painter whereas Titian was more optically inclined (see the series of articles beginning here). But don’t assume that means each approach was exclusive nor negates the other. Reading Vasari’s comments on Disegno vs. Colore is instructive, although tangentially.

Rubens’ Eve (on the right, above) is a fairly straightforward copy of Titian’s version (on the left, above) – with the exception of Eve’s pose. Rubens being Rubens, he accentuates both Adam and Eve’s fleshiness, over-rendering each hint of muscle definition in the way many artists of the Baroque period delighted in. Compare their versions of Eve’s lower legs, below.

titian-rubens-kneesDetails of Eve’s knees, Adam and Eve.
On the left, Titian’s original. On the right, Rubens’ version.

Rubens also changes Adam’s pose. Titian’s Adam almost recoils from Eve whereas Rubens paints him as if he’s trying to get Eve to pause and think again.

Below is another copy Rubens made of Titian. The Rape of Europa. This copy is much more direct, even though the color saturation is a bit different.

titian-rape-of-europa-rubensThe Rape of Europa.
On the left, Titian’s original. On the right, Rubens’ version.

The copy of Titian (below, right) is either by Rubens or his studio.

titian-transport-of-christ-rubensThe Transport of Christ.
On the left, Titian’s original. On the right, Rubens’ version.

As important as Titian was to Rubens, stylistically his influence was limited. Rubens’ technique remained thoroughly Flemish throughout his career. Fortunately, Rubens’ interest helped turn Velazquez to Titian’s direction. After Rubens’ visit to Madrid, Velazquez’s work would never be the same. Titian became his guide and Caravaggio left the building. If that’s a mystery to you, read this article here.

Rubens Does Caravaggio

Speaking of Caravaggio, Rubens had a thing for him as well. At least when it came to Caravaggio’s depiction of Christ’s entombment. On the left, below is Caravaggio’s original. In the center is Rubens’ copy in which he eliminated Mary Magdalen. Rubens’ painting on the far right is not really a copy, but more like the painting equivalent of musical sampling. He clearly kept the essence of Caravaggio’s work, but put his own spin on it.

caravaggio-the-entombment-of-christ-rubensThe Entombment of Christ.
On the left, Caravaggio’s original. On the right, Rubens’ versions.

What are we to make of all this? In the present day, suffering as we do with a loss of many traditions, one can be forgiven for not knowing why copying is so important – much less how to effectively make one. I’ll have more to say in future articles.

* I have my doubts. Modern-day old master forgeries are more common than most think them to be (see the YouTube video Eric Hebborn – Portrait of a Master Forger, as well as his two books). Then again, I’m not a Michelangelo expert.

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