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Art: France’s long history of copying Old Masters at the Louvre

The rules of reproduction today are strict - copies must be a fifth larger or smaller than the original - and there is a two year waiting list

Louvre and Mona Lisa

‘Copyists’ continue the tradition under strict regulations at the Louvre; one copyist discovered the theft of the Mona Lisa ‘La Joconde’ in 1911 Pic: Isogood_patrick / Arif_S / Shutterstock

Artists copying the art in France’s most famous museum have been a permanent fixture for almost as long as enormous paintings have bedecked its walls. 

The practice of copying and recreating paintings by the Old Masters at the Louvre goes back to when the museum first opened in 1793, when any artist could turn up and use a freely available easel to copy a masterpiece. 

Read more: Mona Lisa ‘replica’ sells for record €2.9m at auction in Paris

Drawings and paintings from that period reveal that by the mid to late nineteenth century you could barely move in the Louvre’s public galleries for artists – both men and women – standing at their easels. 

So who were these ‘copyists’, what did they paint, and why did they choose to copy faithfully other artists’ works rather than create their own? 

Learning technical skills

In our era, where originality and innovation are celebrated above all else, it can be hard to understand the fascination that making copies once held for artists. 

In the nineteenth century, however, recreating famous works was a key step in becoming a professional artist, teaching them the technical skills necessary to create master works of their own. 

The practice of copying had been built into the art school system itself since the seventeenth century, and by the nineteenth was helped by the fact that the capital’s Ecole des beaux-arts was situated 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 in the Louvre. 

Several of the painters who would become known later on as the Impressionists trained by copying paintings at the museum. 

Cézanne, who first registered to copy a work there by Poussin in 1863, once said “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read.” 

Edouard Manet first met Berthe Morisot while she was in the Louvre in the late 1850s copying a canvas by the Venetian painter Veronese. 

They would both go on to break new ground in painting, yet understood the importance of mastering the masters. 

Female copyists’ constant presence at the Louvre

The famous Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot was not the only woman to copy the Louvre’s masterpieces to forge her own path in art. 

Paintings and drawings from the nineteenth century show that many women learned from copying. 

One male copyist in particular, Louis Béroud, proved their constant presence by painting several canvasses of women at work. 

Béroud, however, is more famous for being the artist who discovered the theft in 1911 of the Mona Lisa. 

He had turned up to paint it and found a gap where the painting should have been! 

Louvre brought in new rules to control growing numbers

Although any artist could paint the masters when the museum first opened, the sheer number turning up by the 1860s forced officials to introduce a few rules. 

Artists were permitted only if they could produce a letter of recommendation by a ‘master’ or an 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 artists, restricted the number of artists allowed to occupy the space in front of that work at any one time, and organised waiting lists. 

Copyists got 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 reserved some days entirely for artists to paint. 

From 1855, when the museum opened every day to the public, they allowed copyists to come and work before the official opening hours, presumably so that the artists could squeeze in a few productive hours before the masses arrived. 

Copyists who were particularly highly regarded, or who came with a recommendation from a famous artist, were even allowed to have the original work sent to their home for a limited period!

Thriving market for copies

Not all artists copied works to improve their skills. Some took up the practice professionally, since the demand for copies of masterpieces in the Louvre was high throughout the nineteenth century. 

The State ordered many copies of famous paintings that depicted illustrious figures and important events to decorate the walls of their administrative buildings and palaces. 

There was also a thriving market in copies of large religious paintings, such as those by Caravaggio. 

The devastation revolutionaries had wrought on France’s churches meant that there was an urgent need for canvasses of appropriate imagery to fill their walls.

Copyists still work in the Louvre today

These days only 250 copyists are permitted to install themselves in front of the museum’s art works, and a two-year waiting list shows that there are plenty of hopefuls waiting in the wings to take up a palette and brush. 

Those granted access have up to three months to work on their copy. 

When completed, officials then study the work to ensure it complies with the Louvre’s strict protocols – the canvasses must be a fifth smaller or larger than the originals, and feature the signature of the contemporary artist, not the master. 

They then stamp the back of the work and escort the artists from the building with their very own masterpiece.

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