Copying the Masters

by Gary B. Christensen

The Laundresses after Fragonard, 1980

The Laundresses after Fragonard, 1980, 10 x 12

Fragonard, The Laundresses

Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732–1806), The Laundresses, 1761
Oil on canvas, 73 x 61.5 cm
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

RICHARD LACK made numerous copies of the Masters begining when he was in his teens and throughout his career. What I found interesting in researching them is how on the one hand, as one would expect he was completely faithful to the original. On the other hand there are many copies where he took some license. These have been called out in the catalogue with observations about why this may have occurred, therefore I will not go into this here. Nonetheless they are all sound copies demonstrating Lack’s consummate skill.

It is important to place copying the works of the masters in its proper context and to do so there is no better authority then Lack himself. Using his words but substituting “student” for “artist” from his book, On the Training of Painters:

“I should like to lay to rest forever the nonsensical idea that copying ruins an [artist’s] creativity and individuality. If his creativity is ruined by such an innocent practice, then quite obviously there was precious litter there to be ruined in the first place. The practice of copying is time-honored, and if the great masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres and Degas devoted their talents to copying even in their most mature years, it behooves the serious [artist] to do likewise.”1

The number of surviving copies Lack made of the Old Masters totals 42. The list of masters he copied is numerous: Rubens. Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Fragonard, Veronese, Titian, Tiepolo, Whistler, Leighton, Degas and Homer.

Study after Leighton

Study for “The Arts of Industry as Applied to War” after Leighton, c. 1973, 19½ x 11½.
Collection of the Lack Estate

Leighton, Study

Study for “The Arts of Industry as Applied to War”, c.1879. Black & white chalk on brown paper, 29.3 x 21.4 cm, Leighton House Museum, The Royal Borough of Kensington

While there are several copies of paintings Lack completed in oil (#) the number of drawings he copied (#) far surpass them. In some cases Lack identified the artist he copied, in many others there wasn’t any mention of who he copied and many of the works he copied were obscure and had to be ferreted out. This became another of many “treasure hunts” I found myself embarking on. Thankfully I had the assistance of several artists and my advisor, Prof. Weisberg in my quest.

To those are untrained in the grand tradition of picture-making or lack the understanding, copying the work of other artists may seem to have little merit. Lack’s motivation to copy the masters, and his instruction to his students to do likewise, is best defined in his own words:

“Value or spotting exercises [sic], reproductions of the masters develop a sensitivity to arrangement of dark and light patterns.”

“The aim is to analyze the large distribution of dark and light masses and to see how the masters created attractively balanced arabesques. In the hands of a master these arabesques give the composition both variety and unity regardless of the subject depicted or the naturalism of the forms used.”2

Peter Paul Rubens after Michelangelo The Creation of Adam, 1601–02 Rubens did this drawing during his first trip abroad to Italy between 1600 and 1608. It is copied from Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rubens returned to Antwerp with many such drawings. They were used as ‘reference material’ for himself and his workshops assistants and pupils to study and copy.4

Peter Paul Rubens after Michelangelo
The Creation of Adam, 1601–02

Rubens did this drawing during his first trip abroad to Italy between 1600 and 1608. It is copied from Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rubens returned to Antwerp with many such drawings. They were used as ‘reference material’ for himself and his workshops assistants and pupils to study and copy.4

Peter Paul Rubens after Michelangelo The Libyan Sibyl, 1601–02 From his youth, he was an incessant and astute copyist of earlier painting and sculpture. In these sheets Rubens is at his most careful and methodical, copying art as varied as a 15th century engraving by Israel van Meckenem to Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl to heads from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.5

Peter Paul Rubens after Michelangelo
The Libyan Sibyl, 1601–02

From his youth, he was an incessant and astute copyist of earlier painting and sculpture. In these sheets Rubens is at his most careful and methodical, copying art as varied as a 15th century engraving by Israel van Meckenem to Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl to heads from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.5

Copying was and still is essential in the training of a painter who views the masters as their true instructors, and copies their works as the means to discover, or unlock, their methods of constructing great works of art. In Julian Held’s book, Rubens Selected Drawings, he comments on the large quantity of copies Rubens made of the masters:

“When we find a great artist of the past engaged to such an extent in an activity like making copes that to us seem to have little merit, we can understand his motivation only by remembering two facts. Copying was first of all, a basic device in art education. There may have been different attitudes to this activity in different schools and some masters may have been more independent that others. But no one before the twentieth century would have questioned the value of copying, or would have substituted for it the kind of ‘creative dabbling,’ which in recent years has often been deemed sufficient for the training of an artist. While disciplining eye and hand, copying helped to broaden the mind.”

“There was, however, a second reason which helps to explain the continuing interest which Rubens took in this routine. Surrounded as we are by a vast body of reproductions in books and photos we have difficulty in imagining a time when only a relatively small number of works was available in reproduction, and when many of these reproductions – mostly copper-engravings – were made by insensitive hands.”3

Degas, Anne of Cleves after Holbein

Degas, Anne of Cleves after Holbein (c.1860)

Edgar Degas famously said: “No art is less spontaneous than mine; what I do is the result of contemplation and study of the great masters.” 7

Degas, Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople after Delacroix

Degas, Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople after Delacroix (c.1860)

Around 1860 when Edgar Degas was in his mid-twenties he “copied” Delacroix’s Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (1840). Clearly Delacroix’s original (right) is about war and religion but Degas knew that, underneath, art and the artist’s mind were the subjects of any painting by a master.6

Delacroix, Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople

There was an added benefit to the copies Lack made, in some cases a pose of a figure or a composition would influence or be used directly in his own work. An example of this is his copy of Andromeda in Rubens Perseus and Andromeda. Lack’s pose of Andromeda in his version of this Greek myth while not an exact mirror image, is similar to the pose of Andromeda by Rubens.

Perseus Freeing Andromeda after Rubens, 1985

Lack, Perseus Freeing Andromeda after Rubens, 1985
Sanguine and charcoal heightened with white on paper, 24 x 15-1/2

Lack’s rendering of the figure, while not in oil, is accurate to the original.

Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640),
Perseus Freeing Andromeda, c.1638
Oil on board, 189 x 94 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Lack, Bistre Color Sketch for Perseus and Andromeda

Lack, Bistre Color Sketch for Perseus and Andromeda, c.1961, Oil on canvas, 10-1/2 x 8

Many of Lack’s students consider Lack’s pose and rendering of Andromeda superior to that of Rubens. I agree with their assessment.

You could say this was Lack’s way of paying homage to the master he admired most and whose work influenced him more than any other, although this didn’t hamper his improving on this pose with one of his own choosing.

When one studies Lack’s work closely other composition solutions found in the work of the masters he copied begin to emerge. The flowing robes from Daphne and Apollo after Tiepolo may have influenced his rendering of the drapery in Orestes and the Furies, Rape of Persephone, The Revelation to St. John, or Mandala. The subtle play of a directional light source and the use of the white drapery found in The Laundresses after Fragonard could have influenced his use of these elements in Nativity.

Of course, the only way to ascertain whether or not these observations have any validity is to ask the artist, but this is an opportunity lost. All we can do today is speculate. What we can say for sure is that Richard Lack studied the masters intensly and copied their work throughout his career. Surely what he learned, and the “secrets” that he may have uncovered, became a vital tool in his arsenal.

What he learned from the masters influenced his life as well as all his work, a “relationship” with them that he took very seriously. He shared with me a dream he had in the mid 1960s that had a profound impact on his career. He was walking through the halls of a museum and as he walked by the paintings of the masters the figures in each of them became animated and said, “Who will teach artists of the future how to paint us as the masters did?” When Lack woke up he realized it was a challenge directed at him.8 He wore this mantle seriously and pursued his responsibilities vigorously.

Footnotes

1 Richard Lack, , “Copying”, pp. 55-56, On the Training of Painters: With Notes on an Atelier Program, 8th Edition, The Atelier, Minneapolis, MN, 2009.
2 Richard Lack, “Composition,” pg. 48, On the Training of Painters: With Notes on an Atelier Program, 8th Edition, The Atelier, Minneapolis, MN, 2009.
3 Julian S. Held, “Copies Made by Rubens,” pg. 48, Rubens’ Selected Drawings, Vol. 1, Phaidon Publishers, London, England, 1959.
4 Rubens: Works on Paper. Reprinted with permission:
www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/paperWorks/rubens.aspx
5 Illustration: Rubens copy of Michelangelo’s The Libyan Sybil. Stan Parchin, “Exhibition Review”, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): The Drawings and Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, 2005.
6 Illustration: Degas’ copy of Anne of Cleves after Holbein (c.1860). Edgar Degas famously said: “No art is less spontaneous than mine; what I do is the result of contemplation and study of the great masters.”
7 Illustration: Degas’ copy of Delacroix’s Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (c.1860). Around 1860 when Edgar Degas was in his mid-twenties he “copied” Delacroix’s Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (1840). Clearly Delacroix’s original (right) is about war and religion but Degas knew that, underneath, art and the artist’s mind were the subjects of any painting by a master.
8 Gary Christensen, taped conversation with Richard Lack, 1996.