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Definition of Copying | In art education | In eastern society | In Western society

The tradition of Copying in Western societies

Throughout history, copying, in its many manifestations, has played a fundamental 
role in the transfer of knowledge and creation of new ideas. Cenino Cennini, as 
early as c.1390, in his Tratta della pittura , tells the ambitious artist that before he 
can adopt his own style, he must first learn by copying his master's style. He writes,
"Always take pains in drawing the best subjects which you can find, done by the 
hand of great masters…and it will happen that if nature has bestowed on you any
invention, you will acquire a manner of your own, which cannot be other than good…"
(Cennini, 1932-33, chap.27, p.15).

Early 16th century, art instruction was based on a variety of strictly manual and
technical procedures. The focus of the Renaissance tradition was to introduce the
notion of ideal forms, particularly the human form, in art. Students, in workshops,
would copy endlessly from the human forms created by masters. These copying
exercises formed the basis of drawing instruction. The novice student began by
copying from drawings, engravings and casts. Eventually they progressed to working
from the original paintings of the traditional masters and making sculptures or casts
after them (Goldstein, 1996, chap. 2& 6).

It was common practice for older artists to continue to make copies from the
masterworks of the past throughout their careers. The purpose was to refresh their
vision of the ideal by returning to its sources. For instance, Michelangelo copied 
Giotto whose works in turn were copied by Raphael, Rubens and many other artists.
Rembrandt copied from Mantegna and Leonardo as points of departure in creating his
own similar yet genuine works of art (Goldstein, 1996, pp.115-116). Durer copied
selected motifs from Italian prints in the belief that a good painter should have a
repertoire of figures or ideas (Haverkamp-Begemann, 1988, p.15) that could be
expanded through copying and studying the works of the great masters. 

As academies began to replace workshops around the mid 16th century in Italy, 
and later in many capitals of Europe, copying from masterpieces still remained central
in the teaching of art. When the Louvre Museum in France opened its doors in 1793,
the French Academy (established in 1648 by Colbert and Lebrun) sent advanced
students to make painted copies directly from original works rather than engravings 
in the studios. Beginner students were allowed to go to the Louvre to make quick
pencil drawings or sketches of the compositions (Goldstein, 1996, p.120). 

In the French academy, aside from life drawing, copying was perhaps the core of the
curriculum that fulfilled two purposes. First, the practice of copying aimed at developing
students; power of invention by studying the masterpiece art works; and second, it
familiarized students with the technical procedures of the old masters 
(Boime, 1971, p.42).

In 1768, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy in London,
advocated of the study of the masters as a means of acquiring the wisdom
accumulated through the centuries. In regard to copying, Reynolds (1975) wrote:
There is no danger of studying too much the works of those great men; but how they
may be studied to advantage is an inquiry of great importance … Instead of copying
the touches of those masters, copy only their conceptions…Labour to invent on their
general principles and ways of thinking. (p. 28 & 30)

In his second discourse, Reynolds states that imitation is not only a stimulus to
invention, but a part of it. His advice to students was to employ the inventions of the
masters in a new situation; one totally different from its original application.
He writes:
…invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images
which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory: nothing can 
come of nothing: he who has laid up no materials, can produce no combinations…
The more extensive therefore your acquaintance is with the works of those who 
have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention…the more original
will be your conceptions. (p.27-28)

The concept of artist as genius has a long tradition dating back to antiquity and
Renaissance. An artist like Michelangelo could be appreciated for his great
understanding of the value of learning from past masters, while at the same time, be
praised as a divine inventor and genius. In the 18th century, artists began to question
the educational principles of the Academy. The desire of artists to replace the
traditional formula of instruction with an original and emotional form of expression
marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement. The concept of originality and genius
resurfaced and was redefined. This time, the copy, which represented an integral part
of academic programs, was condemned, but not refuted completely. Artists continued
to copy, but in some cases with a radically different intention. Delacroix, for example,
copied from antiquity, not because of its great forms but for its emotional impact. His
choice of works to study depended on personal preference not academic advice, and
he copied primarily to fulfill his individual artistic needs (Homberg, 1996, p.23).

In the 19th century, impressionists and post-impressionists artists viewed originality 
of style as a crucial aspect of their artistic identity. However, artists such as: Manet,
Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Gauguin, Redon, Cezanne and Van Gogh still continued to use
copying for various purposes during their careers. Van Gogh and Cezanne both did
highly interpretive copies of previous masters and of the works of their own
contemporaries (Homberg, 1996; Chetham, 1976). These copies became valued as
part of their original oeuvre. These artists were able to articulate their own unique
style whether the subject at hand was new or copied from another's work. In either
situation, they were able to create unique, original works because they applied a very
personal form of execution. Gauguin, for example, copied Manet's Olympia and included
a still life by Cézanne in the background of a portrait (Humberg, C. 1996, p.122). 

Picasso, a prolific copyist, also did highly interpretive copies of older masters. Unlike 
the Academy, which promoted copying for the purpose of discovering the rules past
masters' had relied upon and applying them in new situations, Picasso believed that
rules, once discovered, should be broken. He challenged himself by transforming
previously painted masterpieces according to his own preferences and goals. This led
to the creation of many of his highly interpretive copies. He painted twelve interpretive
copies of Delacroix's Women of Algiers, fifty-eight of Velasquez's La Meninas, and
numerous other copies of paintings by Courbet, Ingres, El Greco, Davis and Manet
(Goldstein, 1996; Homburg, 1996; Warncke & Walhter, 1997). Matisse, Gris, Derain,
and Dufy were some other artists who did creative copies based on other masters'
works (Haverkamp-Begeman, 1988).

In the modern era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists returned to the
practice of copying with renewed interest. Their attention shifted from a realistic
representation of the world to a search for new forms of expression. Artists began to
express themselves freely in relation to direct and sensual interaction with the world
and through this, developed their own unique visual style. If these modern artists
could not find inspiration for new personal expression in the works of the past, they
would look to new sources to satisfy that need. Some artists looked at new sources
such as photographs, works of other contemporary artists, oriental imageries, popular
magazines, comic strips, caricatures and diagrams; while others who were interested
in an immediate form of expression looked at children's art, primitive art, naïve art and
the art of mentally ill as sources of inspiration.

Both Coke (1972) and Scharf (1974) cited major artists, including Manet, Cezanne,
Degas, Delacroix, Ingres and Picasso, as among those who drew and painted from
photographs. Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein, in the creation of his final works, used the
technique of copying images taken from Yellow Pages' advertisements, photographs,
comic strips and works of other artists such as Picasso and Mondrian (Kozlowski &
 Yakel, 1980).

Fineberg (1997), in his book, The Innocent Eyes references artists such as: Klee,
Kandinsky, Miro, Dubuffet, Picasso and Rothko, as examples of those who exhibited
diverse childlike qualities in their works. He also identified some paintings by artists
that have been copied from children's work. According to Fineberg, Matisse was
inspired by children's art because of the way children simplify forms. Looking at
children's art helped Matisse "free himself from literal renderings imposed by objects"
(p.15). Klee explored the structure, iconography, distortion and specific literal forms 
of children's drawings in his own works. 

Picasso was interested in the way children see objectively, and how they transform
their concept of the outside world into inventive forms in their drawings. Miro was
interested in the sensitivity and the Kinesthetic force in children's drawings and he
would use the common device of emphasizing the important parts of the tactile
experience of a story in children's drawings by enlarging them. Some of the major
formal cues that Dubuffet adopted from children's drawings were their repetitive
patterns, the flat and the schematic presentation of human figures, as well as their
special concepts (Fineberg , 1997).

Artists need visual references as a starting point from which their own artistic
expression can proceed and they often arrive at their unique and original style 
through the practice of imitation, adaptation and modification from a visual language
that already exists.


Boime, A. (1971). The academy and French painting in the nineteenth century.
New York: Phaidon Publishers Inc. 

Cennini, C. (1932-33). Il libro dell'arte. Ed. D. V. Thompson, 2 vols. 
London: Oxford University Press.

Chetham, Ch. (1976). The roles of Vincent Van Gogh's copies in the development 
of his art. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 

Coke, V. D. (1972). The painter and the photographer. Albuquerque: 
University of New Mexico Press. 

Fineberg, J. (1997). The innocent eye: children's art and the modern artists. 
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

Goldstein, C. (1996).Teaching art: academies and schools from Vasari to Albers.
Cambrige: Cambridge University Press. 

Gombrich, E. H. (1979). Ideas and idols. New York: Phaidon Press Limited.
Artist, 60 (May), 56-59. 

Haverkamp-Begemann, E. & Logan, C. (1988). Creative copies:
interpretive Drawings from Michelangelo to Picasso. New York: The Drawing 
Center & Sotheby's Publication.

Homburg, C. (1996). The copy turns original: Vincent van Gogh and a new 
approach to traditional art practice. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: 
John Benjamin Publishing Company. 

Kozlowski, P. J. & Yakel, N. G. (1980). Copying, the direct line to creativity. 
Art Education, 33(8), 24-27.

Reynolds, J. (1959). Discourses on art. London: Yale University Press. 

Scharf, A. (1974). Art and photography. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin. 

Warncke, Casten-P. & Walther, I. F. (1997). Pablo Picasso. Germany,Koln: Taschen.