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Stealing from the Old Masters

Good artists copy; great artists steal. (Pablo Picasso)

The aphorism above is glib (and probably apocryphal), yet it brings to mind a truth which, to a few artists, is both inconvenient and distasteful: nearly all art is derivative. But should artists strive for absolute originality or is it more effective, as suggested, to steal ideas and methods and adapt them?

Below are a number of works by Old Masters and the works of yet Older Masters which influenced them. Occasionally the influence is but a stolen idea, sometimes a quiet nod to the past and at other times plain homage.

Mr and Mrs Anson Phelps Stokes, 1898, oil on canvas, 183x101cm, Cecilia Beaux, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In an earlier post I mentioned the portrait above by Cecilia Beaux. This is an example of a great artist acknowledging with a nod her contemporary, Sargent.

Mr and Mrs I N Stokes, 1897, oil on canvas, 214 x 101cm, John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Here is Sargent himself paying homage to Velázquez’s Las Meninas with his Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

Manet, like Sargent was an admirer of Velázquez. The plain background in his Joueur de Fifre is borrowed (stolen?) from Velázquez’s full length portraits like that of Pablo da Valladolid.

But here is Velázquez himself using an engraving by  Antonio Tempesta for the composition of The Forge of Vulcan.

There are countless such examples which show that the World of Art is a genealogy of grand larceny. An artist will, to a great extent, make use of his experiences and the images he sees around him. His methods and technique will indeed come from the results of his own experiments, but mostly they will come from the teachings of his masters and his gleanings from other artists.  I feel that an artist works at his best and is most moving, when he stops attempting to be original above all things and just tries to show truth(e.g. character in a portrait or the beauty of a landscape) using, if needed, methods and ideas fashioned and adopted from the work of others. So yes, stealing in this sense is laudable, since it is eases the path to depicting truth and, to my mind, it is the way to producing great art.


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