Before cut-and-paste, copies were made (gasp) by hand

D�j� Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces,” organized by Eik Kahng. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Through Jan. 1. Phoenix Art Museum, January 20 through May 4, 2008.

In the Baltimore Sun, Glenn McNatt says that by seeing the paintings side-by-side, the painting process is revealed. “How did Monet manage to show that it’s morning in one picture and evening in another, or that it’s wet and foggy in one and bright blue skies in the other? When you look just at the rainy-day painting or the night scene, you tend to take it for granted. You enjoy the picture, and who cares how he did it? But when they’re hanging side-by-side, it makes you want to explore the differences: How in one the painted highlights are slathered on in thick swipes of pink and gold that give the impression of the sun’s slanting rays when it’s low on the horizon; how in another it’s all cool mauves and purples that re-create the shimmering effect of moonlight.” Read more.

In the NYTimes, Karen Rosenberg suggests that profit was a big motivation for thematic repetition, but technical refinement and new interpretations often resulted . “More than 50 years after Jean-Dominique-Auguste Ingres first painted an image of Oedipus and the Sphinx, he revisited the myth in a striking canvas. Ingres reversed the direction of the figures and dramatically altered the Sphinx�s expression. In the first version she casts a mysterious, sidelong glance; in the second, painted when Ingres was in his 80s, she recoils in horror. Like the Sphinx�s riddle, the painting is a meditation on mortality.” Read more.

In the Washington Post, Blake Gopnik notes that a copy, although visually similar to the original, may not have the same energy or freshness. “Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s ‘Evening Star,’ painted in 1864, is a mass of very personal, suggestive brushwork, conveying the artist’s intimate response to a sunset in a woods, perhaps the forest of Barbizon he helped make famous in his art. There’s still a relatively old-fashioned ‘subject’ in this picture: We see a sentimental figure of a woman looking at a star, backed up by a shepherd with his flock. But you could easily imagine getting rid of those figures and still having as good a picture, if not a better one. In fact, when Walters himself asked Corot to make him a smaller copy of the work (Walters was still thinking according to the old model of doing things), he asked the artist to ax the sheep. Corot made the copy and kept in the sheep. But the striking thing is that the new painting is notably weaker than its big sister: Without much in the way of information to do its heavy lifting, the painting leaves you time to notice how, in the act of repetition, the brushwork that is so crucial to this new kind of picture has lost a lot of its energy and freshness; how the woman’s hand, rendered by that weaker brushwork, has now become more like a claw. In an object meant to be a one-off product of artistic personality, rather than a carrier of data, you simply lose too much in copying. The copy becomes almost a fraud; it’s more like a lousy, mechanical bootleg than a worthy repetition of the original, inspired artistic act.” Read more.

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