Want to Copy Mona Lisa? Join the Queue
Millions line-up for hours to gawk at the Mona Lisa and other Louvre masterpieces each year, but only a few come armed with oil paints and brushes, and these copyists have to wait as long as two years to be allowed to ply a profession sanctioned by a 1795 law.
In the Denon Wing of France’s most famous museum, something like 15,000 visitors a day dally before the works of great masters, and first and foremost of them all — the Mona Lisa. But in the midst of this permanent to-ing and fro-ing, some appear more at home, indeed cacooned even in their own transportable artist studios. Easels and stools rooted before a canvas, these patient few stand, entranced like so many others but possibly with a more practised eye, as they carefully reproduce the work before them, brushstroke by brushstroke.
This somewhat incongruous band of painters — who can also be found hard at work in the nearby Musée d’Orsay for example — are copyists, and they have special permission from both museums to spend up to three months copying a painting of their choice.
As Sophie Levy noted recently in Le Point copying is not new, painters have always learned by copying from the great masters — Cézanne copied Rubens who had in turn copied Titian. Picasso was inspired by the works of Poussin and so on. “One of the key purposes of the Louvre is to sustain this tradition of teaching by copying,” says Isabelle Vieilleville-Noury, the Louvre staffer in charge of the museum’s “office of copiers”.
The image below captured from Le Point’s video shows Vladimir Liagatchev’s tool box and palette set out before the work he was copying at the time.
At the founding of the museum in August 1793, the National Convention — which was the constitutional and legislative assembly of France between 1792 and 1795 met to produce regulations governing the museum. Article 1 of this document provides that: “the first five days of every decade, will be devoted to the business artists and their studies (of the works in the Louvre).” To ensure all copyists are on an equal footing and enjoy good working conditions, the regulations also endowed the Louvre with 100 stools and easels. The rules are respected through to this day.
However, certain conditions must be met by any artist seeking to put his brushes to work as a copyist at the Louvre. The proposed copy must be a different size from the original work, a fifth larger or smaller. Similarly, the painter may not reproduce the signature of the master. Finally, the copy must be certified as such by special tampons on the canvas, a criterion that is even more critical when it comes to the trade in reproductions of the old masters.
As the images show (see also the video here) painters like Vladimir Liagatchev sometimes indulge in the business of copying old masters for sale to would-be art connoisseurs (or even poseurs with cash to spare) to hang in the living room.
However Vladimir Liagatchev claims to have a better reason for being on the list of copyists willing to queue for a place. He aims to paint thirty works from the museum and then hold exhibitions around Europe allowing him to “carry the Louvre with me everywhere,” as he told Le Point . The artist also uses his copies as a basis for producing trompe-l’oeil for clients keen on a classical theme.
This privileged cohort of copyists also includes amateurs. Marie-Clothilde Dumas, a retired teacher, perfected her mastery of painting in the company of some of the Louvre’s great works. She has already completed nearly 25 copies of famous art. “In general, I do them for someone in the family or for friends,” she explains.
As Marie-Clothilde Dumas shows, one does not need a degree in fine arts to become a copyist at the Louvre but one does need plenty of patience – it takes two to three years after joining the waiting list to get a slot and the list is restricted to just 150 accredited artists. Vacancies? Well you can try.
See Le Point video report on the copyists in the Louvre here.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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