Art, from its very nature, is based on a constant borrowing and sharing of artistic elements. That is not to suggest there is no parthenogenesis in the art world but a multitude of forces- economic, social, and political- which when intertwined, constitute fertile ground for artistic creation. Put simply, the most ground-breaking ideas in art history are born when artists articulate their personalised internal reaction towards ideologies, artistic movements and practices adhered to by their peers, whether in the past or present. Renaissance and Neoclassical Art would not exist without Ancient Greek and Roman Art, while Cubism would not have been the same or even realised without Surrealism. Rothko’s Four Seasons series would not be as grandiose if not for Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library and Jackson Pollock would still be painting landscapes if not for his embrace of Abstract Expressionism. What a mind-twisting notion. Whilst at first sight these seem dubious assumptions, one must never forget that the timeline of art history is nothing but linear and in effect, relative.
Artists borrowing and referencing works of other artists keeps the discourse between art movements and art practices alive; it creates pathways for innovation. Nevertheless, while art historians and art experts embrace the spirit of mutual exchange, one is left to wonder- what happens when this borrowing practice becomes an act of direct copying? Is it acceptable for artists to copy other artists? Does the art world award the artistic merit of a copy as it would an original piece? The first reaction would be a staggering “no”. Given the rise of intellectual property law and the concept of artistic originality, copying an artistic composition or part of an artistic composition sounds utterly despicable. In effect, the weight society attaches to the concept of originality and authenticity embodies a threat to the integrity and value of copies as stand-alone works. Authenticity has come to mean “the quality of being real or true”, while originality is “the quality of being special and interesting and not the same as anything or anyone else”. Following these definitions, it is no surprise that copies are often dismissed for having a lower artistic and monetary value than the original work. Drawing a comparison between the copy and the copied work is unavoidable. Nonetheless, the act of replicating compositions carries great social, political and aesthetic implications, independent of any such comparison.
Historic sources, manuscripts and surviving artworks prove that the act of copying from 27 BCE, with the birth of the Roman Empire, to the 17th century, was a commonplace and valued practice. That is not to say that faithful reproductions were never contested throughout this time, but in many cases the practice was accepted and embraced. The whole of the Roman Empire was based on the adoption of artistic motifs from the cultures it conquered, first and foremost Ancient Greece. Romans produced direct copies from Ancient Greek art such as pottery, sculptural compositions and architectural designs. By the 2nd century AD, the demand for reproductions of Ancient Greek sculptures reached an all-time peak with copies decorating private estates, theatres, public baths and monuments. The placement of replicas was accompanied by a feeling of great pride, as the sculptures were associated with the virtues of heroism and beauty. Therefore, in the eyes of ancient audiences, the Roman replicas were as “original” and lavish as the source works.
16th and 17th century Europe saw a rapid and widespread growth of the art market as an economic platform. In England, patrons were especially fond of portraits depicting sitters from the royal court. Hence, artistic practices heavily relied on the duplication of complete compositions and techniques as a way to respond to the demand of the buyers. Paintings of the same sitter featured in the exact same arrangement, such as Catharine of Aragon of whom there are six surviving portraits, was a distinct feature of Tudor and Jacobean portraiture. A noteworthy example is Hans Holbein and Hans Holbein’s studio who in many occasions created two identical versions of the same sitter. Holbein created two portraits of Archbishop William Warham, from which only one version survives and is part of the Louvre’s collection. Interestingly, two further portraits of William Warham were found, created in the late 16th – early 17th century, therefore years after Holbein’s death. The two portraits are almost identical to Holbein’s originals, but have slight variations in colour. The abundance of copies and their high demand shows that the status of the portrayed was in many occasions more important than the status of the artist. Consequently, the concept of originality and authenticity as we know it to be today did not always exist. Paintings had an innate quality based on the choice of imagery.