Copycat Need Not Be a Dirty Word

As I spend time with our distinguished visiting painting Gallery of the Louvre, painted in 1833 by Samuel F. B. Morse and on loan to us from the Terra Foundation, the mean name-calling taunt of “copycat” from the school playground keeps running through my mind. Faced with one of American art’s most celebrated works of copying, Gallery of the Louvre, which includes Morse’s miniaturized replicas of some of the most influential works of European art, I muse about how copying has become something worthy of disdain instead of an homage to the greats, a method of art instruction, or a way of disseminating information across oceans and boundaries.

Bear in mind, I’m not advocating plagiarism here, but it was common practice in days of yore to spend time studying form, color, and composition by replicating illustrious art—whether an original painting or a plaster cast of a notable Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original. And printed versions of painted artworks were often the only means of exposure to art for many people before the advent of American museums.

We recently acquired a marvelous original painting by Henry Inman (1801–1846) of Shawnee leader Payta-kootha, or “Flying Clouds” as he was commonly known, that is a translation of an oil portrait by the artist Charles Bird King (1785–1862). (The work will be featured in the next issue of the members’ magazine and will go on view in the Main Gallery this fall.) In the 1820s, Thomas L. McKenney, soon to be Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, aspired to create a painting gallery of American Indian leaders for the nation. He enlisted King to paint them, but when it came time to produce lithographic copies of the works, McKenney selected Inman to create oil paintings based on King’s portraits that featured sophisticated rendering of light, shadow, and dimension. Inman’s work became the basis for a three-volume portfolio of hand-colored lithographs, The Indian Tribes of North America, published between 1837–44, considered one of the finest accomplishments of American printing. The Inman commission was a fortunate one, as the majority of King’s portraits were lost in a fire in 1865.

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Henry Inman, Payta-kootha (Flying Clouds), 1832-3 and the lithograph based on Inman's painting.

Other examples of copying are numerous. Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) painted a copy of John Vanderlyn’s famously controversial nude Ariadne (1809–14) that he then translated into an exquisite engraving that is one of the highlights of our works-on-paper collection.

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Durand's engraving and etching Ariadne, 1835 after his painted copy of Vanderlyn's original.

In copying, Durand did put his own spin on the Vanderlyn original. Other artists, such as Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart, made a cottage industry of painting and repainting their own portraits of George Washington.

Many works in our collection have chromolithographic doppelgangers. Color prints of Bierstadt’s painted views of Yosemite contributed to his great fame, and Martin Johnson Heade’s hummingbird paintings have exquisite printed counterparts.

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Martin Johnson Heade's painting Two Hummingbirds Above a White Orchid, ca. 1875-90 and one of the many printed versions in our collection of Heade's Brazillian hummingbirds .

Artists even copied themselves—working on one idea throughout multiple media. A work by Remington could find expression in drawing, painted sketch, and wood engraving—all of which he would have had a hand in creating.

Of course, there’s still such a thing as bad copying in the form of forgery or peeking at someone’s test answers or claiming someone else’s ingenuity as your own innovation. But, as it pertains to the long history of art, it is worth noting that “copycat” is not a dirty word.

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator