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Master Class

Like generations of painters before them, artists from around the globe go to Paris to copy the masterpieces at the Louvre

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The Louvre has been open only a few minutes, but already crowds are sauntering through its vast galleries. Up on the second floor, in a long, redwalled room devoted to 19th-century French paintings, a group is gathering around a young woman wearing a black velvet tunic and a floor-length silk skirt. Her glossy auburn hair braided and coiled around her head, she sits on a stool before an easel, deftly applying paint to a canvas. Some of the visitors hang back, stare dubiously, then wander off. Others crowd in for a better look, glancing from the famous 19th-century painting on the wall, The Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix, to the copy on the easel. “Boy, she’s really good,” someone whispers. “Aw, I bet she’s doing it by the numbers,” comes the response.

 

Sorrel Smith, a 25-year-old artist from California, is not only producing that curious paradox—an original, fully creative copy—she is also carrying on a venerable tradition. Ever since the museum opened its treasures to public view in November 1793 (one of the indisputable benefits of the French Revolution), it has allowed, even encouraged, artists to hone their skills by copying the masterpieces in its collections. Thousands have done so, including great classical painters from Turner to Ingres, Impressionists from Manet to Degas, and modernists like Chagall and Giacometti. “You have to copy and recopy the masters,” Degas insisted, “and it’s only after having proved oneself as a good copyist that you can reasonably try to do a still life of a radish.”

 

The Louvre’s attraction is profound. When 23-year-old Marc Chagall arrived in Paris in 1910 from Russia, he went there directly from the train station, suitcase in hand. “Going to the Louvre is like reading the Bible or Shakespeare,” he later said. Paul Cézanne regularly trekked there to copy Michelangelo, Rubens and classical Greek and Roman statues. “The Louvre is the book where we learn to read,” he declared.

 

Though most of them are women, today’s copyists are an otherwise varied lot. Of the 150 artists who executed 269 copies during the 2000-2001 painting season, nearly three out of four were art students or in artistic professions. But there was also a psychoanalyst, a surgeon, a midwife and 13 retirees. Three out of four, also, were French, but there were 20 Americans, the largest foreign group. Maïten de Ferrier, the enthusiastic head of the office that runs the copyist program, believes a stint at the Louvre is a rite of passage.

“These artists like to follow in the footsteps of all the great painters who have copied here,” she explains. “And, of course, they also come to improve their technique, to find solutions to their artistic problems.” Some, however—like eccentric Surrealist Salvador Dalí, who created a group of provocative renderings of Jean-François Millet’s pious The Angelus—prefer to use masterworks as a point of departure. Picasso, who copied at the Louvre in the 1950s to recharge his creative batteries, produced a series of interpretations of Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers (the same work now being copied by Sorrell Smith) after noticing a marked resemblance between one of the women in the painting and his then companion, Jacqueline Roque.

 

At the moment, Sorrel Smith’s problem is getting Delacroix’s composition and colors just right. An accomplished technician who likes to do miniature portraits on ivory, Smith came to Paris with the Wells College Program for the Arts (Aurora, New York), where she learned to mix colors and stretch canvases. “Making my own paints with earth pigments means I don’t have to search for the colors the old masters used, because I’m starting from the same point they did,” she explains. “In this painting the colors are very vibrant and at the same time muted, creating a difficult balance. It’s the hardest copy I’ve ever done.”

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