Difficulty is what most Louvre copyists seek. “It’s a challenge to try to reach the level of the old masters, and to meet it you have to extend yourself,” says Mary Chavance, a French artist who does mainly Impressionist-style landscapes in her Left Bank studio. But here, on the opposite side of the Seine, in the Louvre’s bustling Grande Galerie (devoted to French, Italian and Spanish classical paintings), she is grappling with an aristocrat in gleaming armor by Caravaggio. The work is typical of the Baroque artist’s Tenebrism—the depiction of dramatically illuminated forms emerging from shadow. Her version looks perfect, but she’s not satisfied. “If you don’t copy, you won’t advance,” she says. “But you can’t do it passively. You have to involve yourself deeply in creating something that’s more than just a reproduction of a painting.”
That seems to have been the idea when the museum opened its doors two centuries ago. “Each visitor should be able to put his easel in front of any painting or statue to draw, paint or model as he likes,” proclaimed an early official. But the Louvre was soon so flooded with artists that the museum had to start issuing authorizations and limiting hours for copyists. (Today, copying is permitted from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., September through June, except Tuesdays, Sundays and holidays.) In the early days, art students, never known for their decorum, often had to be reminded to refrain from games, singing and horsing around in what was supposed to be, according to Louvre authorities, a “sanctuary of silence and meditation.”
Not everyone came to the Louvre for purely aesthetic reasons. In the mid-19th century, mothers often chaperoned their copyist daughters, concerned that representations of scantily clad bodies might be corrupting or that male copyists had more on their minds than offers of artistic instruction. To such prospective swains, the 19th-century novelist Champfleury offered an effective approach: “Copy a painting next to hers, then ask to borrow some cadmium or cobalt. Then correct the odious mess of colors she calls a painting (they’re always glad to get advice) and talk about the Old Masters until the Louvre closes and you have to continue the conversation in the street. Improvise the rest.”
By the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of artists were busily copying masterpieces, mainly to satisfy orders from clients. Many visitors, wending through a veritable forest of easels, ordered copies on the spot. Thus the Louvre offered artists the possibility of income (though by the 1890s, photography had reduced demand), as well as a dry and heated place to work.
Still, many of today’s Louvre copyists sell their works. A few art galleries near the museum market them, and some artists, such as Amal Dagher, who has been copying for 30 years and is considered the unofficial dean of Louvre copyists, sell directly to visitors. Born in Lebanon, the affable 63-year-old Dagher studied for four years at Beirut’s Academy of Fine Arts, and later in India, Thailand and Japan, before settling in Paris. He is working on a copy of a portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière by French neoclassicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who, along with Delacroix, is among the most copied of the Louvre’s masters because of his rigorous composition and subtle coloring. (One of the world’s most famous paintings, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, is one of the least copied—partly because the crowds that flock to the painting make it hard for an artist to set up an easel and partly because, according to Ferrier, its fame intimidates.)