The Louvre is more liberal than, say, Washington’s National Gallery of Art, which has a long list of rules and requires reference letters, original samples of paintings and an interview from applicants. But the Louvre’s Ferrier thinks that “we should leave the artists as free as possible.” One painter who has benefited from this attitude is American Will H.G. Thompson, a slender man of 30 with thick dark hair. A professional artist who won an award for a painting at Paris’s Salon des Beaux-Arts, Thompson was born in Switzerland and grew up in Europe. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and now makes his home in Paris. In a dimly lit room devoted to Spanish classical paintings, he is copying Francisco de Goya’s Young Woman with a Fan, a portrait of a poised young lady with a distant, dreamy gaze.
“I got a good foundation at the PennsylvaniaAcademy, but you never stop learning,” Thompson says. “When I copy a masterpiece, I get a sort of mental trip out of it, applying the paint differently, using light and dark the way the artist did. It’s like taking a lesson from an old master.”
Like most Louvre copyists, Thompson often chats with some of the thousands of visitors who enter the museum each day. “There’s a real exchange between the copyists and the public that we consider very positive,” says Ferrier. “Copyists working amid the visitors enhance the way the public sees paintings and incites them to look more closely with a more analytical approach. They start noticing how the artist actually did the work.”
Those who frequent the museum have come to know a small man of 77 with pale blue eyes and a gentle manner. Bruno Nini has been copying nearly every day since 1990, when he retired as maître d’ at a restaurant in Paris’s Austerlitz train station, where he began his days by taking delivery of 5,000 croissants at 5 a.m. Now he is working on a copy of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, a tantalizing portrait of the mistress of Henri IV by an anonymous 16th-century painter of the school of Fontainebleau.
“I learned most of my technique from books,” Nini says with obvious pride. “After realizing I wanted to paint, I sought out street artists and tried to get tips from them. Then one day I came here and saw copyists at work. I knew that was what I wanted to do.” Nini estimates he’s done more than 100 copies, some of which he’s sold; the others hang on the crowded walls of his Paris apartment. He’s an amateur in the truest sense of the term—someone who passionately loves what he’s doing. “Sometimes, when I see the figures in a painting coming to life under my brush strokes,” he says, “tears come to my eyes.”