It's a sight familiar to any visitor to New York's axis of art history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—easel-toting artists parked in front of some of the collection's greatest masterpieces, painting or drawing the images they see in front of them in a state of nearly holy mad concentration. But what are they doing there, anyway? No, they're not there to hog floor space or even to plagiarize the greats: As artist Laurie Murphy writes in the museum's blog, they're part of the museum's longest-running program.
The Copyist Program has been in place since just two years after the museum opened its doors in 1870. Designed to make the museum a sort of extended studio for artists, it opens the museum to artists on an individual and group basis. Applicants must apply to copy an individual piece of art, specify the medium they intend to use, and submit digital images of their own artwork to be accepted. Once admitted to the program, they are given up to eight weeks to spend in the galleries—subject to a series of terms and conditions that include not painting on huge canvases or selling their work. (Visitors who would rather sketch using pencil only don't need permission, but must abide by the museum's guidelines.)
Though it might seem counterintuitive for developing artists to copy the work of others, it's actually been a vital part of the visual arts for millennia. Great masters routinely engaged in the process, gaining their painters' chops from those who came before them. Paul Cézanne, for example, was obsessed with the work of Eugène Delacroix, copying his work over and over again in an attempt to make a tribute worthy of his muse. Vincent van Gogh copied art, too, and as Murphy points out, copyists of Caravaggio's work helped preserve paintings that were otherwise lost to time.
Today, the Met's copyist program and similar programs at the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art and other institutions are coveted, competitive and beloved by the public who watch artists on display. But copyists weren't always revered. As Paul Duro writes, many 19th-century museum visitors assumed that women copyists were rich girls with government patronage or large checks from their fathers, not serious artists. And in 1887, The New York Times published an article that mocked the copyists at the Louvre as "these personifications of irony who have been cast at the feet of masterpieces…poor ridiculous folk picking up the crumbs and alms of art at the feet of the gods."
Luckily, that view of copyists has faded—after all, imitation is a form of both flattery and learning, and everyone from art critics to museum heads warmly welcome the practice. It turns out that despite their inability to speak, inanimate paintings and other pieces of art can communicate important lessons to artists honing their craft. So next time you see a copyist, don't blame them for taking up precious gallery real estate. Rather, take a look at their work and relish the chance to see an artistic education in real time. And if you fancy yourself a copyist, the Met is currently accepting applications for its 2016 fall season.