Thursday, August 8, 2013

Exploring Works on Display: A Culture of the Copy

Anonymous, (Dutch, after Paulus Moreelse), Shepherdess, late 16th - mid 17th Century. photo: John Tamblyn

The theme of the shepherdess was popular in 17th-century Dutch art and it was not unusual for fashionable young women to have their likenesses rendered as such. The origins of the theme can be traced back to antiquity where it appeared as a leitmotif in poetry dealing with pastoral subject matter. Among the more successful Dutch painters to have portrayed sitters as shepherdesses was Paulus Moreelse, a highly successful artist from Utrecht. 

The McMaster Museum painting, which was formerly attributed to Moreelse, is almost certainly a copy by a follower or imitator of the distinguished artist, whose technical facility exceeded the hand represented in this exhibition. Such copies point to the demand for subjects of this type and, with equal importance, the value accorded to imitation itself. The market for prints, which had expanded considerably during the Renaissance, had helped to visually disseminate the compositions, subject matter and even styles of leading artists throughout Europe.* With this distribution of visual information came a demand for copies of prized or significant works otherwise previously available only to the nobility or those fortunate enough to travel to distant cities to see works in situ. As the picture shown here indicates, the culture of the copy was not limited to printed material. Painted or sculpted works in the style of a celebrated artist could also be valued by those with the means to afford an imitation. 

* Consider, for instance, Albrecht Durer's print of The Sea Monster, featured in this exhibition.

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