By Giulio Sorgini, graduate student in the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art
I’d like to offer another possible answer to the question “when are copies useful?” which Copycat co-curator Alexis Goodin posed in the wall text for her exhibition and in an accompanying blog post.
In the Fall of 2011, I took a seminar on the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The professor, Marc Simpson, had each of the students in the class choose one of Sargent’s pictures in the Clark collection to study over the course of the semester. I chose Blonde Model of circa 1877—a modestly sized oil painting (roughly eighteen inches tall by fifteen inches wide) that depicts the head and shoulders of a nude female model.
For our first assignment of the semester, Professor Simpson had each of us make a pencil drawing of the painting we had chosen. It’s worth noting that the quality of our drawings was, in this case, of little importance. The point of Professor Simpson’s assignment was not for each of us to produce great works of art—as you can see below, such a project would be beyond my artistic capabilities! The emphasis here was on the process of drawing, which requires careful looking over a long period of time. Whereas I might have spent five or ten minutes in front of Blonde Model had I not been asked to draw it, I stood in front of the painting for upwards of an hour.
Copying a work of art may help you observe things you previously hadn’t noticed. In the case of Blonde Model, I had barely considered the manner in which Sargent applied paint to canvas until I set out to draw it. I noticed that the model’s hair, for instance, was merely suggested by several exuberant strokes of the brush; the background and the model’s chest were similarly painted with little concern for detail. This loose handling of the paint was, for me, a strong indication that Blonde Model was conceived of as a studio exercise, and not a commissioned painting.
In the subject’s face, I observed Sargent’s method of applying color in “patches,” as opposed to blending the paint to create a completely smooth or homogenous surface. After a bit of research, I learned that Sargent’s technique here was consistent with the instruction he’d received in the atelier of the Parisian artist Carolus Duran. Sargent’s early training under Duran was ultimately a major component of my seminar paper.
In an age where high-quality digital reproductions are easily accessible, it may seem unnecessary for someone studying a work of art to spend time drawing it. But I have found that any activity that prolongs my engagement with an original art object is worth doing. By fixing my attention on Sargent’s painting, I was able to see things I wouldn’t have noticed if I had only looked at it briefly or in reproduction.
So I’d say that copying Blonde Model was useful for me in that it opened up multiple avenues for research.
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Blonde Model, c. 1877. Oil on canvas © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.574