2 May 2012

Original, “in the style of”, or copy: the dilemma of the artist’s studio system

Damien Hirst (and some former assistants?)

Until the advent of the romantically embellished figure of the poor, misunderstood and solitary artist, which can be broadly dated to the late 19th century, most painters or sculptors who had some kind of a career would manage a large studio (or studios) and fill it with a small army of apprentices and assistants. Maybe not as many as contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, but probably on a par with Andy Warhol and his “Factory” in the 1960’s and 70’s in New York. The business of producing what we may think of today as “unique works of art” was very much about producing images that were desirable to the rich and famous who bought them, thereby generating instant desire for similar objects in the hearts and pockets of all those wanabees that flitted around the courts of the dukes and kings of the period. As with clothes, decoration and architecture, fashion in paintings and painters took its lead from the top social levels, and the most visible and powerful usually called the tune.

Leda and the swan, by Leonardo da Vinci: but just how much of this did the man himself paint?

This created a considerable market for works of art “in the style of” Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya or whoever. And these artists, who enjoyed considerable success during their lives, did their very best to respond to that market opportunity by producing huge numbers of works: drawings, paintings or sculptures. Of course they were not able to produce all of them single-handed. They enlisted teams of assistants to help them. Some, like Rembrandt, delegated many of the works they signed under a complex contractual system. Others, like Leonardo or Goya, organized what could be likened to a production line in which the master reserved the key parts of the work for his own execution (composition, key figure, face of key figure, etc.) delegating most of the rest, or just the background, to assistants.

Who is who and who did what?

These methods of production were current practice at a time when apprenticeships were long. These apprenticeships, as well as subsequent employment as assistants, usually involved extended periods of slavishly copying the style, and even the works, of the master. This system was so widespread that it caused, in the following centuries, endless problems for museum curators and other experts in the attribution of works from these periods. To add to the difficulty, the “masters” very often signed everything that left their studios, whether they had personally laid their hands on the brush, pencil or chisel or not. For instance, the list of 5000 drawings attributed to Rembrandt by Fritz Lugt in 1933 was whittled down to 1300 by Otto Benesch in 1950, and has since been reduced further. In 1984, just 78 signed drawings were considered to be truly by the hand of Rembrandt by the twin expertise of Martin Royalton-Kish, of the British Museum, and Peter Schatborn from Amsterdam.

Which, is any, of these "self"portraits were drawn or engraved by Rembrandt himself?

Rembrandt would apparently sign any drawing produced in his style by an apprentice or assistant, if he considered it to be worthy and in his style. This was current practice at the time: the master got the money, and the apprentice/assistant gained experience and the possibility of adding “former assistant to x”, to his visiting card. The same process continued, to some extent, through the 19th century, although this is better documented in the case of artists such as Delacroix or Rodin. At the height of his glory in the Amsterdam of the mid-17th century, Rembrandt’s studio, like that of Rubens in Anvers, operated somewhat like a modern day art school, but with a single teacher. Rembrandt had around 50 students who paid him 100 florins each per year whilst producing works under his guidance. Some 2400 drawings have been catalogued as coming from this studio. Most of them were sold as such and some were signed by the man himself, even if he had not actually touched them otherwise. The conditions imposed on his pupils were radical: they had to remain silent about studio practices and secrets (including these production methods) for five years, during which, in addition, they were only authorized to imitate the master’s style. And this period remained valid even if they left the studio. The works they produced were commercialised at the time without any clear line being drawn between them and works from Rembrandt’s own hand. It was only a century or so later that a distinction began to emerge between drawings or paintings “from the studio of Rembrandt” or “in the style of Rembrandt” and true originals. These practices continue to cause headaches today for experts designated to authenticate works that come up for auction, or which, already in museums or other collections, have their attribution brought into question. Few experts ever agree on such subjects, such was the quality of the work of many pupils.

But, in the end, does “authenticity” really matter that much. Of course, we have become so obsessed with money that the change in the market value of a work according to whether it is considered to be authentic or not is huge. But surely it’s aesthetic value has not changed. If the work was admired when considered to be by the hand of some master, does it become less beautiful because it is discovered to have been painted by some anonymous student (or team of students)? In a sense, I would say that the removal of a well-known name from the plaque beside a painting in a museum actually liberates one’s own aesthetic judgment of that work. Many people who visit museums and exhibitions seem to be so obsessed with the name of the artist on the plaque that they barely even look at the work itself as they pass by in their constant, tramping flow, before ticking their little mental box of “seen the Cézanne show” (or whatever). Seeing a work by someone who is anonymous, whose name has not been preceeded by endless laudatory prose and a mountain of postcards, certainly lifts the burden of pre-judgement.