Sarah Bernatas and Sara Cotter
The art world changed dramatically over the course of the 19th century. At the beginning of the period, academic training at the Ècole des Beaux-arts, under the rubric of the Ácademie, was the only approved path toward becoming a successful artist. By the end of the century, artists had turned their backs on the Ácademie and the Parisian avant-garde had given birth to what we now classify as “Modern art.” However, the doctrine of emulation and the practice of repetition have never been abandoned completely.
The training for young artists at the Ècole was based, above all else, on copying. Instruction for both drawing and painting was undertaken by copying canonical works by Old Master painters from the Renaissance onward and classical sculptors from the ancient world. The culmination of both skills was the académie, which is a study from life of a nude male model, and students were only allowed to move onto this step when they had completed hundreds of such copies. Thus, young painters were taught that they must study closely the work of those great painters that had come before them, and must learn to emulate those masters’ triumphs in their own work.
Emulation in these terms refers to a complex process of appropriation. Far from simply copying verbatim, artists sought creative ways to build upon artistic conventions in order to produce works which took the best characteristics from a variety of sources. The end result, ideally, were works that were perceived in their own time as innovative.
This view of art-making reached a crisis point in the 19th century. To those artists emerging towards the middle of the century, it seemed that everything had been done, and there was nothing left for them to discover or create. This was a discouraging thought for many artists, but others saw it as a challenge, and devised ways to distinguish themselves while still participating in the system of academic conventions. Some, like the Impressionists rejected the traditional conventions regarding emulation and chose to emulate artists not associated with classical antiquity. This new set of sources, such as those drawn from medieval artists, allowed them to follow tradition without becoming mired in what were perceived as hackneyed motifs.
Repetition, a related issue in this process of artistic creation, also experienced parallel transformations in this period. In the late 18th and early 19th century, it was commonplace for artists and their students to create replicas of famous works, many of which were sold to meet a growing public demand. This practice came under widespread criticism in the latter half of the 19th century as the result of growing concerns over the nature of originality, as well as advances in mechanical reproduction. This criticism led to a shift in the way repetition was used.
The works in this exhibition explore a range of themes, all of which address the practices of emulation and repetition in some form or another. Many, for instance, focus on a single artist’s variations on a single theme, and the way in which the resulting works reflect not mere copies, but rather, subtle refinements more reminiscent of a performance rehearsal. Both Manet and Ingres are artists known for repeating themselves, particularly through the print medium. As the following papers explore, the transference from painting to print medium allows for different aspects of the works to come to the fore, creating a richer conception of the artist’s idea, its evolution, and its place in the artistic process. In other essays, students have explored how artists have been inspired by one another in their creation of ideal beauty and exotic Otherness. Though the Romantic artist Delacroix did travel to Morocco, a trip which provided sufficient inspiration for several decades of artistic production, many more artists relied heavily on written descriptions, travelogues, and the works of others interested in similar themes to create a consistent image of the Orient and reinforce a collective fantasy. Even in 20th and 21st century art, artists are still thinking about their relationship to the art of the past. For example, the contemporary artists included in this exhibition incorporate direct references to artists such as Ingres, while still asserting their individuality. Now, more than ever, it has become apparent that art is a continuum. Every reference to the art historical canon invokes the tradition of art itself.