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Creative Borrowing: How visual artists make old ideas new

Updated on January 19, 2016
Salvatore Aucello copying a painting, c. 1922
Salvatore Aucello copying a painting, c. 1922 | Source

Studying the craftsmanship and content of historical paintings has long been considered an essential part of the learning process for visual artists. Art academies encourage neophytes to copy great paintings as a means of acquiring the technical skills and problem-solving abilities of the masters. Creating a new version of another artist's work is not only a student exercise; established artists also borrow imagery, composition and style from the oeuvres of masters and rework these elements to transform the original into their own. Appropriation is a means of paying homage to the genius of another artist, while providing an accessible frame of reference for the viewer. Giving a new twist to a well-known work is one way to connect with a solid foundation of tradition and recognition built by a predecessor.

Imitating, Stealing, Defacing or Transforming?

The line "Good artists borrow, great artists steal," has been attributed to both Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. It is quite likely that the quote is a variation of a sentence drawn from an essay by T.S. Eliot describing poetic borrowing.

"One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest."

- T.S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger" The Sacred Wood, 1921

While direct replication of a work of art is the goal of the forge, the artist who makes a copy and adds his own interpretation to it is credited with creatively furthering or enhancing the original concept. The work made "after Rembrandt" or "in the style of Monet" will be assessed not by how closely it resembles the original, but on the innovative elements that are the outcome of studying and understanding a masterpiece.

Matisse borrowed from Cezanne

In December 1899, Henri Matisse bought a painting by Paul Cezanne from the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He paid 1200 francs for "The Three Bathers" an oil on canvas that he greatly admired but could hardly afford. Matisse paid for the work in several instalments and the purchase proved to be a lasting source of inspiration. An important series of relief sculptures came from Matisse's study of the female figures depicted in the painting by Cezanne.

Paul Cezanne "Three Bathers" 1892-82, oil on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville, Paris
Paul Cezanne "Three Bathers" 1892-82, oil on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville, Paris

"In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage...I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless think it is my duty to tell you so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it."

- Henri Matisse, in a letter to curator Raymond Escholier, 1936 at the time of donation of Cezanne's "Three Bathers" to the Musee des Beaux Arts de la Ville, Paris

The cherished Cezanne painting prompted Matisse to work on large-scale sculptures of the female back. The first one was modelled in a slab of clay and cast in plaster. The artist made a second plaster cast that was modified through a process of addition and subtraction of material and cast again. Each successive piece showed a greater reduction of detail and simplification of form as the artist pared-down and rebuilt his prior creation. The "Backs I - IV" sculptures were an ongoing project that Matisse revisited and refined over a period of two decades. The artist's engagement with gradual reduction of the human body to basic shapes was also reflected in his mature painting style and in a later series of large paper cut-outs executed in his old age.

Cezanne's "Three Bathers" provided a theme that not only intrigued Matisse, but sustained his interest throughout the course of his career.

"Backs I-IV " bronze relief sculptures, 1908-31,by Henri Matisse, Museum of  Modern Art, New York
"Backs I-IV " bronze relief sculptures, 1908-31,by Henri Matisse, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Source

Other examples

  • Edouard Manet borrowed from an engraving of Raphael's "Judgement of Paris" when he composed the group of figures featured in "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" 1863.
  • Picasso borrowed from many sources, including Velasquez, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas. In 1958 he purchased several monotypes by Degas depicting brothel scenes. These provided the theme for Picasso's prints showing Degas in brothel settings, a series completed in 1971.
  • Marcel Duchamp borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci, altering a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa to create a parody work entitled "L.H.O.O. Q." 1919.

Joan Miro borrowed from Dutch genre paintings

In 1928 the Spanish artist Joan Miro visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He was 35 years old and at a turning point in his career after a very successful commercial showing of his work at a Paris gallery. At the museum gift shop, he purchased postcard reproductions of "The Lute Player" 1661 by Hendrick Martenszoon Sorgh and "The Dancing Lesson" 1660-79 by Jan Steen. Both are typical seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings depicting ordinary domestic scenes while conveying moral messages in specific iconography.

Looking back on that critical period in his life, Joan Miro commented," I understood the dangers of success and felt that, rather than dully exploiting it, I must launch into new ventures. I had to disappoint my followers." The paintings he viewed during a week-long visit to The Netherlands provided a starting point for free association, and shifted the artist's style toward Surrealism.

Hendrick Martenszoon Sorgh, "The Lute Player" 1661 oil on canvas
Hendrick Martenszoon Sorgh, "The Lute Player" 1661 oil on canvas | Source
Joan Miro, "Dutch Interior I" 1928, oil on canvas
Joan Miro, "Dutch Interior I" 1928, oil on canvas | Source
Jan Steen, "The Dancing Lesson" 1660-79 oil on canvas
Jan Steen, "The Dancing Lesson" 1660-79 oil on canvas | Source
Joan Miro, "Dutch Interior II"1928, oil on canvas,
Joan Miro, "Dutch Interior II"1928, oil on canvas, | Source

Miro's "Dutch Interior I and II" borrowed compositional elements from Sorgh and Steen, but changed figures and objects into distorted, biomorphic shapes. The artist altered the scale of things, making the lute too big, and the body of the player too small. Miro managed to preserve the Dutch painters' emphasis on frivolity and merry-making while ignoring the rules of perspective, modelling and illusionistic space. The fantasy world created in the "Dutch Interior" series marked a bold departure from convention and led to Miro's further investigation of automatic drawing. By looking back at historical works and deliberately de-constructing them, Miro was able to move forward in the development of a modern art style.

David Hockney borrowed from Claude Lorrain

David Hockney's exhibition "The Bigger Picture" shown at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2012 included a series of large-scale landscape paintings depicting the Yorkshire countryside where he grew up. One of the works that diverged from the rural England theme was a painting based on a composition borrowed from Claude Lorrain's "The Sermon on the Mount" of 1656.

Hockney saw the painting in the Frick Collection in New York and became interested in it as an atypical Claude Lorrain work. The composition features a centrally-placed massive rock formation that tends to block the viewer's gaze rather than invite it in. Christ is depicted with the apostles at the top of Mount Tabor, and from this remote pulpit he preaches to the multitudes below. The landscape includes condensed geography on either side of the mountain; Mt. Lebanon and the Sea of Galilee on the right and the Dead Sea and River Jordan on the left. The complex composition follows a winding path up the mountain and down the other side making a spiral tour through the panoramic scene lengthy, but still possible.

The original Lorrain painting is not in pristine condition. A fire at Fonthill House in Wiltshire blackened the surface creating a veil of darkness that museum conservators chose to leave alone. Hockney obtained a high-resolution digital image of the painting from staff at the Frick and using Photoshop, "restored" the work to reveal colour and detail.

Claude Lorrain, "Sermon on the Mount" 1656, oil on canvas
Claude Lorrain, "Sermon on the Mount" 1656, oil on canvas | Source
David Hockney, "A Bigger Message" 2010,  oil on canvas
David Hockney, "A Bigger Message" 2010, oil on canvas

Hockney did a series of preliminary sketches and then painted a giant version based on the Lorrain work. "A Bigger Message" is a dramatic summary of Hockney's attempt to revive landscape painting in the 21st century. He believes that the camera is limited by its monocular vision and cannot capture space and volume in the same way that a painting does. In an interview with Martin Gayford, Hockney pointed out that photographs are mistakenly viewed as an accurate record of reality.

"Most people feel that the world looks like the photograph. I've always assumed that the photograph is nearly right, but that little bit by which it misses makes it miss by a mile. This is what I grope at." - excerpt from the book "A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford", Thames & Hudson, 2011

Lorrain's work, with its sweeping all-inclusive vista and religious theme of truth-seeking provided a perfect model for demonstrating this premise. By making a direct connection with Lorrain, contemporary artist David Hockney is referencing a pioneer of landscape painting who believed in and exalted the spiritual qualities in nature.

Something borrowed, something new

Borrowing from the past can lend a fresh perspective to old ideas and spur the development of a ground-breaking movement. The act of artistic appropriation is a way of saying that no one individual has a monopoly on ideas, no artistic endeavour is completely finished and there are endless possibilities for improvement and revision.

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    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      ome writers have been known to do the same approach as these artists, creating a new from an old.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      penofone: Thanks for your comment. Many artists use aspects of another person's work in their own creative process, and that may include borrowing style, imagery or concept. It's not copying, but re-interpreting that is of interest here.

    • penofone profile image

      Anish Patel 4 years ago

      I really think that borrowing ideas instead of the actual picture image is what is important here, I mean really the idea of creating something completely normal and original is hard to encapsulate and is seen more in abstract work because of the scope of the subject.

      It is subjective to steal the exact same style of work also.

      Good students borrow well, I agree.


      P.S. Apprenticeship is hard to acquire much like the good works of all the great artists.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      snakeslane: Thanks for your kind comment. I appreciate your feedback.

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

      Vanderleelie, What an amazing, beautiful page you've created. Thank you so much. Regards, snakeslane