Copying a Masterpiece

There is an exciting and fascinating museum activity more often to be observed in art museums overseas than here in South Africa. This is the custom of reproduction. Sometimes students set up their easels in front of a painting by Rembrandt, Cezanne, van Gogh or some other great master and proceed to copy the work as faithfully as possible. A great deal can be learnt by such an exercise. As long as the copy is not the exact format of the original work and is clearly marked as “after” the original, the copyist may work in the museum or gallery and is often watched by visitors. There is surely nothing more delightful than watching someone else at work and even exercising one’s own critical faculties at the same time!

In the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, there is a professional copyist at work who specializes in flowers. Flower pieces from the Dutch 17th century are among the most popular and expressive of old master paintings. This copyist’s completed copies are discreetly displayed near the originals and are obviously for sale to buyers who prefer a painted canvas to a print of the subject.

Kobie van Tilburgh, who was at one time, the art restorer at the Pretoria Art Museum, made a meticulous copy of Thomas Baines’ painting “Pretoria, 1972”. It was work of great historical as well as artistic value and, while the original remains in the museum, the copy may be displayed at Munitoria.

During his last illness, Pieter Wenning copied, in oils, a pastel painting of ballet dancers by Degas. It was his last work and it clearly inscribed “apres Degas”. It is occasionally on display in the Pretoria Art Museum.

Such pictures are copies, accepted as such and must not be confused with fakes where the unsuspecting buyer is duped into believing that he or she is acquiring an original work.

The Pretoria Art Museum has over recent months, featured a like activity. Marc Alexander, Museum Technologists at the museum, is copying one of the jewels in the Lady Michaelis collection in full view of the public. His brushes and palette knives, palette and tubes of paint are laid out on a table and he is happy to explain how they are used to his occasional audience.

he painting he is copying is “The Salute” by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633 – 1707). The warship in the harbour and the leisurely activities of the fisherman lounging in the foreground are set against a low horizon line and a sky with huge clouds. It is not an easy painting to copy and Marc is progressing slowly, and learning a good deal in the process. There are quite a number of us who are watching and looking forward to seeing his copy completed.

Written by: Rina de Villiers (1995).

Marc Alexander | The Salute Replica | After Willem Van Der Velde The Younger

The Salute

After Willem Van Der Velde, signed 1664, oil on canvas, 81cm by 66cm. (1995)

I was very fortunate to have the original 17th-century painting by my side to reference while painting my replica. This is where I developed my minimalistic palette – Prussian Blue, Titanium White, Burnt Sienna, Van Dyke Brown and Yellow Ochre.

This replica is now in the private collection of Lynne and Greg Smit, Cape Town.

In the 1930’s, Lady Michaelis made a donation of mainly 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings, which, initially formed the core of the Pretoria Art museum’s permanent collection. The original Salute is part of this collection.

Pretoria Art Museum Staff 1998