Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Swiping Among the Masters

Don't Draw What You Can Trace...18th Century Edition

Explaining my sudden reappearance after months of inactivity will be dealt with in a future post. At the moment I'm much more interested in an oddity from the days of real painting.

I follow a fascinating blog titled "Where is Ariadne?" Each posting takes a venerable art theme (e.g. Birth of Venus, Apollo and Daphne, Mermaids, Cain and Abel) and presents a gallery of interpretations of that theme by painters down through history. It's interesting to see how each artist staged a time-worn story: his (almost always his) choice of which portion of the tale to present, its setting, which details he featured, and so on.

This week's theme is "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife," one of those great tales in which artists could present a salacious story ennobled by Biblical trappings. You may recall the plot: the wife of Potiphar, a rich bigwig, attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph. The woman scorned grabs Joseph's coat as he beats a retreat.  Later she uses the coat as evidence when she accuses Joseph of rape.

As I examined the paintings, two of them caught my eye. The first was this 1703 canvas attributed to Lazzaro Baldi.


The second was a 1711 painting by Jean-Baptiste Nattier.

Do you see what I see? Curious, I took the images to Photoshop. First I flopped the Baldi.

Then I laid the Baldi over the Nattier, making it transparent so we can compare the images. Here's the result. Baldi is on top, reduced to 33% opacity. I moved it around a bit, but I didn't rotate, scale or otherwise alter the image.

There's no question. The Nattier is a flopped tracing of the Baldi. The fringing on Joseph might come from his figure having been moved by Nattier, but it could just be differences in the photos of the paintings. This isn't someone's careful re-drawing of the earlier painting. It's a direct trace. Considering that the image is flopped, I wonder if it was copied with one of those prism / half-silvered mirror contraptions. Or was the 18th century version of tracing paper laid over the Baldi and the resulting tracing transferred to the new canvas?

I'd love to hear from readers who know more than I do about classic painters. What was going on here?

1 comment:

Diego Cordoba said...

People in those days used what is known as a "dark camera" or the "camera obscura" to give it its actual name. It worked pretty much like retro projection, only the image would come out backwards, or as your reflection would on a mirror. It's obvious in this comparison that the second painter simply used the dark camera to transfer the image onto a canvas.

It's also pretty obvious when the camera obscura came into use, as by simply looking at all that drapery and the detail in the room, you couldn't simply get it all by having a model sit for hours or weeks in front of you. The artist simply had the model pose in front of him, and then transfered the image he saw through the dark camera onto a canvas (the artist was usually sitting behind a panel between him and the model, through which the camera was pointed toward the model, and reflected the image onto the artist's canvas).

Whenever the paintings started getting more realistic through the centuries, it wasn't because the artists got better; they were simply using an ancestry of photography. And this went as far back as the 14th century. See all those slightly hyperrealistic dutch painters as Van Eyck, Van Dyck, etc. Do you think its possible to get all those folds and reflections on the drapery just by drawing the model posing in front of you?

French artist Degas would draw directly on paper, by sitting a model in front of him, after which he would go behind a panel to draw him or her. If you see his drawings, there are no mistakes and its all pretty much drawn with a single, continuous line. He was simply tracing on paper what the camera reflected on it.