The work of Rubens provides perhaps one of the most difficult problems. Employing as he did such brilliant assistants as Van Dyck, Jordaens, and Snyders, quality alone is no sure ground for judging how much of a particular painting is by Rubens. We may often be sure he provided the design, on the basis of a sketch which can only be by him; we can sometimes reasonably assume that he put on the finishing and decisive touches, but how much of the intervening work was his?
So opinion swings to and fro not only over individual Pictures, but over such series as the famous one representing the history of Decius Mus in the Leichtenstein collection. Rubens's practice is clearly revealed in a long correspondence he had in 1618 with Sir Dudley Carleton, concerning the exchange of some of his own pictures for a collection of antiques owned by Carleton. In the list of the pictures he offers such phrases occur as 'Original, by my hand, and the Eagle done by Snyders'; 'Original, the whole by my hand'; 'Commenced by one of my pupils, after one that I made for His Most Serene of Bavaria, but all retouched by my hand'; 'done by one of my scholars, the whole, however, retouched by my hand'. Elsewhere, Rubens emphasizes that the works he is sending are from his own hand, but notes exceptions such as 'I have engaged, as is my custom, a very skilful man in his pursuit, to finish the landscapes,... but as to the rest be assured I have not suffered a living soul to put hand on them'.
Van Dyck, turned master, followed the same methods of mass production. The Earl of Strafford writing to his man of business, 1 says, referring to some portraits by Van Dyck: 'The half-pictures (half-lengths) must stand me in £30 a piece and those at length in £35 a piece. But methinks that £20 a piece for the copy of the short and £35 for the larger were sufficient, especially taking so many from him at once and in a dead time also.' Later he adds with reference to two portraits of himself intended as gifts 'and mind Sir Anthony that he will take good pains upon the perfecting of this picture with his own pencil'.
Similarly in his vast series of wall and ceiling paintings, we know that G. B. Tiepolo employed assistants, among them his talented son, Domenico. Domenico has a personality of his own, but when working with his father, it is almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. We know nothing about the studio of Canaletto, save that his nephew, Bellotto, worked with him as a young man; but there is a large number of topographical views of Venice which shade from work which has a sensitiveness and unity which only one mind and hand can give, to accomplished but dull and pedestrian work. Where are we to draw the line, and say this is by Canaletto, and that is not?
The work of portrait painters in big practice presents similar difficulties. Lely, Kneller, Sir Joshua Reynolds, all employed 'drapery hands' and assistants. In portrait after portrait, one has to ask how much of this is by the master's own hand; and as often as not, the wise man says he does not know. Quality of work is no sure guide. The work of a skilled assistant may be more dexterous and accomplished than slapdash passages put in by the head of the workshop, especiawlly if that assistant is well schooled in his employer's methods; for even the greatest painters cannot always work on their highest level. On the other hand, great familiarity with a painter's work generally reveals characteristics which belong to him alone, analogous to characteristics in a handwriting. These may not always be agreeable or worthy. They may be tricks, mannerisms, short-cuts, but they are marks of his brush having been at work; and so may enable his work to be separated from that of assistants or collaborators.
The collaborative aspect of the painter's workshop, as outlined above, has had its influence on the language of art historians and connoisseurs. A series of terms has had to be coined, to express in some way the relation of a particular painting to a particular master. The term 'By X' implies that the work is for the most part by the master's hand. 'By X and assistants', suggests considerably more help, though the master plays the dominant part; while 'Studio of X' generally means that though the conception of the painting is that of X, that he supervised the execution, may have done a limited amount of work on it, and was paid for it, yet the work is largely by other hands. 'School of X, however, implies elimination of X from the work itself, but that the painter of the picture worked under his influence, following him in ideas, conventions, and technical methods. At the same time, some degree of contact with X is implied, though not necessarily that the painter was a pupil of his. In this, the term differs from 'Follower of X' which may well be used of a painter of considerable later date than X, though he has modelled his work on that of X. Distinct, again, is 'Imitator of X' which suggests a more slavish follower, with no independent ideas. This, however, has a different connotation from 'After X', which is used of a copy, with or without variations.
Other terms which may be found in books or catalogues, which have no exact equivalent in English usage, are the German 'Kreis of X, and 'Riciltung X'. Kreis (meaning literally 'circle) implies somewhat more regular and close contact with the master than does 'School of X', while the untranslatable Richtung (literally 'direction') means that a painting has some of the characteristics of the work of X, but a considerable amount of individuality. Unfortunately, there is not and there is never likely to be, complete agreement as to the finer shades of meaning of the terms described above. But that they exist and are in use, emphasizes the variety of ways in which a painting may be inspired, and in the way its production may be brought about.
In the nineteenth century the system of hired workshop assistants virtually disappeared. Even the most fashionable and busy portrait painters, whose work could well have been organized on the lines of mass production, usually did all the work on a painting themselves. In the case of large mural paintings (more frequent in the nineteenth century than is usually supposed) assistants would generally be used; but these were engaged ad hoc, often from among a painter's pupils or from an art school, and did not form part of a regular organization.
However, the system of a painter taking pupils into his studio continued; but these again did not form part of a working team, but came purely for instruction, which was generally conducted on the same lines as in an art school. This more or less complete abandonment of the medieval system is in part traceable, as has been said, to the change in social status of the artist; and gained impetus from the idea fostered by the Romantic movement in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, of a painting being primarily a means of expression for the artist, rather than something made to serve a particular purpose, or to meet the wishes of a patron.
This change was facilitated by, and perhaps helped to bring about, the emergence of the 'artist's colorman', who not only prepares colors ready for use, but supplies all kinds of equipment required by the painter. Moreover, the specialized maker of artists' materials can use far more easily than the artist the results of scientific investigations to improve, cheapen, and widen the range of what the artist uses. Thus, the raison d'être of the apprentice-pupil and of the paid assistant partly disappeared. Their services in preparing materials for use were not wanted, and they did not need to learn that part of the painter's craft. Spasmodically today, some painters make attempts to revert to the older system, and to prepare their own canvases and panels, make their own varnishes, and so on, but the commercial article saves too much trouble and time for it to be superseded.
An interesting reflection of the change outlined above is in the character of the recipes and instructions used by painters at different periods. Those of the Middle Ages and Renaissance generally give detailed accounts of how to refine and purify raw materials, such as pigments and varnishes, before any question of how they are to be used is mentioned. The painter was expected to start with a substance in its crude form, and himself put it into condition fit for use. Considerable attention is also given as to what materials the painter may safely use, from the point of view of permanence. Instructions then generally follow as to how to bring those raw materials together into the form required by the painter.
This included not only paint and varnishes, but the preparation of walls, panels, and canvases. Only then is the actual process of painting described, often in considerable detail. The whole thing reads much more like an old-fashioned cookery-book, in which the housewife herself has to prepare some of the materials and be responsible for their quality. In later books on painting the emphasis changes. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there is still discussion of raw materials; but these are evidently regarded as more or less standardized in character and quality, and increasing emphasis is laid on the processes and methods of painting, as distinct from preparation of the materials.
During the nineteenth century this emphasis is still more marked. It is taken for granted that the manufacturer of artists' materials is in the background. Materials and equipment may be discussed, but primarily from the point of view of how they are to be used and what effects they will yield. Direct control of their character and quality is assumed to be outside the artist's range. At the same time the number of books concerned with the scientific analysis of materials and methods increases, primarily from the point of view of reliability and permanence; while scientific investigation of various phenomena such as light, human anatomy, and geologic structure which may concern the: artist, is also put at his service in terms he can understand. This work is done for the artist, and not by him; and is another aspect of the process of specialization already noted, in which painters concentrate on different types of market, and the artist's colorman takes over the business of supplies.
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