Imagine having the opportunity to paint a Master Copy of painting by an accomplished painter. What does this mean? You visit a museum, see a painting that moves you and learn that you have 4 full days to attempt to recreate that painting.
I had this opportunity last week in Philadelphia. My school has an arrangement with the Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (aka PAFA).
Prior to painting, I visited the museum to see the collection at PAFA and evaluate which painting I would want to paint. What did I need to consider? Several classmates suggested that I had better love the painting I chose. Why? Because the longer I worked on the painting, the more likely I would encounter ‘love/hate’ moments in the process. There were also size limitations and rules and regulations about the proximity of my set up to the painting, etc.
Ultimately, I decided to copy Mrs Clement Newbold by Cecilia Beaux. Why? I can only say that the painting moved me in a visceral way that I can’t explain. The colors of the woman’s dress were so beautiful. The composition and perspective and size of the painting were challenging.
Before I arrived at the museum on Tuesday morning when it opened at 10, I had already drawn a sketch of the painting, a value study and a simple black and white compositional evaluation known as Notan. Once at the museum, my plan was to spend the first 1 – 2 hours doing a quick color study. This would give me the chance to seek and hopefully find and establish the color relationships within the painting.
The welcoming atmosphere by staff at the museum was wonderful. However, I was surprised when I asked if anyone had details of the palette (actual color names) that Cecilia Beaux used in 1896 when she painted Mrs. Newbold. But one of the staff members said that artist questions about paintings, such as the one I had asked, were irrelevant to museums. When I looked surprised, the staff member said “Museums care about provenance not paints!”
Wow – that answer surprised me. Why? Well I was at an educational institution and I thought it might be of interest to other students. Fortunately, there are archives of Cecilia Beaux’ letters and classes at the Smithsonian. And, I found an online version of her autobiography that she wrote entitled Background with Figures. I have yet to find a list of the colors she used in these sources but I have lots of reading left to do. But, clearly, I will have to continue that quest on my own.
In the meantime, I did finish a color study the first morning and noted that I had made the dress too blue. Guess what? That problem continued even into the final stages of the painting! Another challenge I faced was the painting (which is life sized) and its perspective. Cecilia Beaux was above Mrs Newbold as she painted her. How do I know this? I could tell by the angle of her head and shoulders that this was so. However, I was actually below the painting. So I constantly had to shift my brain to think of her head/shoulders/torso as 3-dimensional boxes at an angle below my eye. Ultimately, I think I was more successful at capturing the perspective of the painting than I was the warm and indescribable colors of Mrs. Newbold’s dress.
I have no idea how long Cecilia Beaux spent painting this painting. I know I spent 4 straight days from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with one super fast bathroom break each day. If I had had more time, I would have built up the lighter values in the dress using more pinks and reds to show the warmth of that amazing, fancy dress. Here’s my version as far as I was able to take it.