At Large  February 17, 2023  Anna Claire Mauney

The History of Copying Art: A Learning Tool or a Cheat? 

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Paul Sandby, detail of A Lady Copying at a Drawing Table, 1765.

Copying within the context of the art world has evolved over the centuries. What was once understood as a vital tool for study and learning is now often perceived, especially by laymen, as a kind of cheating. Remarkably, this is despite the fact that copying remains a central tenant of fine art education. 

Even so, copying sometimes is ethically questionable. For example, as particular artists became popular, it was not unusual for their etchings and woodblock prints to be duplicated, sometimes down to the artist’s signature, by unrelated entities and sold at great profit.

Wikimedia Commons. The Albertina. 

Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands, 1508.

This kind of copying eventually led to copyright laws. Although Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the first artist we know of who attempted to pursue legal action in reaction to what would now be seen as copyright infringement, laws to protect against such an occurrence were not passed until much later. 

Finally, in the early eighteenth century, what was colloquially referred to as Hogarth’s Law (a la the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764)) was enacted and artists finally received protection against the blatant recreation and selling of their work.

In addition to forgery and educationally-motivated copying, another mode of copying runs quite prominently through the course of art history. Copying as a form of homage was and still is a popular practice conducted by great artists.

Though often misunderstood by individuals on the peripheries and outside of the art world, this type of copying is typically achieved via the adoption of small details from another artwork. Much like the contemporary practice of sampling in rap music, the practice can be seen as a manner of personal innovation and a way to show respect to one’s predecessors rather than a copout.

Dürer’s iconic drawing Praying Hands (1508) is a great case study for the nuance and importance of all three modes of copying. As previously mentioned, Dürer was somewhat of a pioneer within the field of copyright. Ironically, this particular drawing of his has been coopted and recycled so often that many now see it as rather kitschy.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Allie Caulfield.

Andy Warhol’s tombstone in May 2008. 

Though originally a preparatory sketch for his Heller Altarpiece (which was destroyed by a fire in 1729), Praying Hands has survived centuries and currently populates everything from car bumpers to dishtowels and can be spotted in countless fine artworks. A version of the Dürer sketch even adorns Andy Warhol's tombstone at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, just outside Pittsburgh. Warhol, whose work was often religious and practically always played with notions of copying, also incorporated the iconic Praying Hands into his art.

Perhaps even more fascinating, Dürer’s Praying Hands may have actually been inspired by another artist’s work that he saw and copied during one of his educational trips to Italy. 

While in Italy, Dürer observed and copied works by a range of Italian masters. Yet, as was observed in a 2011 article written by William R. Albury and George M. Weisz for Hektoen International Journal, one series of copies stands out:

“Dürer's most important copies, however, were made from mythological engravings of Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506)... [Erwin] Panofsky noted the technique used by Dürer to replicate Mantegna's figures: ‘In these copies, the contours are directly traced from the originals; only the modeling is entered in freehand.’”

Andrea Mantegna, The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, ca. 1475.
The Met. Gift of the Rogers Fund, 1921.

Andrea Mantegna, The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, ca. 1475.

Andrea Mantegna, detail of right figure in The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, ca. 1475. 
The Met. Gift of the Rogers Fund, 1921.

Andrea Mantegna, detail of right figure in The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, ca. 1475.

In this article, Albury and Weisz also detailed their use of “computer-assisted tracings” of the Praying Hands to help identify early models that may have inspired Dürer. This also led back to Mantegna. More specifically, to the right-most figure in the Italian artist’s work, The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus.

While a copy of said work by Dürer is not extant, it is not unlikely that the artist made one and that he eventually referenced it for Praying Hands and his Heller Altarpiece.

Though copying can and has assumed many forms—and sprung from a wide array of motives—throughout art history, the art world as we know it would not exist without the practice.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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