Learning from the artists

Yesterday, taking advantage of a free day in Madrid (and running away from the heat, it also has to be said), I went to visit the Prado Museum.

I truly enjoyed the visit, totally recommend it. What I wouldn´t recommend is doing the whole museum in one single day, as I did; by the end of it my feet were hurting... For reasonable people like you all, there´s a very good audio guide with recommendations of what pieces to see, depending on whether you want your visit to last for one hour, or two, or three. I simply kept walking from room to room, going with the flow, curiously looking around. Don´t ask me how long it took me.

One thing that immediately caught my attention were some paintings that were copies of other paintings, or parts of them, sometimes showing side by side. Please note that I´m saying copies, not forgeries; the intention was not to try and make one painting pass as another. They were often made by painters as part of their training, or as a tribute, copying paintings from the great masters of their time (or a previous time), with high quality results as well.

On other occasions, the same painter made several copies with slight variations on the same theme, especially if his art was in high demand, and sold different copies to different people (back then it was not as easy as copy and paste 🙂 )

And something else that I learned is how, for certain high stakes commissions, some painters made one or more drafts in a smaller format before tackling the big canvas. This gave them a space to rehearse the structure and elements of the painting in advance, and also allowed them to show their sponsor a "sneak preview" of the result, in order to secure approval for the final order. It´s really interesting to see the evolution of the piece from the first draft all the way to the finished painting, similarly to how comics, movies, etc. are made these days.

But going back to the copied paintings: a good example of this is Rubens, who, during his stay in Italy, copied several works by Titian, including "The rape of Europa".

Original work by Titian (displayed at a Boston museum):

Copy by Rubens, displayed at the Prado:

But this is not the end of the story. Later on, here comes Velázquez, and includes a tribute to this same work in one of his paintings. Pay attention to the tapestry in the background of this scene represented in "The spinners" (also called "The fable of Arachne"), which is also displayed in the same room at the Prado museum:

I thought it was a very cool idea, a painting inside another painting 🙂

An idea of which I bumped into several other examples across the museum, like this painting by Jan Brueghel and Rubens, dedicated to "Sight" as part of a series on the five senses:

And then, the most awesome one in my opinion, this work by David Teniers the Younger, "Archduke Leopold Wilhelm van Habsburg in his art gallery in Brussels":

OMG, the amount of talent needed to paint all that...

Anyway, I really loved my visit to the Prado Museum, far beyond getting to see the typical famous paintings like "Las Meninas" (though I enjoyed those as well). I especially liked seeing how the artists learned from each other, building on the knowledge and techniques that already existed to innovate and create new ones, and this way make their own contribution to the world of art, for others to enjoy and learn in turn.

It got me thinking about how for us as well, for anything we may want to learn, there are already plenty of masters we can model and learn from (even more so in these times of Wikipedia and Youtube), so that we don´t have to "reinvent the wheel" every time, as the saying goes. And it´s also said that the best way to learn is to teach, to share what we already know, of course giving due credit to those we have learned it from.

Sharing knowledge, learning together, we all move forward.

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