Last week, Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote an article, The End of Genius, for the New York Times. In a nutshell, it discusses the idea that was propagated in the nineteenth century of the solitary artist genius. While we now know that the great artists worked alongside other artists and ran workshops with many artists, the idea of the artist genius still holds on with some. As the museum I work in has works of art by most of the major Spanish masters I want to explore the idea of artists and influence as a teaching concept in your own classroom.
The Meadows Museum is fortunate to own three paintings by the 17th century Spanish master, Diego Velázquez. We also have six paintings by the 18th century painter Francisco de Goya. Goya was privileged as an artist to have found an appointment as a painter at the court of Madrid while he was in his 20s. Having access to the royal palaces meant he had access to the great collections that today make up the foundation of the Prado Museum. Goya acknowledged three masters: Rembrandt, Velázquez, and nature. Goya’s study of Velázquez is clearly documented in a series of drawings he made after the great paintings by the master in the royal collections. He created the drawings with the intention of creating a series of etchings that would be reproducible and therefore make the work of Velázquez better known. Goya was influenced by a number of different artists from his time. Some scholars believe that works in his famous print series, Los Caprichos, were influenced by prints made by the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo who was also working for King Charles III in Madrid.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Prince Balthasar Carlos as Hunter (after Velázquez), 1778-79. Red Crayon over preliminary drawing in pencil. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett (38540). Photo by Christoph Irrgang.
Velázquez was also influenced by his master Francisco Pacheco, who he trained with in Seville. He worked and met many of the major artists of his time including Peter Paul Rubens, with whom he shared a Madrid studio in 1827-28. While traveling in Italy, Velázquez met with the Spanish master Jusepe de Ribera. The artist whose influence might be the strongest on Velázquez is the Venetian painter Titian, whose work he was able to study in depth in the Spanish royal collections. There is a distinct softening in Velázquez’s painting style after he viewed the works of Titian and other Italian masters.
I mention all this to say that art is about influence, and invention is really born through what is learned and adapted from others. While I am sure that we often encourage students to copy after other artists, we do not do enough to encourage the kind of sharing and building, and, in some cases, freely stealing in order to invent and create something new, as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque often did. I say this also as an artist myself who often will take what close artist friends are doing in their work and try it out in my own. Of course there are times when something I make reminds me too much of someone else’s work. However, after a while, artists will assimilate what really works for them and it becomes their own again. I hope you will take the opportunity to discuss the idea of artists and their influences with your students and come up with unique ways to get them to look at art and find what really inspires them.
-Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University