Alteration and invention - Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup

January 24, 2013

Artists of the past frequently copied, re-used and altered works. In some cases, artists would use a figure seen in a drawing, painting or sculpture, and adapt it to suit their purposes. Many examples of this are evident in works produced during the Renaissance, with  artists often quoting poses and arrangements of figures. Some of these changes remain visible in the final work, with others seen upon closer observation or technical examination. In a recent review of the literature on the Portrait of a Young Woman at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Strasbourg, I was intrigued to read that the sitter's hand was a later addition. This work is variously attributed to Raphael or Giulio Romano, and sometimes described as a partial collaboration between the two. It was recently featured at the Late Raphael exhibitions held at the Prado and the Louvre. In the context of these exhibitions, the work was displayed near the more famous portrait of Bindo Altoviti from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which some writers believe is the companion portrait for the Strasbourg picture, depicting Altoviti's wife, Fiammetta Soderini.[1]

The portraits of Bindo Altoviti and the Strasbourg Young Woman (?Fiametta Soderini) are the same size, leading some to believe they were created for display together.

Discussing the changes made to the painting in the Late Raphael exhibition catalogue, Prof. Paul Joannides and Dr. Tom Henry express divergent views:
The sitter's hand is not found in the initial lay-in and was a late addition. Joannides argues that it is rather large and not elegant but corresponds to the type of hand by Raphael as individuated by Giovanni Morelli. It is quite unlike any female hand painted by Giulio ... but is is closely similar to the hands seen in Raphael's only other female portraits on panel, the much earlier Maddalena Doni and Donna Gravida

For Joannides ... the Strasbourg portrait was painted by Giulio following a model by his master, but was then reworked by Raphael, not in the face as one might have expected, but in the bodice and the hand. [...] Henry, however, does not see two executants but instead two moments: the original idea and the addition of the hand and the higher neck line - both in his view the work of Giulio Romano.[2]
There is no surviving documentation from the sixteenth century that can clarify if this change was decided by the artist or the patron. The date, sitter and attribution of the painting are a matter of ongoing debate among scholars.

Raphael's Florentine panel portraits Left Maddalena Doni. c.1506. Right La Gravida. c.1507.

In such cases, the challenges faced by art historians when interpreting works from the past become apparent. For the Strasbourg portrait, there is no documentary trail that allows us to link the piece to Raphael or his workshop. The provenance of the panel prior to the nineteenth century is also unknown. The changes observed in the hand and neck line divide scholars on the attribution, although the intention behind the change is generally agreed upon.
There is an obvious relation of the pose to the Donna Velata - the right hand rests on the heart and surely also signals love - and the facial type is not dissimilar, but the two portraits do not seem to represent the same sitter.[3]

 Donna Velata. Pitti Palace, Florence. Date range across literature c.1512-1518

In considering these instances of an artist's changes altering a work's meaning, and difficulties with attribution, I was reminded of a more recent example that could serve as an indication of challenges current and future historians of art may face when contemplating works created with digital media.  It is here that I would like to step away from the more formal type of case study presented on Renaissance pieces, and look at an interesting and analogous work that has surfaced online in recent months.

Introducing the mashup
Before I present the example for comparison, I would like to introduce readers to the concept of a mashup. In a general sense, mashups refer to a pastiche or hybrid form of content, mixing multiple sources of content into a new entity. The term is used in various industries to indicate content creation and re-purposing across a variety of media, including code, video, images and text. A definitive overview of the scope and implications of the mashup in a new media context has yet to be written, although Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas, published in 2001 was a key step forward in elucidating the intellectual property concerns associated with modes of expression involving re-use of ideas:
The  content an author must draw upon varies with the "writing. Some part is new - this is the part we think of as "creative." But as many have argued, we've come to exaggerate the new and forget that a great deal in the creative is actually old. The new builds on the old, and hence depends, to a degree on access to the old. Academics writing textbooks about poetry need to be able to criticize and hence, to some degree, use the poetry they write about.  Playwrights often base their plays upon novels by others. Novelists use familiar plots to tell their story. Historians use facts about the history they retell. Filmmakers retell stories from our culture. Musicians write within a genre that determines how much of the past content it needs to be within that genre. (There is no such thing as jazz that does not take from the past.) All of this creativity depends in part on access to, and use of, the already created.[4]

Mashup as modern echo?
Rather than viewing the mashup as a modern phenomenon, it could also be described as a modern and digital re-iteration of practises long used by artists from the past. From ancient Roman copies of Greek sculpture, to Raphael's numerous quotes from sources as diverse as a Roman sarcophagus, a  Memling portrait or a drawing by Leonardo. The determination of what constitutes influence, homage or direct plagiarism is a complex undertaking, with accompanying legal concerns raised since the fifteenth century.[5]

In a famous sixteenth century case, Albrecht Dürer sought redress against engraver Marcantonio Raimondi after discovering the Italian artist had been selling copies of his prints, which also reproduced Dürer's characteristic "AD" monogram. Dürer received a ruling guarding against copying of his works, but only protecting the re-use of his "AD" monogram. Hence, subsequent copies were printed by Raimondi and others without the Dürer monogram after 1511. To serve as a warning to other copyists, the colophon for Dürer's 1511 Life of the Virgin boldly declared the Imperial grant issued to the artist:
Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.[6,7]
The lack of legal clarity regarding the copying and quoting of works in the sixteenth century is reflected in the modern digital age. Recent, prominent cases such as the Shepard Fairey Obama Hope print have attempted to define the extent to which artist may borrow from other sources.[8,9]

Fairey's Obama Hope design sourced a cropped section of a photograph by Mannie Garcia, the copyright for which is held by Associated Press.

Stepping beyond the legal implications of re-purposing images, it can be argued that an artist's primary duty  is to implement a creative idea. Whether this idea is executed at the behest of a patron, or a drawing rendered in a sketchbook - an artist will often absorb images from their own experiences of art and nature and re-create them in their work in some form.

A wonderful example of Raphael's re-purposing of an image created by another artist is a sketch made on the same sheet as a study for the fresco known as the School of Athens. Musing on a design for a shield, Raphael sketches a Head of Medusa. Executed between 1510-11 this drawing shows the great impact Raphael's of exposure to Leonardo's famous cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari - which Vasari informs us Raphael sought in Florence.[10]

Raphael's study of Two men in discussion for the School of Athens ; with sketch of a Medusa head.  c.1510-11. Inset Detail from Leonardo's Studies for the heads of two soldiers. c1505.

Raphael's ability to absorb influences and innovation from a variety of sources makes him a fascinating artist to study. To account for his rapid evolution of style within a relatively short time span, writers have explored Raphael's diverse influences.  In a modern context, Raphael can be described as a supremely gifted mashup artist, not only adapting many influences and direct quotes, but in many cases adding individual enhancements that would spark a new and inventive approach to image creation. This capacity for invention, is commonly noted in commentaries of Raphael's skill, with many praising his great capacity for invenzione (invention).

Alterations as mystery: a lost copy of the Donna Velata was recorded in this 17th century reproduction by Wenceslaus Hollar, indicating a version re-purposed to depict Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The inscription shows the painting was believed to be by Raphael when it was part of the prestigious Arundel collection in England. The surviving version in Florence does not show any similar changes. 

In the modern era, the advent of digitisation has allowed images to be easily re-used or altered by use of computer software. Often these changes are simple, such as the addition of text, as seen online at sites focusing on humorous memes and captioning of user submitted photographs. Other image manipulations are more skilled, taking a digitised image of a famous artwork, and changing it to add a new meaning. Often the intent is light hearted, and hence these ostensibly digital creations are not considered to be a form of artistic expression in their own right.

Left Lady with Elmo - a mashup from FreakingNews quoting Raphael's Lady with a Unicorn
Middle Scoundrel Stefano meme, originally posted at memegenerator based on a Botticelli
Right Raphael's Maddalena Doni mashup/remix as Wonderwoman from FreakingNews.

Intended for more than comedic effect: Hungarian new media artist Bence Hajdu's painstaking reconstructions of "abandoned" old masters represent a high level of artistic skill. This Abandoned Last Supper was created using an image of Leonardo's famous fresco.

Another striking and perhaps more thoughtful example came in the form of a mashup of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. This intense Vermeer portrait is the topic of much discussion, with the identity of its subject being unknown, and her relationship to the artist fueling much speculation, and fiction. If the portrait did have a patron, it was never delivered, with the piece being sold by Vermeer's wife after the artist's death.[11]

Girl with a Pearl Earring. Johannes Vermeer. c.1665.

In its original state, the sitter's eyes and the solitary pearl earring become focal points as we behold both the beauty of the subject and Vermeer's skillful yet minimalist rendering, with striking use of a dark background and complimentary colours in her attire. With no object between the sitter and the viewer, and devoid of background distractions, anyone viewing this piece is made to feel they are not only gazing at the beautiful young woman in the painting, but that she is also intently observing them.

Points of comparison in divergent media
I was recently forwarded a mashup of Vermeer's famous portrait. Upon closer examination, it presented some interesting parallels with the Strasbourg portrait, as far as the changes affecting the interpretation of the piece, and some difficulties in determining attribution. The image has been given a few names across different websites, but for the purposes of this description I will use Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Silver Camera. 

It is not my intention to argue the merits of  painting versus digital image manipulation. They are  incomparable as objects, and represent divergent forms of training. The comparisons lie in considering the roles of viewers, commentators and historians of art, attempting to understand how the creative process can alter an image's meaning, as well as the problems in determining the author of a piece.

Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Silver Camera. Digital mashup after Johannes Vermeer, attributed to Mitchell Grafton. c.2012.

Comparison//changes affect meaning
In the case of the Strasbourg portrait, the similarities with the famous Donna Velata are observed both in pose and facial type. Unfortunately, the variation in dates proposed by scholars for both the Donna Velata and the Strasbourg portrait do not allow us to conclusively state which came first. With technical examination identifying the hand as a later addition to the Strasbourg portrait, it is plausible to suggest that the Donna Velata may have influenced the change to the Strasbourg portrait. As the Late Raphael catalogue noted, the placement of the hand over the heart appears to indicate love, in turn related to the interpretation of the work as a spousal portrait.

In the mashup, the artists has re-purposed a digital image of Vermeer's famous portrait. It appears that the additions have been made using a digital painting program, to emulate the colours and mode of application of Vermeer's pigments, although the hand is possibly based on photographic source. The end result is convincingly rendered - particularly for the hand and camera, but less so for the sleeve. The effect generally mimics Vermeer's methods of using color to suggest shadow and form. With regards to meaning, the change is significant. What was once an intense and contemplative exchange between the sitter and the viewer (and by implication the artist), becomes an updated and more self-absorbed image seen in digital photography and popularly known as a "selfie" - where the subject takes a self-portrait with the aid of a mirror. Like the alterations to the neckline and hand of the Strasbourg portrait, the addition of the hand and camera to the Vermeer image can be argued to reflect a meaningful change in the interpretation when compared to its original form.

Comparison//difficulties with attribution
The attribution of the Strasbourg portrait divides scholars between either Raphael, Giulio Romano, or a partial collaboration between the two. Other authors attribute the piece to Raphael's circle, without naming a specific author. The date speculated for the completion of the painting ranges between 1518 and 1525 and is primarily based on stylistic grounds. 

The Vermeer mashup represents one of the internet's many mysteries, and highlights some of the problems that current and future researchers face when aiming to determine points of origin for creative works expressed on the internet and uploaded as an image file.

The earliest reference to this piece I could find was March 5 2012, posted at the Clumsy Odd Stubborn Tumblr.[12] This post does not identify a source, nor the artist responsible. Later postings at other sites identified the artist as Mitchell Grafton, but with no link the artist's site or original post source. The image achieved widespread exposure when it was posted by pioneer blogger Jason Kottke on October 18 2012.[13] Kottke clarifies that he has been unable establish an "airtight" source or attribution for this image. Readers who are aware of an earlier reference or a conclusive link to the artist are invited to submit this information in the comments below.

edit Thank you to US based artist Mitchell Grafton for confirming he is the author of the Vermeer mashup (see comments below). The altered image was first posted on Facebook on February 22 2012, and shared publicly the following day with the message "Trying to update a painting by Vermeer. This might be how it would look if it was painted today."[14]

The most complete description of an artwork from any era will consider its creation, content and meaning. A methodology that addresses these points will consider related images that may have influenced the artist, but also look for external sources, documentary and technical indicators that clarify the techniques used and the date of commission. It is hoped that the above examples demonstrate common issues faced by researchers in attempting describe an image more completely. Artists will continue to be inspired by art and nature, recreating and enhancing images to suit their creative urges and/or the needs of their patron. Commentators and historians of art will continue to follow, attempting to describe the creative process within an increasingly nebulous creation and distribution environment, where archives and physical objects have been replaced by strands of data on a server.

1-3. Henry, T., Joannides, P. Late Raphael. exh. cat. Museo del Prado. 2012. pp.279-284

4. Lessig, L. The Future of Ideas. Random House. 2001. p.105. available online link

5. Johannes of Speyer's Printing Monopoly, Venice (1469), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer. Accessed January 23 2013. link nb. The first known record of a printing privilege granted by a European governing body.

6. Imperial Privilege for Albrecht Dürer, Nuremberg (1511). Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer. Accessed January 23 2013. link

7. Patry, W.  Albrecht Durer and Copyright. The Patry Copyright Blog. September 26 2006. Accessed January 23 2013 link See also: Ekserdjian, D. Even a talent like Titian couldn't resist copying. The Art Newspaper. Published online March 9 2009. link

8. Fairey, S. The Importance of Fair Use and Artistic Freedom. Artist statement posted at The Huffington Post. September 7, 2012. Also see statement on Fairey's website Obey Giant link

9. Fisher III, WW. et al. Reflections on the Hope Poster Case. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. Volume 25. Number 2. Spring 2012. Available online link

10. Vasari, G. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. (DeVere, G. Trans. ; Ekserdjian, D Notes) Knopf. 1996. Vol.1. The Life of Raphael of Urbino. pp. 712-713 pdf

11. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Catalogue Entry at Essential Vermeer. Accessed January 23 2013. link

12. Clumsy Odd Stubborn Tumblr. March 2 2012. Accessed Jan 23 2013. link

13. Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Point and Shoot Camera. Posted at October 12 2012. Accessed January 23 2013 link

14. Mitchell Grafton. Image first posted February 22 2012 link Shared publicly on Facebook February 23 "Trying to update a painting by Vermeer. This might be how it would look if it was painted today." ; Accessed January 26 2013. nb. Mr. Grafton's Facebook album containing an edited (signed) version of the Vermeer mashup on July 5 2012 indicates the piece was completed in Photoshop, using a Wacom tablet. Mr. Grafton is a US based artist working primarily in ceramics. He maintains a blog about his work here.

*More of Bence Hajdu's "abandoned" old masters can be found here link


Nauplion said...

Those puffy hands on that pregnant woman are so not a good sign. She is moving into toxemia. I hope she survived.

Unknown said...

Hello Nauplion - you are not the first who has noticed that. Unfortunately, we do not conclusively know the identity of La Gravida, though that has not stopped people from speculating. It is interesting that Raphael was able to capture these anatomical nuances.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

Hasan, thank you for this remarkable exploration! As the post started I was expecting you to take us into a discussion of copying in the context of Renaissance prints, which you did do, but the jump to manipulated digital images was a great thrill.

The problem with the Grafton attribution is absolutely fascinating - if we have these difficulties now, we can only imagine the challenges faced by researchers 5 centuries hence.

Stephanie S

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this post. As a graphic designer, I feel my training provided me with an appreciation of mixing old and new techiques. Depending on the project, we can start by using a physical media and end up tinkering in photoshop etc. as part of post-processing. With 3D printing, we can now even reverse this workflow.

I can imagine some would find your comparison of "physical" and "digital" a little jarring, but these are the times we live in, and describe tools many creative professionals utilize on a daily basis.

This also reminded me of the great exhibition at the Met Museum on manipulated photography - the first of its type I believe. I wonder if we'll ever have an exhibition dedicated to poignant mashups at some point? I do recall that the a print of Fairey's "Hope" poster ended up in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Stephanie - I was please to explore the theme of mashups in an art historical context. To those more familiar with artists' practices in the Renaissance, the notion of quotation, copying and pastiches made from an assortment of other sources is not uncommon - either in paint, sculpture or print. Mashups really are the modern day equivalent of these. The fact that the tools and images are digital is perhaps what causes the disconnect for some.

I do hope that the Grafton attribution for the Vermeer "selfie" is clarified at some point!

@Kim - welcome to 3PP! That Met Museum exhibition seemed fascinating - I have only experienced it through reviews and the catalogue. It seemed a wonderful step forward, as was the "Art of Video Games" exhibition at the Smithsonian.


Auriea said...

Thank you for cogently bridging the gap between the artistic practice of the past and today's digital art curiosities!

Some would say that there is a resurgence of interest, from art students and the public at large, in traditional art. David Hockney would say that's its because the art of the past may have fallen out of fashion but never out of the public consciousness, I guess.
My thinking is that easy access to digital reproductions and the ability to "play" with reality. Digital creators take advantage of this in media, movies and videogames and are re-defining realism in contemporary art. Digital media creation is pervasive and it is leading us all into new notions of beauty and meaning in the 21st century.

While it is funny to think that the making of a mashup image may have a connection with an old masterwork, the problems of attribution and copying you mention reminded me of the Fabiola project of artist Francis Alys - An artwork, made of mostly unattributed copies of an artwork, of which the original is now lost. That is the 21st century for you right there too.

For me, the most significant aspect of the Vermeer mashup is perhaps that it shows her as the celebrity she is today. Every body knows her, everybody loves her, lets imagine her at a most intimate moment we can all relate to. Her iconic earring can no longer be seen but you know who she is. She is The Girl With a Pearl Earring. So what if the titular iconic jewel is covered by a camera that shines even brighter. She's looking in the mirror. Looking at herself, looking at you. And still keeping it real.

;) cheers,

Unknown said...

@Auriea - thanks for the comment - and the link to the Francis Alys feature - the ways his works were displayed reminded me of a google image search - each of different size and hue.

It was interesting that most of the titles used by people redistributing the Vermeer mashup kept the pearl earring in the title, even though the earring is no longer visible. It is of course acknowledging the source - though I did notice one blogger aptly refer to it as self portrait: link


Mitchell said...

Original post by Mitchell Grafton on Facebook 2-22-2012

Unknown said...

Hello Mitchell.

Thank you for clarifying you are the author of the Vermeer mashup! Wonderful work.

Many kind regards

Edit notes
Post edited to include new elements since original form:
*Donna Velata St Catherine and Bence Hajdu images/commentary
*Mitchell Grafton attribution confirmation
//26 January 2013. -HN

Mitchell said...

Great article! Thanks very much.

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