Order tickets
Lange Voorhout 74
2514 EH Den Haag
T: +31 70-4277730
E: info@escherinhetpaleis.nl

Looking at old masters

Inspiration can be taken not only from a direct mentor (who is essential for each and every art student) but also from masters from past eras. Escher, for instance, learned not only from his teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita but also from looking to the past. In turn, De Mesquita drew on work by an old master too. Looking to precedents produced by artists from before one’s time is extremely common. Working in the style of or imitating well-known pictures is one way for artists to draw on the techniques and ideas of their heroes and to challenge themselves by looking at art from another person’s perspective.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, oil on canvas, c. 1665 - 1669. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Jewish Bride (after Rembrandt), woodcut, 1922. Collection Kunstmuseum Den Haag

One of Rembrandt’s most captivating paintings, The Jewish Bride, hangs in the Rijksmuseum and has been seen by a vast number of artists. Vincent van Gogh put his admiration for this painting into words in 1885*:

Do not doubt, and I mean this seriously, that I would give a decade of my life to be able to sit in front of this painting for a fortnight with nothing but a dry crust of bread to eat.

De Mesquita lived in Amsterdam, not far from where Rembrandt spent his most famous years, and he too admired the painting. He even imitated it in print form in 1922. Despite the subject being the same, the result is quite different. The way Rembrandt handles the paint is striking. He applied it with not only a brush but also the back of the brush and a palette knife. The abundance of that paint and its impasto quality contrast sharply with De Mesquita’s woodcut approach. He captures the intimacy in black and white, placing extra focus on the two figures seemingly emerging from the dark surroundings. He used his version of The Jewish Bride in his own lessons. Escher wrote about Mesquita’s version of this work in 1946**:

[…] De Mesquita felt compelled on a number of occasions to recreate an artwork that he admired greatly. As attested to by his woodcut ‘The Jewish Bride’, which he engraved sitting at a little table in the Rijksmuseum.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), oil on panel, 1480-1490. Collection Museo del Prado, Madrid
M.C. Escher, Hell, copy after a scene by Hieronymus Bosch, lithograph, November 1935

Escher, too, felt compelled to recreate an artwork, albeit in different circumstances. When he reluctantly moved from a hot Rome to an icy Switzerland, he chose to produce a print based on Hell, one of the sections of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Escher used the strange entity with a human head, trees for legs and a drunkards’ scene inside the body to express his inner dissatisfaction. Bosch’s weird tableaux appealed to him. Unsurprisingly, then, multiple figures from the painting feature in his print Belvedere.
Jean-François Millet, The Sower, lithograph, 1851 (print 1879). Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Vincent van Gogh, The Sower (after Millet), pencil, pen and brush in ink with watercolour on paper, April 1881. Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

There are plenty more examples of artists who have taken inspiration from past artists. Vincent van Gogh is a good example. In the case of The Jewish Bride, he stuck to just viewing it, but he imitated several works by Jean-François Millet (of whom he was a great admirer), even doing so multiple times in the case of Le semeur (The Sower). He also produced his own interpretations of woodcuts by Ando Hiroshige, a painting by Eugène Delacroix (The Good Samaritan), a print by Gustave Doré (Prisoners Exercising) and a print by Rembrandt (The Raising of Lazarus). He himself was imitated one hundred years after his death when Roy Lichtenstein created his own version of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom in 1992. Van Gogh’s original is clearly recognisable, as is Lichtenstein’s cartoonesque style featuring patterns and primary colours. Another artist whose work has prompted much imitation is Hieronymus Bosch, who was not just a role model to Escher. Numerous artists have found his strange world relatable, particularly the Surrealists. Joan Miró produced his own version of The Garden of Earthly Delights characterised by a much greater degree of artistic latitude, entitled The Tilled Field. Salvador Dali studied Bosch’s work too, even if Bosch’s influence is largely indirect and Dali refrained from copying it.
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, oil on canvas, September 1889. Collection Art Institute of Chicago
Roy Lichtenstein, Bedroom at Arles, oil and Magna on canvas, July 1992. Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff

One subject that past artists featured in their artworks in increasingly new variants is the reclining nude woman whose eyes fall upon the viewer. Many artists have ‘borrowed’ the subject from predecessors and used it to challenge themselves as well as the viewer. The Venus of Urbino is an early example. The title of the painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Titian indicates that it depicts the goddess of love, though it is also an image of general, idealised female beauty. Along with contemporaries such as Lorenzo Lotto, Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese, he started to create sensual, idealising portraits of for the most part anonymous women, which would go on to be much imitated. Women in these paintings were both chaste and erotic — a contrast that frequently generated disquietude. The Spanish painter Francisco Goya went one step further with The Nude Maja. The problem was not her nudity but the fact that Goya left the painting devoid of any symbolism that could justify it. He was also the first to show pubic hair on a woman who did not have any characteristics of a prostitute. Both the Venus of Urbino and The Nude Maja were initially owned privately and only seen by a few people. By contrast, Olympia by Édouard Manet was presented publicly at the Salon in Paris in 1865 and immediately caused a scandal. Manet created an image that clearly alludes to Titian and Goya yet also marks a radical break from these precedents. He used a real-life model (his muse, Victorine Meurent, who features in more paintings) and transformed her into a woman of good breeding who is working as a prostitute, as indicated by the black cat with the arched back and the bouquet from a client in the hands of servant girl Laure. The shy, withdrawn facial expression that we find in the Titian and the Goya has been replaced here by a self-confident, assertive gaze. Olympia is nude but in full control.

Francisco Goya, The Nude Maja, oil on canvas, c. 1797–1800. Collection Museo del Prado, Madrid
Édouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863. Collection Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In the case of the aforementioned examples, the copy can usually be regarded as an homage and the new picture takes its place in a long tradition. This began to change at the start of the 20th century, particularly with the work of Marcel Duchamp. In 1919, he drew a moustache and a goatee on a postcard featuring a picture of the most famous woman in art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The work is in keeping with previous ready-made works by Duchamp, but his satirical approach is manifestly a new chapter in the imitation, copying and recycling of existing work. Duchamp’s approach was oft-imitated, with such work typically being termed appropriation art. Duchamp himself was copied too. A famous example is the work of Sherrie Levine, who produced her own version of Duchamp’s Fountain urinal. Allegations of plagiarism are never far from people’s lips. Such appropriation has prompted several lawsuits on the grounds of plagiarism, including against big names like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Levine, too, landed in hot water with her After Walker Evans series, which saw her take photos of photos by the well-known American photographer that were in a catalogue and present them as her own work.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Sherrie Levine, Fountain (Buddha), bronze, 1996. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Artists who take inspiration from previous generations of artists tread a fine line between homage and parody, between admiration and affront. The result always gives rise to new questions, which in turn give fresh impetus to the art debate. Originality in art is important, but art is not created in a vacuum. Each new generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one. This is evident in the exhibition The Man Who Discovered Escher: Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, and there is ample mutual admiration and respect here.

[*] Cited in Ernst van de Wetering, ‘Rembrandts schilderwijze: techniek in dienst van illusie’, in: Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch & Pieter van Thiel (eds), Rembrandt: De Meester & zijn Werkplaats. Paintings Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle, 1991, p. 13
[**] Catalogue of the first postwar exhibition of work by Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1946

More Escher today