Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2000
Michael K. Komanecky Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1575–1775 Phoenix: Oxford University Press in association with Phoenix Art Museum, 1998. 346 pp.; 137 color ills.; 71 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0195123972)
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, Dec. 19, 1998-Feb. 28, 1999.

Paintings on copper have long been valued as refined and elegant works of art. The authors of the exhibition catalogue Copper as Canvas have undertaken to evaluate the specific qualities that this material—copper panel used as a painting support—lends to a wide range of works of art. In this ambitious project they have made an important contribution, not only in the information they have gathered but in the conception of the exhibition itself. Other exhibitions have explored the balance between specific painting materials and the visual qualities they lend works of art; the Art in the Making series organized by the National Gallery, London, is an outstanding example. These exhibitions, however, explored paintings in the context of an historical association (works by a single artist or works painted in a specific time and place); the similarities of the painting materials employed followed from this association. By contrast, Copper as Canvas brought together works from artistic centers as diverse as sixteenth-century Rome, seventeenth-century Antwerp, and eighteenth-century Mexico to highlight shared characteristics. The result is a detailed exploration of the economics of copper and of the technical and aesthetic qualities of copper as a painting support.

As Michael Komanecky points out in his introduction, the studies in this catalogue overturn two widely held assumptions about paintings on copper: that these works are inherently fragile and that copper panels were particularly costly. With these standard explanations eliminated, the traditional aura of preciousness invested in copper paintings must be considered further: the visual qualities inherent in paintings on copper, the practical advantages the support offers, the artistic contexts in which copper was commonly used all must be balanced. The authors each address several of these questions in a range of diverse essays, but the reader is left to draws together the threads: the catalogue does not offer an overview relating the many issues discussed.

Isabel Horovitz’s sensitive essay on the materials and techniques of European paintings, with a close reading of the aesthetic qualities of painting on copper, is a good place to begin, though it is not the first essay in the volume. Horovitz confirms that the smooth, rigid copper plates permitted extraordinarily controlled brushwork. While the same is true of well-prepared wooden panels, copper paintings’ durability (many are in immaculate condition) has preserved these qualities to a greater extent. Other qualities are virtually unique to copper. Because oil-based grounds on copper are nonabsorbent, oil paints did not “sink in” to the ground, so they retained intensely saturated colors even in thin layers. In considering the handling of paint, Horovitz notes that the delicate handling that is the hallmark of so many paintings on copper is as much a function of their typically small scale as of the support. She perceptively explores the ways different artists exploited the smoothness of the support: from smoothly blended paint with soft contours, to precise handling, to unexpectedly sketchy brushwork.

Essays by Peter Bowron and Clara Bargellini outline the artistic milieus in which copper painting supports were common. Bowron’s essay outlines the history in Europe. He establishes that painting on copper appeared in Florence in the third quarter of the sixteenth century and was taken up as a speciality by the circle of Paul Bril in Rome in the 1590s. From there the practice spread, in particular to Prague and Antwerp (Utrecht could be added to this group), but its popularity waned after 1650. Smoothly prepared copper plates facilitated the detailed handling that Bowron cites as a key element in genres, including: landscape, still life, architectural interiors, small-scale portraiture, and reduced reproductions of larger paintings. He also suggests that copper paintings’ vivid, luminous coloring was particularly suited to paintings for personal devotion.

Bargellini’s essay lays out the patterns of use in Spanish America: rare in Peru, but a dominant technique in New Spain. Though prints are often cited as the source of European influences, Bargellini documents the potent influence of the immense number of paintings on copper imported from Italy and Flanders. The durable, compact support was ideal for almost mass-produced exports. Usually the work of minor or anonymous artists, and often reproducing famous compositions, such paintings documented color and handling that prints cannot convey, influencing the style of Spanish American paintings in all techniques. In the absence of economic studies Bargellini cites historical evidence that New World painters’ use of copper supports was driven more by availability than by aesthetic concerns.

Michael Komanecky’s essay on works of art depicting mining and miners establishes the social importance of mining in central Europe. Interestingly, none of the objects discussed is a painting on copper; the importance of mining and smelting appears not to have had significance for the end-users, the painters and buyers of works on copper. Ekkehard Westermann’s essay on production and trade lays out a complex pattern of changing demand for, and production of, copper and accompanying price fluctuations. As Jørgen Wadum points out in his essay on the production of copper plates in Antwerp, artistic uses accounted for only a small part of the demand for copper. Far from being an inherently costly material, his research suggests that the cost of copper plates was roughly comparable to oak panels of similar size.

The research in Copper as Canvas changed this reader’s perception of paintings on copper. My previous impression of paintings which aspired to, and were valued for, refined handling has now been divided into two distinct groups of paintings on copper: one motivated by practical concerns, the other by aesthetic goals. Stable and compact, copper was an ideal support for portrait miniatures (not addressed in this exhibition) and for paintings intended for export, particularly from Antwerp, to Spain and from there to the Americas. These exports seem to be routine productions which did not exploit the rich aesthetic possibilities of painting on copper. The second group are works by artists of the highest caliber, for whom the choice of copper clearly had artistic meaning. The majority of the paintings included in the exhibition fall into this second group.

Nonetheless, the studies included in Copper as Canvas open substantial areas of research that remain to be considered. Based on the few New World paintings included in the exhibition, it seems possible that copper supports were used in the Americas primarily for practical reasons (placing them in my first group), or in a tradition of esteem for European imports. However, further technical studies along the lines of Horovitz’s essay on European paintings will be needed to consider whether copper supports also had aesthetic connotations for these artists.

The catalogue’s detailed evaluation of European paintings, where a copper support undoubtedly had artistic meaning, opens intriguing questions for further research into patronage: it is still not clear how the art-buying public’s perception of copper paintings influenced artists. The range of aesthetic qualities detailed by Horovitz, and the use of copper supports in specific locales and time periods outlined by Bowron, suggests that for buyers as well as artists copper supports must have had significance beyond the often-cited detailed handling. From around 1590 to 1650 copper appeared repeatedly in certain environments yet was almost unknown in nearby artistic communities. A critical comparison of the artistic qualities valued in Antwerp and Utrecht to those of nearby communities may reveal that the qualities of copper paintings satisfied those tastes in more varied ways than have been credited. Likewise, evaluation of otherwise similar works on copper and on panel or canvas may clarify the contribution of the copper support. An autograph replica on canvas (now lost) of Paul Bril’s Fantastic Landscape (cat. 6), far from documenting the popularity of Bril’s compositions on copper, suggests either that copper was not integral to the success of the image, or that the two paintings served two distinct markets. Some features cited in this catalogue are not unique to paintings on copper. The association of collaborative painting with copper supports is almost certainly coincidental. Collaboration was particularly valued in centers, such as Antwerp and Utrecht, which also valued paintings on copper, but was a process certainly not limited to copper paintings. The observation, made several times, that a number of artists painted on copper early in their careers seems equally casual; the later careers of many of these painters coincided with the waning popularity of copper supports after 1650.

As Bowron points out, by the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries painting on copper was a specialized technique limited to artists with an extraordinarily refined, minute handling. Our thinking may be limited by this more recent stereotype. During the peak of its popularity painting on copper had a far greater range of expressive possibilities. This catalogue has made an important contribution in opening these issues for consideration.

Melanie Gifford
National Gallery of Art.