Copy and Original: Drawings

A while back, I posted two sets of drawings on Instagram. Each pair consisted of a copy after an Old Master drawing, and the original (Durer/Hoffmann and Michelangelo/Clovio).

Set A: A1 Hans Hoffmann, Blaurackenflügel (Wing of a Blue Roller), 1513. 19,0 x 21,2 cm. Collection of the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg; A2 Albrecht Dürer, Blaurackenflügel, 1512. Watercolor and body color on vellum. 29.6 × 20 cm (11.6 × 7.8 in). Collection of the Albertina, Vienna.
Set B: B1 Michelangelo, Il Sogno, c.1533. Black chalk on laid paper. H 39.8 x W 27.8 cm. Collection of the Courtauld, London; B2 Attributed to Giulio Clovio, After Il Sogno, ca. 1550-1560? Black chalk on paper, with some lines inscribed with stylus. 14 5/16 x 10 3/4 inches (364 x 272 mm). Collection of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

How to distinguish between an original and a copy? Between two identical compositions, how can we figure out which one came first?

The process of working out the relationship between two similar drawings–that is, two drawings that feature identical, or nearly identical, compositions (like the drawings in our two sets of comparisons), and share similar dimensions–begins with a basic set of questions, almost like a decision tree. Were the drawings both made in roughly the same time period? Are they roughly the same scale and do they have similar dimensions? Were they made using the same (or similar) media, and on similar supports? We can infer different relationships between two drawings based on our answers to these questions. Consider the relationship between two drawings that look very similar, but were made with wildly different media and in divergent time periods. And then consider the range of possible relationships between two identical, or nearly identical drawings, both made in the same time period, using the same medium and the same type of drawing support. In the first case, the question of copy vs. original is easily settled–the earlier version is the original. And the motivation for the later copy–say, a ballpoint drawing after a silverpoint–was probably not deception. In the second case, however, it is often not obvious which drawing represents the copy and which is the original.

We begin by looking for obvious clues. A copy of a drawing will often retain marks or traces that point to the drawing’s identity as a copy: an incised grid, evidence of tracing or pouncing [1], or of incising.[2]

We might find it easier to tackle this problem if we begin by framing it as one of distinguishing between hands.[3] In older scholarship, art historians often described copies in qualitative terms–copies are stiff, they lack freshness, or originality, certain aspects of the drawing (line quality, shadowing, wash) feel unmotivated, or lack intention. The weaker hand–the one that is stiff, unoriginal, lacking in intention–belongs to the copyist. This type of aesthetic appraisal and judgment has a long history in the West, (almost) as old as art itself. And art historians still employ qualitative language today. These qualitative (and subjective) valuations are usually yoked to judgments based on more objective–or at least, more empirical–criteria, such as direct comparisons of drawing techniques (how each artist handled hatchmarks, or stippling, for example). More recently, art historians have began incorporating scientific analyses of the work, such as the materials used to create the work (e.g. pigments, binders), in their assessments.


Now that we’ve laid out some of the general principles, let’s practice some close looking by examining the second set of drawings, the comparison between Michelangelo’s “Il Sogno” and Giulio Clovio’s copy after Michelangelo.[4]

Michelangelo, Il Sogno, c.1533. Black chalk on laid paper. H 39.8 x W 27.8 cm. Collection of the Courtauld, London
Attributed to Giulio Clovio, After Il Sogno, ca. 1550-1560? Black chalk on paper, with some lines inscribed with stylus. 14 5/16 x 10 3/4 inches (364 x 272 mm). Collection of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Not all copies were made to deceive. Most copies were not made with the intention to deceive, for the act of copying serves a multitude of useful purposes. Clovio’s copy is very different from the original. Although both drawings were executed in black chalk, Clovio’s drawing is much lighter and more linear, using hatching to delineate form, while Michelangelo’s drawing employs heavy use of shading and shadow to convey volume and form.

A comparison of the two artists’ divergent approaches to defining the volume of a sphere conveys the key differences between their approaches.

Detail of the sphere, from Michelangelo’s version of “Il Sogno”
Detail of the sphere in Clovio’s drawing, with hatched shading instead of the smoothly stumped shading in Michelangelo’s version.

Whatever the purpose of Clovio’s drawing, it is clear from comparing the two versions that Clovio was not interested in creating an identical copy of “Il Sogno,” but directed his efforts towards capturing the overall composition of the drawing. Clovio’s treatment of the small figures in the background is much more schematic. The figures are in the right place, there are roughly blocked volumes in the same positions, but when compared to Michelangelo’s renderings of the same figures, Clovio’s drawings are little more than placeholders.

Background figures, Clovio’s version after “Il Sogno”
background figures, Michelangelo’s “Il Sogno”

If we compare Michelangelo’s treatment of anatomy and musculature to that of Clovio, it becomes clear that Michelangelo is using light and shadow to describe the rise and swell of muscles, and these muscles are actually attached to a human skeleton, while Clovio is thinking, not of describing human anatomy, but of the arrangement of light and dark areas (or shaded vs unshaded areas) on a sheet of paper. Under close observation, Clovio’s legs are not really legs, and his arms are not really arms.


Over the course of his career, Hans Hoffmann (ca. 1545/50 – 1591/92) made many copies after Albrecht Durer. He often made multiple copies of the same drawing. Hoffmann even signed some of his copies, like this drawing of the blue roller, with Durer’s monogram. Were Hoffmann’s copies intended to deceive? Yes and no. Perhaps the question of deception is not the right place to begin. Collectors coveted Durer’s drawings during his lifetime, and the demand for his work continued, unabated, after his death. Art historians coined the phrase “the Durer Renaissance” to describe Durer’s immense influence on German–and more broadly–Central European art of the 16th century and after. This is not the place to debate the merits–or shortfalls–of the concept of the Durer Renaissance.[5] It suffices to say that the demand for Durer’s work was intense, and the number of autograph–or authentic–works by Durer fell far short of that demand. And here, Hoffmann stepped into the breach. Hoffmann had close relationships with two important Nuremberg-based collectors, Willibald Imhoff and Paulus II Praun (also known as Paul von Praun). Both Imhoff and Praun owned large numbers of Durer drawings–Imhoff’s grandfather, Willibald Pirckheimer, was close friends with Durer, and Imhoff inherited Pirckheimer’s collection, while Praun acquired a number of his autograph Durers from the goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer. Through his relationships with Imhoff and Praun, Hoffmann was able to study, and copy, Durer’s drawings. In addition, many of those copies were commissioned by Imhoff or Praun family members.

A recent exhibition of Hoffmann’s work at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, helps clarify these interesting–and complicated–relationships, between Hoffmann and his Durer-obsessed patrons. In addition to creating copies after Durer for the Imhoff and Praun families, Hoffmann would go on to provide the same service to the Holy Roman Emperor himself. After Willibald Imhoff’s death, Rudolf II acquired–with Hoffmann acting as his agent–the Imhoff family’s collection of Durer works. Interestingly, many of Hoffmann’s copies of Durer drawings in the Imhoff family collection were made for Imhoff family members prior to the sale of the Durer album to Rudolf II in 1588. For example, in 1576, long before the Imhoff collection was sold, Hoffmann copied a Durer self portrait (now in the British Museum). Throughout his association with the Imhoffs, Hoffmann continued to make copies after works in the Imhoff collection–the Cleveland Museum’s version of Hoffmann’s “Blue Roller (After Durer)” is dated 1583, and was probably commissioned by Karl Imhoff, Willibald’s son, as a memento of a favorite drawing from his father’s collection.

Why did Hoffmann make all these copies? In his review of the recent Hoffmann show in Nuremberg, Armin Kunz suggests that Praun, “[whose] collection would ultimately comprise the largest corpus of works by Hoffmann,” commissioned Hoffmann to make copies of Durer drawings for his collection to “[function] as stand-ins for works by the great master that were no longer obtainable even for the well-heeled Praun.” In the catalogue for the GM exhibition, curator Yasmin Doosry “suggests that [Hoffmann] signed works meant for the closer circle of Durer aficionados with his own monogram but was not above applying Durer’s ‘AD’ on works aimed at buyers that were unlikely to come to Nuremberg and consult Imhoff’s album.” This, however, does not really address why Hoffmann’s 1583 copy of the Blue Roller, supposedly made for Karl Imhoff, is signed “AD” instead of “Hh” (Hoffmann’s personal monogram). Some things still remain mysteries. In the same review, Kunz directs our attention to new research on Hoffmann’s works after Durer, conducted by the paper conservator Roland Damm. Kunz writes, “Damm describes in the catalogue how Hoffmann, in his true-to-size copies, carefully traced the contours of his models but drew far more freely when filling in the internal details. In the watercolours, those tracings were often executed with diluted ink and are therefore hardly detectable in the finished works.”

Hoffmann’s process–of tracing the contours but then painting in the details more or less freely, by eye rather than by rote–keeps his copies from feeling stiff, and give his copies a sense of life and freshness. Only with close comparison do we begin to see how Hoffmann’s hand — his sense of draftsmanship and his approach to delineating light/shadow and texture — differ from that of Durer.

Detail, Albrecht Dürer, Blaurackenflügel, 1512. Watercolor and body color on vellum. 29.6 × 20 cm (11.6 × 7.8 in). Collection of the Albertina, Vienna.

Compare Durer’s approach to depicting light interacting with the texture of feathers, in the watercolor of the wing of the Blue Roller above, with Hoffmann’s version below. Leaving aside questions of color (notoriously unreliable in reproduction), we can compare the artists’ use of highlights and shading, their approach to the feathers’ textures. Hoffmann’s drawing is soft throughout, the feathers fuzz out, almost like fur, while Durer’s approach is crisp, almost diamantine. Hoffmann’s highlights–executed as more or less parallel hatchmarks– sit on the surface of the feather, while Durer’s give a sense of volume, of the feather’s swell and curve, and convey the iridescence of the roller’s plumage.

Detail, Hans Hoffmann, Blaurackenflügel (Wing of a Blue Roller), 1513. 19,0 x 21,2 cm. Collection of the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Looking back over what I’ve written, I worry that I’ve made Hoffmann out to be a hack, a copyist of meager talent. I’ve fallen into the trope of attributing originality to the ‘stronger’ hand, and denigrating the copyist’s hand as the weak one. But this type of qualitative judgment is not always useful. For one, it stops us from considering why copies were made. What were the copyist’s intentions? What functions did the copy fulfill? What were the copyist’s goals? Why bother making a copy at all?

Hans Hoffmann, A Hare in the Forest, c. 1585. Oil on Panel,
62.2 × 78.4 cm (24 1/2 × 30 7/8 in.). Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

I’ll close with this painting of a hare in a forest. We’ve met this hare before. Durer drew him in 1502. Hoffmann made several copies after the original Durer. In this painting, however, Hoffmann has made the hare his own, as the centerpiece of a fantasy landscape that appears as though it had been drawn from life.

Imitation yields to transformation. Every artist understands that one never knows when practice will bear fruit. So we keep at it–drawing, writing, developing our muscle memories, practicing our craft–knowing that only practice can bring us what we desire, those flashes where the work lifts up and soars above our ordinary practice.


  1. In this wonderful essay, Andrew Raftery demonstrates how to copy a drawing using the technique of pouncing. After creating a copy after a Lucas Cambiaso drawing through pricking, Raftery transferred the copy’s contour lines onto a fresh sheet of paper by pouncing–rubbing fine, powdered charcoal through the template’s pricked holes. Then, he went over the charcoal contours with a quill pen.
  2. This tutorial, “Traditional Transfer Techniques in Western European Art,” is a nice introduction to the basic techniques employed, by Renaissance and Early Modern artists, to copy entire compositions, or to transfer motifs between drawings.
  3. There are other elements to determining authenticity and making attributions–determining the approximate age of the work at hand (examining the paper for watermarks, for example, making sure that the materials are appropriate and not anachronistic), establishing the work’s provenance–that I won’t detail here. They are important elements of connoisseurship, and deserve their own posts.
  4. A fun wrinkle in studying–and attributing–Old Master drawings: While most scholars believe that this drawing is a copy, there’s no consensus on the drawing’s attribution. Morgan’s version after “Il Sogno” is currently attributed to Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), but the attribution, as noted in the Morgan’s object notes, is not secure. Some scholars attribute the drawing to Alessandro Allori, while others attribute it to Clovio. The attribution of the version of “Il Sogno” in the Courtauld to Michelangelo is widely accepted, but it’s also impossible to prove beyond a doubt that the drawing is by Michelangelo. So we can definitively say that these two drawings are by two different hands–but everything else contains some degree of conjecture.
  5. Those interested in diving more deeply into the merits (and pitfalls) of the concept of the Durer Renaissance might begin with the Metropolitan Museum’s 2012 exhibition, “Durer and Beyond,” and accompanying catalogue.

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