Copper is not gold. Well-polished, it may glisten but it remains the humble material of kitchen pots and common vessels glorified in Chardin’s still lives (fig. 1) and the serene images of interiors by Dutch artists. As it cannot be modeled into sculptural shapes it is its flat, perfectly smooth surface that is its best asset, and that is precisely what attracted painters to it.
Copper sheets are shiny and naturally reflect the light. If not inexpensive, copper was always affordable, and could be sourced not only from the mills that produced it but “second hand” from professional printers who used copper sheets routinely in their practice. Some of the larger 17th-century Dutch paintings on copper are, for instance, executed on plates previously used for printing maps — a flourishing production in the 17th-century low countries.
When copper was first used in addition to canvas and wood panel, and where the practice originated, remain debatable. Copper had been essential in the making of enamels, but paintings on copper appear only in the 16th century, arguably simultaneously in Northern Europe and Italy. They remain the two areas where the production of painting on copper flourished. The fashion for these paintings lasted from the Renaissance until the mid-18th century. It then conspicuously fell out of fashion, to reappear only in the late 20th century — not as a trend, but rather as an experimental curiosity by adventurous and unrelated artists.
There may have been practical reasons for using copper, particularly enjoyed by painters: the material was less subject to damage than paintings on panel or canvas, and less sensitive to changes in environmental conditions. These paintings could be relatively easily transported, thus facilitating their trade. Perhaps still more important to their success would be the development of collecting and the taste for reductive compositions (inherited from the appreciation of illuminated manuscripts), which fit easily in the cabinets of curiosities of aristocratic patrons. In those, copper, given a new appreciation, would join other paintings on unusual supports such as onyx, lapis lazuli or slate, to name but a few. Copper could also be enhanced and made more precious by coating it with silver (the principle of “Sheffield” silver), adding a subtle luminosity to the painting itself. Such is the case, for instance, of a small work by Giovani Francesco Romanelli (ca. 1610-62), St. John and St. Peter at Christ’s Tomb (ca. 1640) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , or more famously, Elsheimer’s Frankfurt Altarpiece (fig. 2).
Paintings in this exhibition originate for the most part from Italy and Northern Europe (where many of them were painted by “Italianate” artists). The exhibition shows how widely adopted the technique was in these two regions, from Lombardy to Naples by way of Florence, Bologna and Verona. In Northern Europe, the scrupulous Karel van Mander recorded the names of many Flemish, Dutch and German painters active in Italy who painted on copper. That many of these artists followed the example of Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) is indubitable (fig. 3), as the artist’s career, as brief and fulgurant as Caravaggio’s, consisted essentially of paintings on copper that became an exemplum for generations of painters. Paul Bril (1554-1626), Gottfried Wals (fig. 4) and Claude Lorrain rank among the many artists who owe a considerable debt to Elsheimer. The fashion for painting on copper in Rome took unexpected turns. It included Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), who painted at least two works on copper (fig. 5), as well as topographic artists such as Lingelbach and Vanvitelli. The technique, however, was not limited to the culture of Italy and Northern Europe. It may indeed be justified to speak of a “coppermania” that spread through Europe, where some of the most prominent painters — including Watteau and Lagrenée in France, Murillo and Goya in Spain, and Stubbs in England — occasionally used copper plates as an alternative to canvas.
Paintings on copper are often and rightly considered to have been part of a late Renaissance and early Baroque taste for precious objects incorporating rare materials. Small, portable and wearable, the list of such objects is endless: mounted gemstones and cameos, figurative jewelry and precious works, all meant to be handled and kept in private cabinets. The miniaturization of compositions became one of the trademarks of the most gifted artists working on copper. Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), arguably the most prolific artist to have use the medium, became particularly expert at crowding multiple figures on very small sheets of copper (fig. 6). These artists’ technique and visual effects, akin to the art of the miniature painters of earlier times, contributed to the transformation of these paintings into objects of wonder. The magic of their surface attracted the minds of the curious, as the transformation of a simple sheet of copper into a resplendent surface may perhaps be compared to the alchemical ambition to turn matter into gold. No wonder, then, if paintings on copper were also an integral component of the Rudolfinian culture, and part of the esthetics of the mythical Praga magica.
All this seems to indicate that painting on copper is best suited to small and narrative works. Considering the popularity of mythological subjects from Wtewael and Solimena, it would be tempting to underline the consistent appeal of painting on copper for painters of such elegant and often erotic subjects. But this would be to ignore the endless variety of painting on copper, which includes such oddities as Canaletto’s sparkling view of Venice now at Chatsworth (fig. 7) as well as an abundant production of devotional pictures. It is frustrating that so little is known about the history or provenance of these pictures and that, for the most part, one is reduced to conjectures as to what prompted their execution on copper. What kind of personal devotion may have inspired, one may ask, the barely hidden eroticism of the small Saint Catherine by Francesco del Cairo?
Two significant commissions of paintings on copper are well documented: The most ambitious is the series of paintings ordered by the deputies of the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro in the Naples Cathedral (fig. 8), where they were intended to add to the magnificent cacophony of precious metals. Copper was chosen for its suspected durability as well as for its semi-precious quality. Domenichino received the commission but died before he could complete it, so Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) and Massimo Stanzione (1586-1656) eventually added their compositions to the cycle. The size of the paintings, made of several sheets of copper, proved a challenge to their durability and their conservation.
Paradoxically, it is only in fairly recent years that painting on copper has enjoyed a revival. Protagonists include Lucian Freud (fig. 11), the most “classical” among modern painters approaching the medium. With typical iconoclasm, Lucio Fontana attacked the copper sheet to create his signature image. And most surprisingly of all, Andy Warhol, in his unsung, experimental series of “Oxidation Paintings” (1977-78), coated the surfaces of canvases with copper paint that was then oxidized by being pissed on, turning iridescent orange and green (fig. 12). Scholarship has not fully established if Warhol himself participated in the oxidization or if the process was left to assistants. ❖