A quick Google search for “Chinese art reproductions” or “Chinese oil paintings” leads to a fascinating tour into the world of art reproduction. After clicking through some of the top sites that pop up – Refine Oil Painting Art Gallery, China Oil Painting Gallery, Oil Paintings China – it becomes apparent that Chinese oil painters are the masters of copying the Masters from Europe.
From Cezanne and Goya to Monet, Renoir and Rubens, spot-on replicas of the West’s most treasured works on canvas can be purchased and delivered at the click of a button for as little as U.S. $20. Take this hand-painted, 8”x10” Da Vinci mock-up, for example.
While it’s easy to link China’s copying of artistic masterpieces to its copying of technology and myriad other issues associated with copyright and creativity, there is still a high level of skill involved in hand-painting a facsimile of Velasquez’s Portrait of Felipe IV in five days flat, as Chinese Artist Yang Feiyun has done.
In a report by Agence France-Presse, we are given a glimpse of this process in action. According to the report, a group of respected Chinese artists are now on a two-week excursion to Madrid’s Prado Museum to get up close and personal with the bona fide originals many reproduction painters in China will never see.
Yang, seen putting the finishing touches on his copy of 17th century Spanish King Felipe IV by Velasquez, told AFP, “I have been painting my whole life, ever since I was a child, and Velasquez is a master among painters. He is known in China for his great depth.”
But Yang is no art hack. The head of oil painting at the state-controlled Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he explained that the real point of his work in Madrid is not for profit but education.
“Our aim is to learn a lot and have these works as teaching material in China,” he said. “There is not a long history of oil painting in China – just the past 100 years or so. We are in a learning period.”
Other artists on the Prado tour represent the prestigious China Academy of Art. Each of the artists has made it their mission to copy at least two works from the museum’s extensive collection during their time in Madrid. Some of the paintings they’re eyeing include Rubens’ The Three Graces and The Third of May 1808 in Madrid by Goya.
Upon their return to China, their paintings will be shown in Beijing and used to train artists. Many in the West may not relate to this approach to developing creative expression, but in China this tradition stretches back millennia.
The practice of apprenticeship by rote copying of brush movements until they become ingrained stretches back to China’s graceful, flowing calligraphy scrolls and sweeping landscape paintings from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and before.
Praising the virtues of copying the works of Old Masters, Sun told AFP, “I have seen lots of prints of the paintings, but prints are nothing like the originals. Being here in front of the originals, you have more direct and true contact with the artists.”
He added, “To be here copying the masterpieces of these painters is the best apprenticeship you could have.”