Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and "The-What?": Creative Copies in Art and Literature

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During the past two decades, scholars have dispelled the notion that Sophia Peabody Hawthorne was merely a copyist, rightly forgotten as a minimally talented lady-painter, or unhappily remembered as the prudish bowdlerizer of her husband's notebooks. (1) In fact, Sophia was among the first professional women artists in America to earn income from original oil paintings, illustrations, and decorative arts, as well as from her copies. (2) She was also the "Queen of Journalizers" and among the first American women to document travel outside the United States. (3) And, as the first editor of Nathaniel Hawthorne's autobiographical records, she exerted permanent influence upon the study of his life, character, and writing. (4) Sophia's artistic and literary oeuvre clearly extended beyond copies, even though the arc of her professional career began and ended with copying. As a young woman, she copied the works of renowned painters, and during the final years of her life, Sophia relentlessly copied her husband's notebooks to prepare them for publication. (5) Copies and the act of copying thus assume a conspicuous position in a life that coincided with a countervailing demand for originality and the advent of mechanical reproduction of images.

Defined as the "[m]anual repetition of another work of art, executed without dishonest intention," a copy is thus distinguished from a forgery by the intention of the copyist ("Copy"). This textbook definition obtains greater nuance in "Representation, Copying, and the Technique of Originality" from art historian Richard Shiff, who writes: "The attempt to represent another representation created in the same medium can be considered as an act of copying" (335, my emphasis). During the many centuries before Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed "[i]nsist on yourself; never imitate" (160) and until Louis Daguerre invented the photographic process (an exhortation and an invention that caught the attention of New Englanders during the 1840s), copying had been a standard pedagogical strategy and the only means by which an image or an original work of art could be reproduced.

For centuries, painters learned their craft and began their careers as copyists: the French Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) copied another Frenchman, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), who had copied the Dutch Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who himself had copied the works of the Italian Renaissance masters Caravaggio (1571-1610), Titian (c1488-1576), and Michelangelo (1475-1564). These male painters do not conform to the constricted, gendered depictions of the girl-copyist in novels such as The American, or, more germane to this study, The Marble Faun. Copying, rather than signifying "artistic impoverishment," was for centuries construed as evidence of a "tradition's vitality." Valuing convention over innovation, artists acquired and expanded skills by imitating their predecessors' work. The "atelier" signified both a place and a method of instruction by affording artists (such as those cited above whose names we recognize and the many others whose names are erased from the historical record) opportunities to produce works of art together. A painting might be begun by a master and finished by members of his studio, or a painting might be executed by an unknown artist who consciously deployed the style of the master. Thus examples from the Early Modern period through the nineteenth century suggest the complicated yet rich interconnectedness of art produced by artists, at times unidentified, who copied or imitated the manner of a master. Their unsigned copies, although executed without the purpose of deceiving a spectator or potential buyer, might be mistaken for originals by virtue of their high quality and technical competence ("Copy").

But that any manual copy could ever be an identical rendering of an original is a notion that Shiff challenges:

In theory, copies may appear quite indistinguishable from originals so long as the artist-copyist has mastered the craft or technical procedure which generated the original and will generate the copy. …