Archive for Thursday, April 22, 1999


April 22, 1999


— The painting style was popular in Europe and Spanish America for about 200 years.

Art fans know the Old Masters painted on wood and canvas. But Rembrandt and his contemporaries also put their brush strokes down on metal.

From the mid-16th century until the mid-18th century, the smooth, hard surface of sheet copper replaced canvas for a number of prominent artists in Europe and Spanish America.

Why copper?

"Copper was not rare and it was mined in tons. It was readily available and probably inexpensive," said Michael Komanecky, chief curator and curator of European art at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Plus, unlike fabric, copper didn't shrink, stretch or sustain mold growth. The metal didn't warp, split or harbor worms like wood. It was harder and more rigid that a plate of silver, gold or tin. And it was immune to chips and breaks, like paintings on slabs of slate, alabaster and marble.

Copper's smoothness allowed painters to depict details with precision and refinement, and its reddish surface intensified a work's warmth and luminosity.

"Copper as Canvas," an exhibition that recently opened at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, includes more than 90 of the best-preserved paintings on copper -- some only a few inches tall or wide, some 5 feet across -- from such artists as Dutch master Frans Hals, Italian painter Annibale Carracci, French artists Claude Lorraine and J.B.S. Chardin, and Spanish-American artists Luis Juarez and Christobal de Villalpando.

Roger Ward, curator of European art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, said the works were drawn from public and private collections throughout the world, including the Musee du Louvre, the Museo del Prado, the National Gallery London, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Princes of Liechtenstein, Vaduz.

"It's a complicated exhibit because there are so many artists," he said.

Art historians believe painting on copper sheets originated in Italy or the Netherlands at a time when artists were experimenting with various media, Ward said. Some of the first "copper as canvas" paintings were made from 1486 to 1547 by Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian friend of Michelangelo.

In the 17th century, Rudolf II assembled an entourage of artists, alchemists, astronomers, philosophers and humanists to make Prague "a Parnassus of the arts." Rudolf was an avid collector and owned thousands of works, including copper-painting creations by Albrecht Durer, Antonio Correggio and Giovanni da Bologna, known as Giambologna.

The Archduke Leopold Willem also was a collector, with about 1,400 paintings to his name. Included in the exhibit is "Archduke Leopold Willem in his Painting Gallery," an oil painting on copper that shows the archduke surrounded by 46 of his paintings.

Painting on copper quickly spread across Europe, and crossed the ocean when Spanish explorers conquered the Mexicas and the Incas in Mexico and Peru.

"Because they wanted to spread the Catholic faith, they brought over artworks as visual evidence of the beliefs that the indigenous people might find too unbelievable," Ward said, adding that the paintings were often of religious scenes. "Also (European) artists moved to Lima and Mexico City. Copper painting flourished there."

Examples of that period are "Virgin of Guadalupe," by the Mexican artist Sebastian Salcedo, and "St. Francis of Assisi," by Spanish artist Alonso Lopez de Herrera. An unusual work in the exhibition is a feather mosaic that incorporates the Aztec use of feathers as a medium with copper-painting techniques.

Ward said painting on copper tapered off in the 18th century because of changing styles in architecture and interior decoration.

By 1750, paintings on copper also were readily available so the demand for new productions was less. Also, the attitude toward studio art had changed.

"Studio art wasn't what 19th-century painting was about," he said. "In the 19th century, they were making a record of an immediate impression from real life. Copper painting had become passe."

The "Copper as Canvas" exhibit opened at the Phoenix Art Museum. After its Kansas City stint it will travel to the Royal Cabinet of Painting Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is


What: "Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper," an exhibition of 92 works by 69 artists who painted on copper.

When: Through June 6.

Where: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak, Kansas City, Mo.

Special events:

  • Walk-in tours, 1 p.m. Wednesdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 6, information desk.
  • "Painting on Copper in Spanish America," lecture by Patrick Frank, assistant professor of Latin American art history at Kansas University, 7 p.m. May 14, Atkins Auditorium.
  • "Copper for Connoisseurs," gallery class with Roger Ward, curator of European art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4 p.m.-5:45 p.m. May 19, information desk.

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