ORIGINALITY: What’s on First?
Leo Segedin   |  3/10/2004 |   Print this essay


Of all the man-made objects in the world, works of art are probably the strangest. I know of no other kind of object that has been interpreted in more different ways than paintings and sculptures. For example, what other objects have at one time been glorified as influences for cultural enrichment and intellectual enlightenment, as sources for spiritual uplift, even for emotions akin to sublime religious experience, but now, like TV and film, are, for many, just another sort of popular entertainment? What other objects were once made to be beautiful, but when they became “expressionistic”, were likely to be ugly and when they became “conceptual”, could be neither beautiful nor expressive? What other kind of object can be as small as the head of a pin, as large as a mountain or consist of rocks on a floor, a snow shovel bought in a hardware store and even an empty room? What other kind of object has been the focus of studies in anthropology, chemistry, Feminism, history, iconography, Marxism, mathematics, philosophy, political science, psychology, physiology, race, religion, sociology, structuralism - and lots more? But, although knowledge of the provenance of a work of art – its origin and history – is an important factor in its perception, perhaps the strangest quality that paintings and sculptures have is that they must be ‘original’ – that they be from the hand of a particular artist - for them to have significant economic and aesthetic value.

The assumption underlying such a value is that original works of art - the products of – say - Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and Monet - have exceptional qualities that fakes and copies do not have. Only originals reflect the artist’s vision – are expressions of his or her personality, feelings, creativity, imagination and ways of seeing. In that the hand of the artist is assumed to reflect these qualities, such works are unique. Unoriginal works, therefore, cannot have the same value and significance.

To illustrate this point: the following is from a popular art textbook, Art and Civilization, by Bernard Meyers, about a painting called “The Man in a Golden Helmet”, formerly attributed to Rembrandt:

Rembrandt’s ability to evoke spiritual contemplation, to fathom the depths of the soul and its identification with the universe is felt in such a work as the celebrated “Man in a Golden Helmet”.

Unfortunately for Professor Meyers, the painting wasn’t by Rembrandt. Even though some people continue to believe that the painting is beautiful and profound, when it was de-attributed in 1985, its value fell from $8 million to $377 thousand. Also, since the number of paintings attributed to Rembrandt has ranged from 48 to 988, it is obvious that the issue of ‘originality’ is of more than academic interest.

The art market – a multi-billion dollar business – and the high cultural status of art museums could not be maintained without assumptions that the objects exhibited are original and, of course, the authenticity of artworks is necessary in the work of art critics and historians, but such requirements raise all kinds of issues. The significance of art objects is often determined by the context in which we see and respond to them. Few art collectors would knowingly buy fakes nor would museums exhibit copies if they could avoid it, but it is only in these contexts that this is true. In an art museum, usually assumed original paintings and sculptures are displayed as aesthetic objects with their accompanying printed, audio and video historical explications, but in an ethnographic museum, they become “cultural products”, also with accompanying, but quite different, “functional” explanations. In a historical museum, they become historical documents and are studied primarily as sources for information. In a church or temple they can be cult objects, icons or idols, to be prayed or talked to, candles lit before them, offerings or sacrifices made to them. They can be fetishes, doing to them what one wishes to happen to others. They can be mutilated - eyes gouged out, decapitated, stomped on, dragged through the streets, as if they were living beings. The Second Commandment proscribes against their making and orthodox Protestants, Jews and Muslims will not allow them in their religious institutions, but Catholics make extensive use of them. In civic buildings, they can be monuments that glorify major historical events or honor famous politicians and military heroes. They can be substitutes for or memorials to deceased loved ones. They can refer to, resemble and describe other objects. And, of course, they can always be used as decorations, matching the colors of the drapes or wallpaper.

None of these functions require original works. Neither do those intellectual studies of art objects I mentioned earlier. Copies can serve them just as well. Even art courses are taught using slides, prints and reproductions in textbooks (often in black and white!). Cult objects - icons, idols and fetishes - don’t have to be original in order to have value. Any one of such objects can be endowed by ritual or by psychological projection or belief with their powers. Among all the arts, only those identified as Fine art claim ‘originality’ as a primary value. But although all copies of novels are original no matter how many are printed and all performances of plays and symphonies are original no matter how many times they are performed or recorded, by definition, no copies of paintings and sculptures can be original. There can be only one original object from which all copies are made.

Unlike works of music, literature and theater, because they are material objects, art works can be property; they can be possessed, loaned and donated as well as displayed, hidden or destroyed. They can be commodities - bought, sold, auctioned and invested in for profit. Although a physical object can be valuable because it is made of precious materials, it is often made of valueless materials and, depending on the context, be worth varying amounts of money. If a collector donates a painting to a museum, he will get tax credit for its market value. If an artist donates his painting, he will get credit for the value of the materials. If a painting is placed in a museum, it will have much greater value than when it is hanging in a gallery. It will have less value when it is reproduced as an illustration in a magazine and if it illustrates a scientific concept in a textbook, it is not even a work of art.


Like all physical objects, art objects change with time. Although it is possible to identify historical paintings as from the hand of particular artists, physically there can be no paintings that look the same as they did when they were originally painted. Not only can sunlight and carbon dioxide from human breath causes paintings to fade; chemically, oil paint continues to change (oxidize) for hundreds of years. It becomes transparent with age and turns yellow with sulfur in urban air. Underpainting, drawing and corrections (pentamenti) will show though. Pigments, especially 19th and early 20th century madder root and coal tar derivatives such as alizarins, madders, lakes and asphaltum, as well as copper derivatives (resinates) will fade or turn brown as can be seen in many 19th century landscape paintings, in works by Turner and Ryder and especially in Seurat’s, La Grande Jatte. The green dots (copper resinates) in La Grande Jatte, which were applied during the last 6 months of its painting have turned brown. The yellows and oranges have also faded. These changes were noted by Felix Feneon, Seurat’s great champion, within a few years of the painting’s completion.

The white background in Van Gogh’s, Irises, in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, was once (lake) pink. The pool table in his Night Café, at Yale, which was originally a bright green (according to Van Gogh), is now a tan color. The yellow (chrome) of his Sunflowers was once brighter. In fact, he painted some of his paintings brighter than he ultimately intended them to be because he knew that they would fade. (In 1948, the paint in one of his Cypress series was still soft, which means that its final (original?) color had not yet been established.)

In Renoir’s Mother and Children at the Frick, the reds in the flowers in the background and in the flesh tones (except for the vermilions in the lips and cheeks) have disappeared. The violet in the mother’s dress is dull and muddy, and the ultramarine blue dress on the doll one of the children carries has turned almost black.

Whistler’s Harmonies, Arrangements and Symphonies, (Whistler’s Mother, The Pacific, Portrait of Mrs. Leland), also at the Frick, have all faded, destroying their original subtle relationships.

The blue in Hopper’s trees, in Cape Cod Evening, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. which might have been interpreted as twilight was originally green, but the yellow (lake) pigment in the green mixture faded.

The mystical projections into Rothko’s five large murals at Harvard (painted in 1962 and removed in 1980) will have to be revised. The original crimson turned to pale blue because he used lithol red. His 14 large, now almost “black” panels in his chapel at St. Thomas University in Houston installed in 1971, some months after he committed suicide, which were interpreted by some to reflect his depressed state of mind, were originally an “optimistic” red on red, but the pigments faded.

Brown varnish was used in the 18th century to give paintings the ‘old master’ look. This technique was sometimes called the ‘brown gravy’ school of painting. When attempts were made to remove it in the 20th century, often the fugitive glazes used by English artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds, if they had not previously faded, came off with it. Varnishes and siccatives (driers) also can turn yellow or black. Even some contemporary, opaque acrylics can become transparent within a few years.


Works of art can be manipulated and transformed, but it is impossible to restore them so that they are the same as they were when they were first made. There is no unchanging score, text or script to indicate what the work was originally. Restorations reflect the time, the taste, the knowledge and the materials of the restorer. For example, what did an ‘original’ Greek statue so idealized during the Renaissance and after look like? Renaissance artists did not have access to original Greek sculptures in Greece after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Most of what they and we know about Greek statues comes from Roman marble copies (or engraved copies of the copies), dug out of Roman ruins in Italy during the Renaissance and after. The few “authentic’ Greek works that survive are certainly not in their original state. Only three or four original bronze statues are known to exist and these were just recently dredged from the sea or dug out of the ground. The rest had been melted down, their metal used for other, non-art purposes. During the early Christian era, Classical marble statues were destroyed as heathen idols, converted into Christian images, or broken up into rubble and used as fills and foundations.

The whole theory of Classical art is based on misconceptions as to what Greek sculpture looked like. You would never know by looking at 18th and 19th century Classical Revival sculpture that 5th B.C. Greek statues had been originally covered with plaster or wax and painted with bright colors much as Christian religious statues are to this day. In their soulful, now empty eye sockets were eyeballs of colored glass. The so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped from the Parthenon in Athens and purchased from uncaring Greeks in 1803, now lack the gilding, the metal additions and the colors of the originals. Their recent cleaning at the British Museum did not remove anything of the original surface.

Most Greek remains were broken, their colors faded or gone. Such broken pieces originally had no value and a restorer could do what ever he wanted with them. During the several Classical revivals, such sculpture was restored according to the prevalent ideas as to how a classical statue should look. Restorations were generally white and smooth; dismembered arms, legs and heads, sometimes from different statues, reattached at the whim of the restorer (for example, the Discus Thrower). The surface of the Belvedere (so-called Apollo) Torso and other Roman sculptures were scraped to get that assumed ‘pure’ ‘classical’ appearance. When first seen in England, the “Elgin Marbles” were intensely disliked. It was only Lord Elgin’s lack of funds that prevented the English sculptor, John Flaxman, from ‘restoring’ them. In their cleaned, but un-restored, uncolored condition, they are now considered to be among the highest achievements of Classical Greek sculpture. The Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorwaldson, ‘creatively’ restored the Aegina marbles in the early 19th century and it was only after they were damaged during World War II that his additions were removed. A tour guide in the Delphi Museum in Greece told me that the reconstructions of its marble Victory figures are uncolored because “you tourists wouldn’t like it that way.”

Over the years, additions were made to paintings; genitals were over-painted, corpses removed and backgrounds added or removed according to the taste of the times. The top and 3 bottom predelas of Ruben’s, Raising of the Cross of the Antwerp Altarpieces (originally designed for a different church) are missing. It was originally 35 ft high; after rigorous revision in the 18th century, it is now only 15 ft high.

Contrary to traditional interpretations, Michelangelo may have been a colorist as well as an outstanding draftsman if the restored Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are any indication. The great controversy over the results of its cleaning was because no one was really sure what the originals looked like. They were shocked to discover how colorful they probably were and some experts still think that too much had been removed. Also, before it was cleaned, the gradation of dirt from the outer edges of the ceiling to the relative cleanliness at the center was interpreted to mean enlightenment from the darkness of ignorance of all the begats after Genesis to the light of knowledge of Christ. All that assumed symbolism has to be reinterpreted.

Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is a faded relic of what it once was. Mona now has a greenish, crackly look, colorless lips and cheeks, receding hairline and no eye brows and does not look at all as Vasari (who may never have seen her) described her in the 16th century, but although the painting has been over painted many times, it is doubtful that it will ever be restored again because the results would probably be too shocking to our contemporary taste. Any resemblance of the Leonardo’s restored Last Supper in Milan to what it originally looked like is hypothetical and superficial. The less said about it the better.


The notion that an original, authentic work is from the hand of a single identifiable artist can also be problematic. Many famous works of art are not from the hand of an individual artist, but rather are the product of a cooperative activity. When we say that a building is a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Mies Van Der Rohe, we don’t mean that it is from their ‘hand’ but rather that it is the product of their design. In a similar way, many works of art are the products of workshops in which a master artist plans the work and may work on it to varying degrees, but the major, if not all, the work is carried out by assistants or pupils. Even after individual artists became famous, the demands of the art market required that the medieval workshop tradition continue. “Shop replicas and imitations, done by people trained to act as an extension of the master’s arm, were accepted by contemporaries, because an artist’s workshop was considered a commercial enterprise, not – as since the nineteenth century – a sanctuary in which a solitary artist produces his completely autographic masterpieces.” It may not matter to us when we find out that almost all of Andy Warhol’s works are the products of his ‘factory’ rather than from his hand, but it will probably come as a shock to those who imagine Michelangelo as a suffering artist working in isolation as he expressed his personal vision in opposition to the desires of Pope Julian II to find that it was recently discovered after cleaning, that Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel showed the hands of four assistants, who, according to the records, were paid together 100 ducats a month, a small percentage of the total cost of the work. In all the contemporary Vatican documents about these paintings, Michelangelo’s name does not appear, so that we can assume that in spite of his reputation and the magnificence of his works, he was still considered to be an artisan, a craftsman.

The two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, one in the Louvre and the other in the National Gallery in London, actually also may also show the hands of his two associates, the brothers, Ambrogio and Evangelista Prego. According to one geologist, the rock formations in the background of the London version show little of the knowledge of geology demonstrated in the Louvre version. It took years before they finally got paid, and then far less that the original contract called for. The craftsmen who made the elaborate frame in which the painting was placed were paid more than the artists were for their work.

Peter Paul Rubens’ contracts with clients determined how much of the paintings would involve his hand, but all 3,000 paintings which are said to come from his workshop, including many replicas and versions of the same works, until recently were called ‘Rubens’s. This is typical of many Renaissance artworks. Verrocchio, Raphael, Bronzino, Titian and Tintoretto all maintained workshops with assistants. The Chicago Art Institute’s painting, Girl at An Open Half-Door, formerly attributed to Rembrandt, (identified in the 1961 Chicago Art Institute catalogue of its painting collection as “Signed and dated: Rembrandt f.1645”) is now identified as being from his workshop. Even the attribution of the Frick’s, Polish Rider, to Rembrandt has been questioned. Many such works in museums are now being re-attributed to the workshops rather than the hands of these artists and if they ever appear on the market, such recognition, regardless of the beauty of the artwork, would certainly lower their market value.

Rembrandt not only signed the products of his workshop; he also worked on his student’s paintings. At what point do they become ‘Rembrandts’? Corot not only worked on his student’s work; if he particularly liked them, he would sign them with his own name. So did Boucher. Corot also painted on forgeries of his work to make them ‘original’ Corots. Thomas Kincade, probably America’s most profitable artist, produces fifteen hundred dollar lithographic reproductions of his paintings, printed on textured-brushstroke canvas with an auto-pen Kinkade signature in the lower right-hand corner. These reproductions are then ‘highlighted’, “painted on by specially trained assistants, adding more green to the trees, pink for the rose bushes, giving them more texture or luminescence,” according to the wishes of the customer. Sometimes the customers are allowed to do the dabbing themselves, to make their paintings more ‘one of a kind’. To what extent are such works original Rembrandts or Corots or Kincades - or Kincade’s customers?

An artist can forge his own work to make them more valuable. Late in life, the Metaphysical painter, Georgio De Chirico painted imitations of his earlier work, but pre-dated them because his early works were more successful and saleable than his later ones. Chagall, Braque, Miro, but most notably Arp, have all made works which were not dated until they appeared in a gallery’s catalog. The chronology printed in the catalog was determined by when their most saleable works were done. Salvatore Dali even signed blank sheets of paper on which prints were later made at the discretion of the dealer. There are probably hundreds of thousands of ‘limited editions’ of Dali prints circulating, many with his ‘original’ signature.

Our personal responses to works of art, as well as their economic value, are based not only on their intrinsic aesthetic qualities, but also on our assumptions about the object. What do we think we are looking at when we look at historical works of art? Do we look at them as they now appear, with all the physical changes wrought by their history? Do we thus see them in museums as unique, aesthetic objects, ignoring their original functions in churches and palaces or do we include such knowledge along with what we know of their provenance and other information we bring to our response? Do we accept restorations or cleaning as revealing what these art objects originally looked like? Do we see them as icons, as ‘holy’ relics of great artists, no matter what they look like? Does it matter whether they are originals, copies or fakes? However we answer, what it means to call an art object ‘original’ is certainly problematic.

Find this content at: 

© 2022 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.