Last January I saw Francesco Primaticcio's Ulysses and Penelope at the Toledo Museum of Art and thought it was tremendous. In particular, I was drawn to the tender gesture Ulysses makes toward his wife Penelope.
Then this morning I went to the Detroit Institute of Art and was stunned to see this strikingly similar but (in my opinion) less elegant painting of the same gesture! Granted, this is a painting of Eros and Psyche rather than Ulysses and Penelope, but nearly everything else about the figures is the same.
My first thought was that Niccolo dell' Abbate must have stolen the gesture from Francesco Primaticcio. Neither of the dates on the paintings are very specific, so it's not clear which was painted first, but Primaticcio's painting looked to my eye like the original.
Nevertheless, I decided to do some reading before I jumped to any conclusions.
According to the Toledo Museum of Art's website, Primaticcio worked in Fontainebleau and was part of a group of artists who adapted Italian Mannerism to suit French tastes. Primaticcio's greatest artistic achievement was the 500-foot-long Gallery of Ulysses inside the Palace of Fontainebleau, which he and his assistants (one of whom was Niccolo dell' Abbate) frescoed with fifty-eight scenes from the life of Ulysses. Sadly, this gallery is no longer standing, since it was demolished during the 18th century. The design of the frescoes is only known because of a series of engravings made by a Dutchman, Theodoor van Thulden, during the seventeenth century.
The similarity between the engraving and the two paintings is undeniable. Yes, the paintings are both mirror images of the engraving, and, yes, the engraving contains more figures than either painting. (It should be noted that the process of making a print involves flipping the engraved metal plate over, so it is unsurprising that an image made in this way might appear in reverse.) But the two main figures are nearly identical in all three. So, neither Primaticcio's painting in Toledo nor Niccolo's painting in Detroit is an original. Both paintings are based off of the once magnificent fresco cycle in Fontainebleau, which both men played a role in creating.
I said the two main figures are nearly identical in all three, but there is one difference. In Primaticcio's oil painting, Ulysses is actually touching Penelope's face, not merely gesturing toward it, as he is in the engraving and in Niccolo's painting of Eros and Psyche.
Why would Primaticcio have Ulysses touch Penelope in the oil painting but not in the original fresco? Did he change his mind? To what extent was the original gesture in the fresco at Fontainebleau even his idea? We know that the design of the frescoes was primarily his and that he was given credit for them, but he also trusted some of his assistants to interpret his sketches as they worked. Is it possible that Niccolo dell' Abbate, one of his assistants, looked at a rough sketch made by Primaticcio and interpreted it to mean that Ulysses should be gesturing toward Penelope's face? If so, then which artist should be credited with coming up with the original? Is it even possible to suss out each man's precise role in the process?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, the story of these two artists illustrates an interesting truth about the role of originality in the arts. It is tempting, especially for contemporary artists, to seek out originality above all other concerns. It can be said of many twentieth and twenty-first century artists, "Well, he was the first one to..." as if that were explanation enough for the artist's genius. And yet, as valuable as originality is, it is still only one of the many desirable qualities in a piece of art. Both Primaticcio's painting in Toledo and Niccolo's painting in Detroit contain moments of brilliance, just as the Fontainebleau paintings must have done as well. As viewers we can benefit from myriad interpretations of the same scene, and it is hardly a disappointment to see both men's work.