Art in Exile: The Art of Covers


A number of years ago I heard Mary Chapin Carpenter cover Bruce Springsteen’s Dancin’ in the Dark, and it was a revelation. She took that hook-laden pop song from the 80’s and stripped it down to melody and lyric, and it was enough to make you weep. Covering someone’s song is a high compliment. Springsteen covered Dylan. Coldplay covered Paul Simon. James Taylor covered Joni Mitchell. Everyone in the world still covers Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Covers are how one artist says to another, “Your work shaped mine.” This Art in Exile is devoted to visual artists covering the work of other visual artists. 

Dali, The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955

Vincent van Gogh painted The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) in 1890, the year he died. Only 41 years separate his painting from Delacroix’s original. To put that in context for 2020, that would be like covering a work from 1979. In a letter, Vincent wrote, “artists perpetuate themselves, passing on the torch, Delacroix to the Impressionists, etc.” Delacroix was a contemporary legend to many impressionists, as Dylan is to songwriters today. He was often imitated.

Van Gogh, The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), 1890
Eugene Delacroix, The Good Samaritan, 1849

Édouard Manet borrows from Titian’s Jesus Crowned with Thorns 300 years later for his Jesus Mocked by Soldiers, done in 1865. Titian belonged in the exclusive company of masters like DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. Manet was criticized for not idealizing Jesus in his version. In his painting, Jesus looks weak and the guards look unimpressed. Manet wanted to focus on Jesus’ humanity.

Manet Jesus Mocked By Soldiers (After Titian), 1865
Titian, Jesus Crowned with Thorns, 1573

One of Norman Rockwell’s heroes was just a few years older—J.C. Leyendecker, the premiere cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920’s and 30’s. See the parallels between Leyendecker’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post cover Yuletide and Rockwell’s 1936 Saturday Evening Post cover Merrie Christmas, done just three years later. Though Leyendecker was not as well known, Rockwell longed to stand in the foothills of his greatness. People who know Rockwell said he even imitated how Leyendecker walked.

J.C. Leyendecker, Yuletide, 1933
Rockwell, Merrie Christmas, 1936

Jean-François Millet was one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France, which pushed for realistic composition over Romanticism, and emphasized wealth, individualism, and idealized bygone eras. Millet inspired Vincent van Gogh, who painted 21 “translations” of Millet’s works, all of which were done during van Gogh’s stay in an asylum only months before his death. Vincent desperately wanted for himself what this scene shows. 

Millet, First Steps, 1858
Van Gogh, First Steps, After Millet, 1890

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, completed in 1642, is a masterpiece. A key distinctive of Rembrandt’s work is his “chiaroscuro,” the dramatic contrast between light and dark. It focuses the eye and leads the viewer through the painting in a certain sequence. Rembrandt was inspired by Caravaggio, who came a generation earlier. Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, seen in his masterwork The Calling of St. Matthew, completed in 1600. I bet mastering chiaroscuro must have led to many false starts for both artists. 

Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1600

In Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazarus etching from 1632, Jesus looks commanding, the crowd looks afraid, and Mary and Martha (lower right) look astonished. Lazarus appears recently dead. Here is a great example of Rembrandt’s ability to tell a story in a single frame. Vincent van Gogh covered Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazarus in 1890. As Rembrandt borrowed from Caravaggio, van Gogh borrowed from Rembrandt. Here he lifts from Rembrandt’s work only Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, giving his composition a much more focused and intimate scene.

Rembrandt, Raising of Lazarus, 1632
Van Gogh, Raising of Lazarus, After Rembrandt, 1890

Is anyone without influence? We all draw from others. There are no truly original ideas. None of the artists we’ve looked at here merely copied others. They took inspiration, reinterpreted, and tried to get inside the masterworks they were so personally drawn to themselves. When we stand in the presence of others’ greatness, we learn and find our own voice. So borrow freely. Attribute always. Imitation is praise.

Classic works of art modernized, Madonna and Child on the Metro

Russ Ramsey
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process. Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

One Response to “Art in Exile: The Art of Covers

  • Loving these Russ. Thanks for drawing our attention to works that require pause in such a distracting season!

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