‘One of the most passionate and convinced copyists of his time’, as one scholar has noted, Edgar Degas spent much of the early years of his career engaged in a serious study of Renaissance art, resulting in a significant number of drawn and painted copies by the artist. He first registered as a copyist at the Louvre in April 1853, and soon began making drawings after Old Master paintings in the museum’s collection, with a particular emphasis on Italian art of the 15th and early 16th centuries. This was a task in which he was also encouraged by his father. In a letter of January 1859, written to his son in Florence, Auguste De Gas advised the young artist that ‘the masters of the fifteenth century are the only true guides; once they have thoroughly made their mark and inspired a painter unceasingly to perfect his study of nature, results are assured.’ On his return to Paris, Degas carried on copying works of art in the Louvre, and in fact continued to register as a copyist in the museum until 1862. Among the Quattrocento and Cinquecento paintings copied by the young Degas were works by Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Filippino Lippi, Mantegna, Lorenzo di Credi, Vittore Carpaccio, Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Perugino, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian and many others. As the artist himself said, ‘One must copy and recopy the masters, and only after having given every proof of being a good copyist can one reasonably be expected to paint a radish from nature.’
This recently rediscovered drawing is a copy after the head of the Virgin in a panel painting of The Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria by the Umbrian artist Pietro Perugino (c.1450-1523) in the Louvre. Painted around 1493, at the height of the Perugino’s career, this small devotional picture was acquired by the Louvre in 1821. The present sheet is typical of Degas’ copies after Renaissance masters, and his own particular interest in individual studies of heads and figures, isolated from a more crowded composition.