A stroke of genius: Meet the copyists recreating the Louvre's masterpieces

The art of copying at the Louvre
The art of copying at the Louvre


    The art of copying at the Louvre


The art of copying at the Louvre 03:44

Story highlights

  • Who are the Louvre's copyists and why do they do it?
  • Since 1700s, artists have copied the gallery's masterpieces
  • Famous copyists included Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne
  • Today, just 150 copyists allowed, one year waiting list

Sigrid Avrillier might be a 65-year-old woman living in Paris, but for four hours each day she is transformed into the legendary Renaissance painter, Peter Paul Rubens.

You wouldn't know it to look at her -- a former physics teacher with mousey brown hair and a cheeky gap-toothed smile. But over the last few months Avrillier has come to know Rubens intimately, recreating his every brush stroke, his every color choice.

"I live with him," she says. "I become him."

Behind the scenes of the Louvre
Behind the scenes of the Louvre


    Behind the scenes of the Louvre


Behind the scenes of the Louvre 03:32
Restoring the Mona Lisa
Restoring the Mona Lisa


    Restoring the Mona Lisa


Restoring the Mona Lisa 02:56
CNN goes inside Paris' Louvre Museum
CNN goes inside Paris' Louvre Museum


    CNN goes inside Paris' Louvre Museum


CNN goes inside Paris' Louvre Museum 03:08

Avrillier is a copyist. And if you wander around the grand rooms of Paris' Louvre gallery, you'll see dozens of people just like her with their easels pitched in front of a masterpiece, paintbrush at the ready.

Curious children scamper up to them, doing a double-take between the painting on the wall and the version being created before their eyes: "What are you doing?" they ask.

The copyists are recreating some of the most famous paintings in the world, in a remarkable tradition dating back to when the museum first opened in 1793.

Read: Mona Lisa -- The theft that created a legend

Grand tradition

It's a tradition that continues today -- albeit it, in a far more regimented fashion. Just 150 copyists are allowed in the Louvre, with a one-year waiting list for the privilege.

Each canvas is signed, dated, and stamped three times before even a drop of paint hits it. And even then, it must not be the same size as the original or include the artist's signature.

Five-days-a-week, from 9.30am to 1.30pm, copyists stream into the most popular museum on the planet, using one of the easels and stools provided.

There is one easel however, which never leaves the office -- the very same one renowned post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne used 150 years ago.

Mastering the masters

Indeed, Cezanne, who would often copy the great masters, once famously said: "The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read."

He wasn't alone. Pablo Picasso also painted a fantastical version of Eugene Delacroix's "Women of Algiers."

"That bastard," Picasso reportedly said of Delacroix. "He's really good!"

Read: Europe's greatest museum treasures

So why do these artists -- ranging from professionals painters, to students, and retirees -- spend painstaking hours perfecting what has arguably already been perfected?

"You spend so much time in front of this painting, that little by little you understand what's in it -- how he did it, the people in it, the historical context," explained Avrillier, who has completed five paintings from the Louvre, over four years.

"You find the right brush, the right colors, the right movement in your hand. You feel very close to them."

Curious copyists

Of course, not everyone saw copyists in quite the same light. "Poor ridiculous folk, picking up the crumbs and alms of art at the feet of the Gods," said the New York Times in 1887.

Today, many museum visitors appear baffled or intrigued to see the artists quietly working among the crowds, and children will often be the first to poke their head in.

"The children, they can't believe it," said Avrillier, who sometimes gives the youngsters a paint brush of their own. "If you go into a museum and see paintings on the wall, you think you will never be able to do it. I say: 'But you can.'

"Anyway, we are doing copies, we are not trying to say it's a new Raphael," she added.

It's a date?

But the Louvre isn't just a giant studio for these artists -- it's also a potential meeting place for single copyists. Or at least, that's how 19th century French art critic and novelist Champfleury -- otherwise known as Jules-François-Félix Husson -- reportedly saw it.

"Copy a painting next to hers, then ask to borrow some cadmium or cobalt. Then correct the odious mess of colors she calls a painting (they're always glad to get advice) and talk about the Old Masters until the Louvre closes and you have to continue the conversation in the street. Improvise the rest," was supposedly his advice for meeting like-minded ladies.

Read: Discover the world's most visited paintings

For Avrillier, love at the Louvre comes in a very different form -- her own paintings.

The last picture she completed, a one-mete- tall copy of Correggio's 16th century "Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine," now sits proudly in her house. In fact, she can't bear to be apart from it.

"I love this painting so much, I put it in the room where I am," she says. Does that include moving it to her bedroom at night? "Yes!" she says.

      Inside the Louvre

    •  A visitor walks past artworks at the Louvre-Lens museum in Lens during the latest exhibition on May 17, 2013. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY CREDIT OF THE ARTIST, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION - AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

      Can art save this mining town?

      Henri Wosniak had only ever seen France's beloved painting -- "Liberty Leading the People" -- on postage stamps. Then the real thing turned up on his doorstep.
    • Liberty leading the people

      Your favorite Louvre artworks

      As part of CNN's special series "Inside the Louvre," we asked you to share your favorite artwork via the hashtag #LouvreFavorite.
    • PARIS, FRANCE: (FILES) - View dated 16 November 2004 of the Appolo gallery at the Louvre museum in Paris. Created to glorify king Louis XIV, some 350 years ago, the gallery reopens to the public 27 November 2004 following three years of renovation. AFP PHOTO JOEL ROBINE (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)

      Louvre director goes undercover

      It's the height of summer in Paris, and the director of the most famous art museum in the world is queuing like any other tourist.
    • spc inside louvre mona lisa restoration_00003201.jpg

      Restoring the Mona Lisa

      CNN's Nick Glass explores whether or not Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting should be cleaned.
    • Gangs of pickpockets have been targeting staff and visitors at the Louvre, museum staff say.

      Most popular museum on the planet

      The Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world. CNN takes a closer look at one of the most important cultural institutions of our time.
    • spc inside louvre behind the scenes glass pkg_00013029.jpg

      Behind the scenes of the Louvre

      CNN host Nick Glass takes a backstage tour of the Louvre looking at the maintenance and upkeep necessary at the world famous museum.