So, Old Master art prints are iconography: Renaissance memes you can buy for less than $100. I’m game, but how faithful to the original work are they as reproductions? Actually, they can be pretty amazing. However… caveat emptor.
A copy of a method
We’re so used to the reproduction, to imaging, that we hardly think of this. But… Old Master art prints are not reproductions of paintings — they are reproductions of imagings of the paintings. Data files. Mostly photographs. The print you might buy is second-generation. Between it and the original are methods, processes, devices.
A Tibetan thangka on your meditation room wall, unless it is an original, is no different. It’s from an image of the art, a photo for example. Or from digital data — i.e. an electronic file, though there are other methods, traditional printmaking transfers and so on.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because, if data or information does not exist in the images or the data, it is not going to appear in anything derived from them. If data in a photo is flawed, it will be false in any reproduction of it. The devil is in the detail. Static/noise/distortion/blurred data are the norm.
The original painting hung in a room where the light came from a source. Often from multiple sources. Lights from multiple directions eliminate shadows, glare, and also details can be obscured. All this adds to the complexity.
The texture is part of the art
The pixel density a.k.a. detail of Old Master art prints has grown dramatically. Wikipedia’s picture of the Concert Champêtre, or the Pastoral Concert by Giorgione (or Titian, take your pick — they’re arguing about it — original in the Louvre, Paris) is 21,170 x 16851, or 357 million pixels.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) now has been reproduced with over 44 gigapixels (billions). They used neural networks to fuse countless smaller images to build up a picture to a density beyond the capacity of any single camera.
But at this level of detail, the surface texture becomes an issue. At that scale, you can see light glaring from ridges of paint, negating the color, thus creating junk data in the image.
Also, those “ridges of paint,” the textures, are part of the artwork. There is no single perspective that is authoritative for reproduction.
The point is any Old Master print will be an amalgam of data and noise. If you take a photo of your automobile in sunlight, it will have a flash of glare. That bright area is not part of the car – it is part of the angle of view, the nature of reflected light. Lux ferens.
It’s all software these days
Finally, and most obviously: there are many software, algorithm-based methods to adjust values in digital images. Watch out for images that have been too recalibrated with software methods. Reduced glare, increased gamma, and so on. Algorithms modify the image — not always for the better.
Painted copies — quality works of art in their own right (see the work linked below) — can be the way to go. You are dealing with a “new original.” Be choosy of what you hang in your cave. And good luck!
1 – links to a book on Venetian painting, Bellini, Titian, Giorgione
2 – an original painting, copy of a famous Pierre-Auguste Cot
3 – an artful Egyptian-themed tarot deck from Lo Scarabeo