This sort of distribution of artistic labor was not new to the 19th century by any means. Guilds dictating the strict observance of a painting’s preparation—making the canvas or preparing the wood, gathering the ingredients for making colors, making the colors, and so on—stretches back at least 600 years.
I’m wondering about this because of an illustration that I
found of extremely uneven accomplishment.
It occurs in Quintus Curtius Rufus
The Life of Alexander the Great (“translated by several Gentlemen in the University of Cambridge
Of course there’s no real portrait of Alexander, though his “likeness” appears on coins from that period. But the face in the engraving just doesn’t match up to the quality of the rest of the image. The horse is a little nicer than standard for the period, and there’s a fair amount of detail in the background.
The face of the great
Alexander though is pretty bad, drawn in almost as an afterthought even though
he is the subject of the book. Maybe the
engraving’s elements were divided and distributed in the workshop to, say
someone good at horses doing the horse, another good at executing armor doing
that, and so on, until someone realized that no one was there to engrave the
face. And so perhaps it came to pass that Alex received this cheeky/jowly face with a single-muscled skinny neck. (I notice that none of the riders in the background have faces.) Maybe there was only one artist, and they just got tired or figured this face was good enough, and moved on to the next project; perhaps there was just one engraver who was late for dinner and did a too-fast job on the face. And maybe the face was just good enough, no matter who did or or how many people worked on it. I've seen this sort of uneven effort, this missing detail in a detailed work, many times over the years, and I've always wondered what the story was. And I guess I always will.