As I’m busy for the next few months and don’t really have time to write anything new, I’m going to do what I did last term- do posts adapted from lectures on the term’s theme. This term it’s the topic of the Artist’s Studio, a course I developed after attending an exhibition in 2009. I’ve used Giles Waterfield’s book on the subject to create a framework for the lectures- I’ll be interweaving my own thoughts and ideas within this.
Some key ideas that Waterfield says should be kept in mind are the following. “How have artists’ studios been seen by the artists who occupy them, and by other artists, and by their publics, over the past four hundred years? What are the myths that have developed around this type of space? Do certain ideas, or motifs, characterise depictions of the artist’s studio? And can types of studios be arranged into valid categories? These are some of the issues that this book, and the exhibition that inspired it, attempt to illuminate, using examples primarily taken from the British tradition.” (The Artist’s Studio, 1).
If we start in the renaissance period we can immediately see a variety of contexts for the idea of the studio. Studio comes from studiolo, meaning a room for contemplation, like a study. This differs from the renaissance workshop or bottega. Although these two rooms would have different functions, they could be in the same building. Waterfield gives the example of Tintoretto who would have worked and supervised painting operations in his bottega, but he would have had a studiolo in which he could quietly ponder ideas for his paintings, or even attend to business matters there. Already we see here a division emerging that might be characterised as a split based on the mind/body dichotomy. The private room could be likened to the mind; by contrast, the busy workshop would be analogous to the outward body, visible and busily functioning. We can also see division occurring between the idea of contemplation and that of acting, although that is to simplify. An artist like Raphael could be working in his own industrious bottega, but that would not stop him from contemplating the art he was working on amidst the din and distractions. His studiolo was in his head.
The image of the artist in their studio constitutes a genre in itself, but where did it originate? There are not many examples of the painter at work in their studio in the renaissance period; artists would not have felt the need to represent themselves at work in their studio, especially as there wouldn’t have been a market for it. The “studio” appears in the very composition itself with its draperies and figures suggesting drawing and modelling respectively. The odd representations of the artist in their studio don’t throw much light on it as an idea in the renaissance. In this engraving of young Raphael in a corner of his studio, we have a portrait of the man, not an image of how he worked, even though he is placed next to artistic tools. It is only in later periods that Raphael, Michelangelo and other renaissance artists are shown in a studio situation, as in Delacroix’s painting of the latter, made about 1849-50.
After the renaissance, images of the artist in their studio become more common, especially in the Netherlands. Here, where matter-of-fact realism conditioned life, we see the space of the artist’s studio becoming more recognisable as a real space. Rembrandt is, of course, the main exponent. In this early painting (about 1628) in Boston, we see him staring intently at a canvas he has either painted, or is contemplating putting brush to. Behind the young painter are jars containing pigment and oil for binding; on the wall hangs a palette that he may eventually use, assuming that he has not started painting. This painting is also a self-portrait, and it was via this genre that the artist’s studio became more visible, both explicitly and by implication. In a later self-portrait at Kenwood House Rembrandt shows himself before an easel which we assume was in his own studio. This may be true, but the studio is also “present” as an abstraction: the circles on the easel probably refer to the theory behind the practical side of painting. This theoretical representation of the studio can be contrasted with a magnificent painting (c.1660) by C. N. Gijsbrechts who shows us items in a studio such as a skull, the peeled stretcher of a canvas, a little miniature- possibly the artist’s wife- and other details such as his oozing palette and brushes stacked up against a ledge. These and the back of the painting obviously confirm it as a representation of the artist’s studio, but the skull, which must be a prop too, places it in the tradition of the vanitas- a meditation on the transience of life, and in the case of this image, the mutability of art too.
Sometimes we do not even see the artist at all, or the artist does not make it obvious he is the craftsman making pictures in his studio. An image of the 18th century academic painter Henry Fuseli’s studio is captured by an anonymous artist of the British school. He does not show Fuseli at work, but the watercolour shows the paraphernalia of painting: cheval glass (for self-portraits), palette, pigments and a large figurative painting on an easel. We could consider this image as a snapshot of a studio observed by an almost detached eye; we could equally see it as the artist viewing his own workspace from a distant point. Commenting on this watercolour, Wakefield says that the work plays with themes of presence and absence. We see a similar idea in an etching made in 1825 to illustrate a Guide for Young Artists, by the 19th century watercolourist David Cox. Cox shows us a very large palette with brushes- he is said to have used a large Swan’s Quill brush-sketches in various media, such as graphite, pen and wash, in the manner of Claude Lorrain. This corner of the artist's studio is “populated” by examples of the art that Cox studied and produced: Claude like classical scene, marines and seascapes in the Dutch style, watercolours that the artist executed on his many painting tours in England, Wales and abroad. Cox himself is not present. Instead, we get the impression that he has stepped out to have a quiet smoke, a habit of his while sketching. Notice also how in his instance the studio overlaps with the exhibition space, a theme I’ll return to in a later lecture.