A Brief History of the Artist’s Studio

It was 2 a.m. when the skies of Paris opened over Claude Lantier. Dashing through the rain, the gifted but impatient painter arrived at his studio facing the river Seine to discover a young woman seeking shelter from the storm. After weathering the downpour inside—she on the bed, he on the couch—Claude awoke to find the woman asleep, covered in little else but sunlight. Inspired, the artist began to sketch his unconsenting model, quietly, attentively, until she woke herself and discovered him in the act.

So begins the 1886 novel The Masterpiece by Émile Zola, a fictional portrait of a tortured Impressionist painter. Drawing on the bohemian trappings of 19th-century Paris, the lives of a number of French artists, and male fantasies that entwine creative talent with sex and power, Zola’s text offers what is now a stereotypical vision of the artist’s studio as the locus of creativity—one that persists (if to a lesser degree) today. So why does the artist’s studio still hold such magnetism, and what can we learn from studying an artist’s workspace?

The studio of Paul Cézanne, one of the most influential painters in history and a primary source for the fictitious Claude Lantier, is still preserved today. Nestled on a hill in the South of France, with an airy view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the studio is maintained by the government of Aix-en-Provence, with scores of the artist’s accoutrements on display. And Cézanne’s is just one in the constellation of studios that welcomes visitors each year. Other noteworthy examples are the distinctive “Blue House” of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City; the “Villa des Brillants,” which served as the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s studio and home on the outskirts of Paris; the recently opened Manhattan home of Louise Bourgeois; and the evolving performance and installation manifested in conceptual artist David Ireland’s house at 500 Capp Street in San Francisco.

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