Art history is filled with accounts of the lives, working practices, trials and tribulations of artists as well as their working methods (of course) and, sometimes, business practices. What has been missing, however, is a consideration of their workplaces – how these were arranged, how they developed and their influence – perceived and actual – on the work produced.
This may sound esoteric, perhaps even a niche looking for a statue, but think of today’s concentration on ergonomics and, with lockdowns and working from home, how to set up a workspace that is practical, congenial and stress-limiting.
Working alone, an artist needs relatively little – a space to themselves, materials and light. Even that, though, in early times was hard to come by, and personal space a luxury. However, as art became a business, space needed to be set aside to receive and impress clients; assistants required training. As early as the Fourteenth Century, Cennino Cennini was laying out how long an apprentice should spend working with a stylus before picking up a brush, how many times a day an artist should eat, the benefits of not rushing the grinding of pigments and the value of having a massage the day before starting an important work.
All this is about a lot more than just spaces and exemplifies the huge scope of James Hall’s book. It is also about a lot more than simply the processes of creating art and is, in reality, a comprehensive social history centred on art, from which it radiates out through science, architecture and politics. The availability, use and control of light, for instance, enables the development of the Old Master works as the environments in which they were created came to be a thing to be controlled rather than battled – because of, rather than in spite of.
The word “atelier” is used a lot in art history and describes what are effectively business premises with large teams working on commissions, the Great Man’s involvements depending entirely on the price paid. Despite this, “studio of” works can be of considerable quality and are not always easy to attribute away from the hand of the named artist themselves. Quality control was an important element of the system.
And then, of course, there’s plein air work, where the elements of the studio have to be recreated outdoors – Hall references Claude Monet’s boat that combined perhaps the best of both worlds.
This is a comprehensive account of much more than the practice of art and demonstrates how artists have influenced, as well as been affected by, their working spaces from the earliest time.
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