Home stu­dios pro­vide glimpse into artists’ lives

Times Colonist - - Travel - RICK STEVES Eu­rope Rick Steves (rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at rick@rick­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

As a trav­eller, I find my­self vis­it­ing the homes of lots of dead peo­ple. Some are over the top (Louis XIV's Ver­sailles near Paris); some are haunt­ing (the Anne Frank House in Am­s­ter­dam); oth­ers in­spire po­etic re­flec­tion (Wil­liam Wordsworth’s Dove Cot­tage in Eng­land’s Lake Dis­trict).

Many of my favourites are the home stu­dios of artists — painters, sculp­tors, writ­ers, ar­chi­tects, com­posers. There’s some­thing about th­ese spe­cial places that con­jures the strange magic of creative work. Luck­ily for trav­ellers, many have be­come mu­se­ums that wel­come vis­i­tors.

Per­haps the most high pro­file of Eu­rope’s home stu­dios is Claude Monet’s. The spir­i­tual fa­ther of Im­pres­sion­ism, Monet spent 40 years cul­ti­vat­ing his gar­den and art at Giverny, 90 kilo­me­tres north­west of Paris.

Monet’s ac­tual sky­lighted stu­dio is now a gift shop, but the artist’s real workspace was his five-acre gar­den. A mas­ter of colour, Monet treated his gar­den like a can­vas, choos­ing and plant­ing his pe­onies, irises, and laven­der bushes for max­i­mum ef­fect. In turn, the flower beds in­spired some of his most iconic art­works. He of­ten painted en plein air — out­side — some­times on a foot­bridge that over­looked a Ja­panese-style pond choked with his pre­cious wa­ter lilies. Strolling the path­ways here is like wit­ness­ing an Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing come to life.

The con­cept of the artist’s stu­dio got its start in the Re­nais­sance, when es­tab­lished mas­ters main­tained art work­shops and taught ap­pren­tices. When Florence’s city fa­thers started build­ing a new cathe­dral in the late 1200s, they founded the Opera del Duomo (Cathe­dral Work­shop), where the sculp­tures for the church and its bell tower were crafted (opera is the Ital­ian word for “work”).

Over time, the typ­i­cal stu­dio be­came less a com­mu­nal work­shop and more a place of solo in­dus­try and re­flec­tion. Nor­way’s great­est com­poser, Ed­vard Grieg, main­tained just such a clas­sic artist’s re­treat. He spent his last 22 sum­mers, un­til 1907, at the Vic­to­rian-style home he called Trold­hau­gen, just out­side Ber­gen. Quiet, lush and se­cluded, the dreamy set­ting was ideal for soak­ing up in­spi­ra­tional fjord beauty.

But the house was of­ten burst­ing with fam­ily and friends. To es­cape the hub­bub, Grieg built a sim­ple, one-room stu­dio at the wa­ter’s edge, and ev­ery day he’d lock him­self in­side to be sure he’d get some­thing done. The cabin had ev­ery­thing he needed and no more: an up­right pi­ano, a desk over­look­ing the wa­ter and a couch for naps. Gaz­ing at his rus­tic desk, his lit­tle pi­ano and the dra­matic fjord scenery out the win­dow, you can un­der­stand how Grieg’s mu­sic so pow­er­fully evokes the nat­u­ral won­der of Nor­way.

Artists from as far back as the Baroque era fig­ured out that the stu­dio could dou­ble as a sales room. When Rem­brandt’s ca­reer took off in Golden Age Am­s­ter­dam, the great Dutch pain­ter moved to an ex­pen­sive home with a well­lighted stu­dio. He would paint his fa­mous Night Watch here, among many other mas­ter­pieces.

The artist lined the walls floor-to-ceil­ing with his paint­ings, then in­vited po­ten­tial pa­trons in to browse. Open­ing up the stu­dio turned out to be good for busi­ness, so much so that Rem­brandt also had a small of­fice to keep up with his pa­per­work. (He wasn’t ter­ri­bly good at it, and even­tu­ally went bank­rupt.) If you visit his re­con­structed house, you can see how he used its rooms to dis­play art to buy­ers.

Per­haps the most un­usual home stu­dio I’ve toured is Sal­vador Dali’s place near Cadaqués, Spain (an easy day trip from Barcelona). As a kid, Dalí spent sum­mers in this sleepy port town, and the ec­cen­tric artist came back years later with his wife, Gala. To­gether, they built a labyrinthine com­pound that climbs up a hill over­look­ing the Mediter­ranean.

Like Dali’s art, his home is off­beat, provoca­tive and fun. The ec­cen­tric am­bi­ence, in­side and out, was per­fect for a Sur­re­al­ist hang­ing out with his creative play­mate and muse. This place, and his part­ner­ship with Gala, be­came so im­por­tant to Dalí that when she died in 1982, he moved away and never re­turned (he died in 1989).

Whether you’re in­dulging in a fan­tasy in Dalí-land or float­ing serenely above Monet’s wa­ter lilies, a trip to an artist’s home stu­dio can be a high­light of any trip to Eu­rope.


Com­poser Ed­vard Grieg re­treated daily to this pic­ture-per­fect stu­dio on a Nor­we­gian fjord, just out­side Ber­gen.

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