Like the boot room in Anfield or the offbeat Detroit home that has become Motown Records’ hit factory, the artist’s studio is where the magic happens. But the strange alchemy that transforms the branding into a fascinating work of art is only half of that. Sometimes there’s sex in the studio, too. Dutch heyday painter Gerard de Lairesse hired two sisters as models in his hometown of Liège, but made him a runner in 1664 after locals discovered he was having an affair with not one but both. And in the absence of sex, the studio could witness the frantic infatuation of an artist like Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. She ordered a life-size doll modeled after her ex, Anna Mahler, and made more than 80 paintings, drawings, and photographs in her study.
Violence and death can also happen in the studio. After sculptor Bernini learned that Luigi was sleeping with his mistress, he swung a crowbar at his brother Luigi’s work at St Peter’s in Rome and broke several ribs. The early art historian Vasari wrote of Michelangelo, “He was constantly swimming in dead bodies to study the secrets of anatomy.” At least 30 cadavers survived.
Retouching his canvases at night, Goya stumbled upon his studio with extinguished candles tied to a stiff top hat.
According to art historian James Hall’s account, some artists would stand in sawdust baskets to keep their feet warm. In the words of an 18th-century chronicler, they should ignore “the odors of paint and oil that make painters’ workrooms smell like communal toilets.” Spanish master Goya, who was retouching his canvases at night, stumbled across his dreary studio with smoking candles attached to a stiff top hat, posing a risk to himself and his entire household. No, the apron and beret artist calmly directs his vision over the easel, not typical.
One of the few who succeeded was the soft-spoken Peter Paul Rubens, a diplomat as well as a distinguished figure of Flemish baroque. It has multitasked beyond the dreams of any management how-to guide. In 1621, the Danish king’s doctor called the great man’s studio in Antwerp and found that “the master was working on a canvas while listening to Tacitus and dictating a letter at the same time.”
The studio wasn’t always a safe place for a female artist. Pioneer Artemisia Gentileschi grew up in Rome as the daughter of a painter, and the family home served as her father’s workshop, with a steady traffic of models, coworkers, and buyers. She was the scene in 1611 when she was raped by an artist friend at the age of 17. In one of his most famous works, in a dynamic and assertive self-portrait as an allegory of painting, “his workshop is cell-like and windowless, but crosses a Caesarian cultural Rubicon”, says Hall.
For my money, the biggest studios in British art were owned by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Besides their friendship, one of the things the couple had in common was spelling at an English boarding house, which probably explains a lot. Black-and-white footage shows Bacon lingering in a studio dump like a talking hoarder from behind a scrap yard. Once upon a time, the nanny shared this space, sleeping on a table with her fully grown responsibility after a hard day’s shoplifting, as if in a wildly reimagined version of the Jacob Rees-Mogg story. Freud’s workshop in Notting Hill looks like a ship’s deck converted into a makeshift field hospital, with its rolling bare boards, blobs of paint on its walls, and piles of off-white rags.
The Artist’s Studio explains how the cockpit of sensuality, crime and virtuosity is creating innovations in how art is made and by whom. According to you, me, and the real estate agent, a studio is the most cramped accommodation, but according to Hall’s extensive and highly entertaining research, there are many mansions.
• Published by The Artist’s Studio by James Hall, Thames & Hudson (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.