The Lone Genius: R.I.P.

In medieval and rennaissance Europe, artworks were generated in highly collaborative work environments known as “studios.” Twelve assistants worked with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling; Raphael, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt-all of them had full-time assistants, many of whom imitated the master’s style (often making attribution quite difficult).

Only in the 19th century did artists begin to work alone. There are many reasons, but two basic causes were: first, cultural beliefs about artists changed, as a result of Romantic era philosophy; and second, the industrial revolution made the work of painting much easier, with the development of paint in metal tubes (you no longer have to mix your own paints) and mass-produced brushes (you no longer have to make your own).

The Wall Street Journal of June 3, 2011 reports that many contemporary artists use an equally collaborative studio system. The article (by Stan Stesser) reports that Jeff Koons has 150 people on his payroll and readily admits that he never paints himself. A long list of expensive, widely collected artists are named in the article; apparently, it is not a secret that the “artist” doesn’t actually execute the work himself. There’s no misreprentation here; gallery owners and dealers tell potential buyers the actual story, and buyers still collect the works.

The earliest return to a collaborative studio model was probably Andy Warhol in the 1960s, who called his studio “The Factory” and famously said “I want to be a machine.” So the “lone genius” model of the painter has been fading for several decades already. In the greater scheme of history, the Romantic era belief that the painter was an inspired solitary genius has been a small blip: slightly over 100 years. Painter as lone genius: Rest In Peace.

2 thoughts on “The Lone Genius: R.I.P.

  1. definitely agree Keith

    lone writer
    lone architect
    lone inventor
    lone musical composer
    lone singer
    lone dancer…..
    lone scientist
    Walt Disney, Tom Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg….lone genius has generally been a myth for many years, decades, centuries

    all of these have mostly been myths for many years.

    totally alone HIGHLY CREATIVE PERSON (too often mislabled as a LONE ARTIST)

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