The House of Art

Modern Residences of Artists as the Subject and Space of Creation

by Andrzej Pieńkos (Author)
©2016 Monographs 412 Pages


The term «house of art» designates the cultural phenomenon and creative mode in modernity associated with an artist’s residence as his own creation and as his product of a need to create which is unfulfilled in the painter’s, writer’s or composer’s actual field. This book discusses the most important of these creations from the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, including gardens as well as the artist’s space, broadly understood, annexed by his imagination. An artist’s shaping of his own residence was most commonly a secondary area of his creative work. The formula for a «house of art» is specific to the particular artist and does not have to fit within any given architectural or decorative style. It may conform to the traditions of a residence (artist’s palace, cottage etc), but most often it forms an individual case.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The “artist’s house”. The rise and twilight of the concept
  • Chapter 2: “It is a world that came to me”. The cave of making and its aura after the Romantic breakthrough
  • Chapter 3: The palace of a prince of artists. An attempt at a typology
  • Chapter 4: “A poem of a house”: a Romantic masterpiece?
  • Chapter 5: The creator’s territory. An attempt at a total work (of art?)
  • Chapter 6: A museum, a mausoleum, a reliquary of art, a temple of the artist
  • Chapter 7: A temple of art and artificiality
  • Chapter 8: Life amidst nature as creation. An artist’s cottage
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Illustrations

← 6 | 7 →


A room with its walls papered with sheets of newsprint may seem extravagant enough to be a creator’s abode. This is exactly the way Dorothy Wordsworth papered the walls of Dove Cottage, one of the best-known houses of a writer in Europe. She achieved a most original, well-nigh uncanny1 interior, even though the reason for this manifestation of her creativeness was practical: her aim was to provide the room with some insulation, as the inhabitants of this stone cottage suffered much in the harsh climate of the Lake District (Fig. 1). Although, naturally, this “designer” gesture belongs to neither the history of literature nor of architecture, it embodies the entire ambivalence of the phenomenon that is the focus of this study. Jotting down notes, sketching ideas for paintings or even writing artistic manifestoes upon the walls of one’s own residence, as well as incorporating one’s works or a part of a collection into it are the elements of an artist’s perception of “being at home”. From the 18th century onwards, such a manner of conduct seems to grow more frequent and more pronounced. The artist’s act of arranging his living space, similarly to arranging the garden attached to his house, acquires a definite cultural weight. The latter may include organising a sophisticated open-air workspace (for instance, installing a revolving platform) or developing the final connection between the artist and his abode by arranging his grave beside or even inside the house.

Hans-Peter Schwarz defines an artist’s house as one designed and/or decorated personally by the artist in the manner reflecting his or her interests, social aspirations and aesthetic taste.2 The current book, however, deals with creators’ residences understood differently, perhaps more broadly, than they have been interpreted in the above definition. The first Polish-language version of this book was written in the last few years of the 20th century and was published in Warsaw in 2005.3 It was initially conceived as a history of apartments and ateliers of 18th- and 19th-century artists. As work progressed, my research interests expanded to include artists’ gardens, and finally the even more broadly understood places of ← 7 | 8 → creativity that maintain an unclear relationship to this creativity. Into this space – his atelier or the house of his creativity – the artist may annex places and objects that are imagined, as well as ones that do exist in reality, but do not constitute a part of his property. These may be transformed by the artist’s hand, like pieces of furniture, walls or the garden, but they may also be, like a view, no more than “touched with the imagination” and endowed with a character by the artist’s imprint, the very act of imprinting being usually identified at present as “modern”. Yet, from a methodological point of view, to consider those places where the artist’s intervention was of a more spiritual than real nature would be, ultimately, nonsensical: it would probably necessitate the inclusion of a given artist’s every place of abode, and possibly even the places of his temporary sojourns, as well as their environs. I have also researched various modern places of creativity, such as the location for en plein air work, an atelier and a café frequented by a group of artists which was perceived as a venue for art-related discussions; finally, however, even though they, too, were the topic of artists’ individual or collective reworking, they were left outside the scope of the current book. This is because the “house” in the book’s title is perceived, even if only intuitively, as a place distinguished by the individual person’s strong bond to it.

The subject of research is thus the residence of a creator, interpreted as a territory for both living and creating art, itself often subject to creative practices; thus, a territory that undergoes various forms of shaping and creative development.4 Shaping the residence is a separate sphere of creativity, usually (although sometimes only seemingly) a substitute or marginal one. Hence, in general and with a few exceptions, architects’ own houses have been excluded from the scope of the research, especially with respect to the modern era as a period of increased professional specialisation. This is because such a house can most often be seen as a work that functions within the “ordinary” order of its architect’s creative actions, even if it occupies a special place within their range. A different motive prompted the exclusion, again with a few exceptions, of collectors’ creativity from the scope of the current explorations, even though their creativity was always present on their blurred boundary. Even though, especially after the Romanticism, ← 8 | 9 → this creativity may have taken on the form of establishing a “house of art”,5 such collectors as Alexandre Du Sommerard, the Jacquemart-Andrés, John Bowes or the outstanding Polish aristocrat-collector Tytus Działyński remain outside the range of the main text as creators who did not professionally pursue any “official” form of art.

In a letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh expressed his aim very tellingly: “I have my own plan. I want to make it really an artists’ house – not precious, on the contrary nothing precious, but everything from the chairs to the pictures having character”.6 The houses of artists seem to constitute an example of a variously manifested creative compulsion, an urge that transcends a writer’s writing, a composer’s composing or a painter’s painting. The “house of art” (which in itself, as far as terminology is concerned, is an unclear, vague denotation that does not aspire to the status of a term) will then be a product of that compulsion when it is unsatisfied in the given artist’s “proper” field. Its formula is produced and developed by the creator himself, and does not necessarily have to assume an architectural or decorative form; it may constitute a part of the tradition of other artistic abodes (an artist’s palace, a chalet), but most often it is an exception, an individual case. However, this personal nature of the residence, the creator’s stamp on it, is less crucial to the current study, even though this reflection of the artist’s personality is precisely what was customarily sought in a work of art.

“My attention is focused primarily on the connotation field related to a sui generis autonomy, intentionally defined by artists in the area of their ‘home’”, writes Elżbieta Grabska. “I attempt to deal with this area, marked by them verbally and visually, as not only an expression of their world-view. An artist’s house is a vehicle for his personal, sometimes highly original impressions of himself and the world; yet the enveloping social and ideological discourse is also discernible in the expression constituted by this house. It is interesting to note the extent to which an inhabitant of a self-created house is aware, and accepting, of this envelopment, and the manner in which he rejects it. This idea (and method) of rejection, which I consider to be the genus proximum of the majority of houses ← 9 | 10 → that are essentially worlds unto themselves, is recognisable mostly as the sphere of imagination. It may, although does not have to, call a material, architectural project into existence, or it may be expressed through its equally real verbal substitute, in which the artist’s house most often reveals the significance of its sovereignty7 (underline mine). Let it be noted that this is one of the few texts containing a serious, if burdened with an inevitable methodological uncertainty, reflection on the nature of the phenomenon in question. For the time being, however, let us leave these remarks without comment; we shall repeatedly return to them in the later chapters.

Since such houses are often, although not always, the products of this rejection, the current book could not become a history that would forcibly place them in a logical sequence. As I was growing aware that to write a history of artists’ homes was not advisable, I was also persuaded to abandon the conception of a linear overview of chronologically ordered phenomena. I did notice parallels between individual cases of marking this “sovereignty”: a similarity of creative approach, occasionally a similarity of motivation and creative procedure; yet even if governed by the same mechanism, they nevertheless yielded different results in different contexts. Still, it were the themes derived from those similarities that imposed structure upon the chapters of this book. I am aware that a chronological and geographical flamboyance may turn irritating, and that the reader might be happier with a linear lecture that would put artists from the same era or environment together. Firstly, however, to present such a lecture would imply faith in the possibility of writing the history of a certain phenomenon, and thus in defining this phenomenon by enumeration; secondly, it would perforce be necessary to refrain from bringing together many singular phenomena. This would be regrettable, as such meetings often yield interesting results, illustrating as they do the existence of surprisingly similar conceptions of creativity in entirely different historical and cultural contexts. Thus, instead of a historical overview of artists’ houses, there emerged a loosely structured study focused on conceptual connections; the phenomena discussed herein are not ordered into trends, groups or tradition-related developmental lines, or assume such an ordering temporarily, fragmentarily and only in places. They are self-contained; they cannot be arranged in sequences like works of art because they are ← 10 | 11 → non-works. Some of them were intentionally and ostentatiously created as non-works, in some cases they happened to occur as such, but for this type of phenomena there is no name in the terminology of fine arts.

Regarding the early modern era, it still seems useful to look for developmental lines concerning an artist’s residence, since one of the mechanisms that define this era is the tendency towards the professional and social emancipation of a creator; a tendency which in the majority of cases runs along parallel lines. Additionally, the durability of ancient models (or rather, in reality, ones created as such in the Renaissance) and mutual inspirations between artists imposed similarities on some forms of behaviour and on tangible expressions of this behaviour in the form of, for instance, the artist’s house. Until the 18th century the act of creating a house occurred in keeping with the norms of architecture, decoration and contents de rigueur in a given era and environment; this is because artists aspired to a position that demanded respecting those norms.8 It is therefore possible to trace the development of a certain type, represented by a considerable number of edifices, with its distinguishing, sometimes formal (e.g. the creator’s architectural tour de force), more frequently iconographic (programmes referring to art) or functional (a house-cum-atelier, a pupils’ workshop, private academy, etc.) specificity. For this reason Chapter 1 nonetheless traces, in a general outline, the history of a creator’s residence, or rather only of those of its distinctive aspects whose traces are recognisable later, from the 15th to the 18th century. I therefore do not focus on issues of, for instance, the arrangement of rooms and particular parts of the residence, atelier or area for collaborators/pupils, even though they are undoubtedly important to the form and functioning of a modern artist’s house. This outline is not designed to provide a full historical discussion, and it emphasises only selected features or facts linked with the context of the creation of particular buildings. Hence, even though data regarding various aspects of many notable homes are now available (the residences of Renaissance artists in Cracow, French architects of the era of Louis XIV, 18th-century Lvov sculptors or some Renaissance writers, to name but a few), these homes are absent from this analysis. I am aware of this; yet I consider delineating those aspects, and expanding the list of buildings dating from before the period ← 11 | 12 → to which this book essentially pertains, to be of lesser importance from the point of view of the history of modern art.

Towards the end of the early modern era, traditions that had emerged in the Renaissance lost their importance, while individualism, which from then on was to be critically important to a creator’s status, caused later works to be issued, historically and typologically, only in short batches. Traditional norms tottered, iconographic traditions broke down, some functions (especially those of the workshop) and displays (especially the “formalistic” tour de force) grew to excess. The social status of the majority of artistic professions was equalised; in the 16th century a writer’s/philosopher’s house was not necessarily placed in the category of the “artist’s house” due to the difference in rank between a creator of writing and a creator of, for instance, sculptures, whereas from the 18th century onwards the shape of a creator’s abode was influenced by similar mechanisms regardless of its owner’s musical, literary or pictorial specialism. The type of the “dilettante creator” developed fully; this was precisely a man who very often turned his residence – the house or garden, or both – into the area of creativity according to principles that were new and frequently not compliant with the professional tradition.9

While I imposed neither a chronological nor a geographical order on the modern-era phenomena which I discuss, I nevertheless attempted to properly underline the most pertinent examples. The value ascribed to some may seem disproportionately high in comparison to others; this springs from my conviction that such a special place in the history of European culture belongs by rights to the residences of, for instance, Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, John Soane, Victor Hugo, Fernand Khnopff, the de Goncourt brothers, Carl Larsson, Stefan Żeromski or Gabriele d’Annunzio. In addition, this book contains numerous references to phenomena pertaining to various areas of artistic production, which had to be brief due to both limitations of space and research barriers. The material limitations made it impossible to include phenomena relative to American culture, which would not be without bearing on the issues in question, as well as to Russia or the Balkans; both regions are represented here only by a few ← 12 | 13 → examples. Trying not to accentuate the significance of, and concentrate solely on, the few great European cultures – an approach still dominant in the history of fine arts nowadays – I attempted to summon facts and phenomena relative to the scope of this study but pertaining to the margins of modern Europe, such as Scandinavia, Poland, Bohemia, Switzerland, and even Italy, so consistently overlooked in the history of 19th-century art. Observation of the often forgotten yet concrete traces of the creative process was meant to be one of the essential values of my effort. Since, however, my overall aim was not to present a full overview and survey of the issue in question, but to call attention to its essential features, I can only hope that the absence of many significant artistic residences will not be detrimental to that principal reflection.

The time frame for the material discussed here is set by the commonly accepted boundaries of modernity, with the Enlightenment as the starting point. I do not extend my argument beyond the period of the early 20th-century avant-gardes, since the Romantic “malady of creativity” discussed herein constitutes one of the sources of avant-garde revolutions and hence, having fulfilled its role, so to speak, it is legitimised by those avant-gardes. Since then those extraordinary phenomena, which from the 18th century onward were set on the margins of creative practices, have gained the status of works of art and have assumed their place in the regular order of those practices.

In the field of artistic production, the end of the early modern era and the beginning of modernity are located in the 18th century, with due emphasis on institutional transformations of the art world (some of which may be worth recalling here, for instance the development of academies or the dawn of museums and individual exhibitions), as well as its social and economic transformations, the emergence of the individualistic conception of creativity, and finally the development of new formulas for a work of art and new criteria for its assessment. Although the characteristics of this breakthrough and the specificity of modern art being born together with the Romanticism have long been considered obvious, recent books by the classic art historians of today, such as Oskar Bätschmann, Hans Belting and Victor Stoichita, have very considerably enhanced our understanding of the modern breakthrough.10 Their studies have exposed the hitherto unnoticed or undervalued mechanisms and phenomena pertaining to the ← 13 | 14 → concepts of “creator” and “work of art”. Revealed as the “other” work – a still insufficiently recognised fruit of the well-known processes of the emancipation of creativity – the artist’s residence turns out to be a missing link among those phenomena.

The phenomena and processes that are well known and frequently analysed in the history of art and culture of the 19th century, such as the peintre maudit, bohemianism, the “official” and “salon” art, and the emergence of the Künstlerromane, have still not been fully described. The tension described by Bätschmann as the “conflict between the atelier and the exhibition”, expressed for instance in the artistic hoax and the “hybrid artist” which was such a frequent topic of literary works about artists in the Romanticism and later,11 can be observed in the various forms of creators’ residences. It is also reflected in the tensions between the workshop space and the living area, between the façade and the interior of the house, and between the “proper” and the “unofficial” output.

Does an artist create artistic spaces or spaces for artistic creation? Are we interested in the architectural and programmatic aspect of his house or in its “emanation” in his “proper” output? Should we be researching the artist’s “environment” in the same way the organisation of earlier workshops, social conditions for artistic creation etc. have been researched?12 Perhaps, our primary concern should be to shift the weight from the traditionally understood creation of paintings, sculptures, music or literary texts in a location whose task was to provide conditions for creating them to modern creation, in which a “work of art” has blurred contours or may even disappear altogether, leaving behind the intention or just the compulsion to create. What emerges is an atelier as a crippled work, the house of an artist who does not create, a collection instead of a work, a territory of art instead of art. This last term, ‘art’, I accept in all the ambiguity ascribed to it in the modern era. Perhaps it ought to be avoided here; but it is precisely the phenomena of interest to us here that give a clear indication of what is happening to art in the modern era.

I comprehend the house, or residence, as a territory of privacy, which in this era is being identified with the territory of creativity. It is worthwhile to focus here on the inspiring feminist perspective to the reflection regarding the territory of creativity. As the Polish writer, Jan Parandowski pointed out, “The question of atelier would have remained in the sphere of descriptions if it had not been ← 14 | 15 → taken up by a woman, the outstanding English writer Virginia Woolf. Her little book adapted from a lecture, A Room of One’s Own, imbues this seemingly trifle matter with the seriousness of deep reflection. Wondering about the insignificant number of women who over the centuries had managed to leave their mark on literature, she shows what obstacles were created by superstition and custom. Only in the rarest of cases – and usually at the cost of her reputation – could a woman gain enough independence to have her own room for literary work”.13 Also, taking under consideration the polemical methodological proposal that was formulated by Marta Leśniakowska,14 we must perceive the “artist’s house” as a product of the culture of creativity, shaped in the masculinist era of humanism and developing together with its model.

Until recently, any interest in an artist’s residence was occasioned almost exclusively by his “proper” output, which may have been reflected in or inspired by his abode. It must be noted that even now, in biographies or encyclopaedic entries, very little space is devoted to outstanding artists’ extraordinary homes, even in the cases when a given home has long been very well researched. Obviously, a peculiar or odd character of an artist’s house is still regarded as somewhat reprehensible, possibly as something that may discredit the artist’s “proper” works. The fact that as late as 2000 the interiors of Museo Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto, one of the very few perfectly preserved artist’s houses of the 19th century, were completely destroyed on the authority of the (undoubtedly outstanding) contemporary architect Mario Botta demonstrates the extent of disregard with which the manner is treated.

The issue, which, it seems, should be an obvious and natural area of research in the history of fine art, constitutes a neglected field. It is true that interest in the houses of writers, composers or artists has recently grown, but methodological reflection is still negligible worldwide. ← 15 | 16 →

The question arises why such a huge field of research has been so completely neglected for so long. To begin with, there are the practical reasons: in many cases the research involves an intimate sphere, access to which is often controlled by the artist’s heirs, who may manipulate or obstruct research. Most of the old places of creation no longer exist; even if visitors are told they are seeing them, those spaces are usually a reconstruction – often naïve or deliberately enhanced. The attractiveness of such places to tourists is actually a two-edged blade; in the last few decades it has saved many such houses and contributed to the promotion of small museums instituted therein. On the other hand, however, many of them (such as d’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale or the Larssons’ Sundborn) have been promoted so vigorously that their attractiveness, and the ostensibly huge amount of research conducted on their subject as a result, has made them an almost inappropriate topic of scholarly interest. In addition, scholars are often discouraged by the negligible artistic quality of the building itself; many of those houses are, quite unnecessarily, assessed in terms of a work of art and pronounced to be an oddity or plain kitsch.

Scholarly concern with this matter certainly requires resolving the potential conflict with the museological conceptions which shape it, the more so that those conceptions are, too, a derivative of the model according to which modern-day residences of artists are shaped. For reasons of practicality and functionality, or conservation, or theoretical assumptions, in many “personal” museums, i.e. ones that focus on a single individual artist, this sometimes well-preserved substance is, so to speak, enclosed in a protective armour. In this book, the very complex issue of museumification of creators’ residences is only marginally indicated; it would, in fact, deserve a separate monograph.15 Undoubtedly, however, the structures of personal museums, even though they spring from the same cultural tendency which is the topic of this book, are a handicap to the investigation of original forms of the phenomenon which is an artist’s house.

Other obstacles to this investigation are of a more profound nature. Firstly, artists’ houses do not create trends. Renaissance houses have been researched frequently because they form a relatively consistent historical phenomenon. Their forms and programmes are easily interpretable in the light of the history ← 16 | 17 → of ideas and of the history of architecture of their era. Secondly, as it has already been mentioned, a residence may reveal a different, perhaps inconvenient “truth” about the creator. The history of literature, music, philosophy, painting, etc. usually has no need for that truth because, working upon the established, acknowledged image of an artist, it is hardly accepting of a different image, or even of the possibility of its existence. Paradoxically enough, residences of the best-known creators seem to be the least researched. The cases when the form of the house conforms to, for instance, themes found in its owner’s output, and thus constitutes a reflection of that output, were utilised, if only mechanically. Yet even then such a “curiosity chamber” of a house – its architecture or interior decoration not reaching a quality comparative to the literary or pictorial output of its distinguished owner – would be shrouded in a slight aura of embarrassment. Finally, a certain technical and methodological difficulty cannot be overlooked: the subject of research lies in between disciplines. After all, it is not the history of architecture, at least not the traditionally conceived one, that should be dealing with such houses.

Many omissions were also caused by the tradition, persistent in the humanistic sciences, of eliminating the creator’s life story from the study of his oeuvre. The fact that in the last few decades an artist’s biography is slowly being accepted again as a field of scholarly interest has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in research studies concerning places of creation. In addition, for more than a decade now historians of art have again started pondering the issue of the methodological conditions for the investigation of the oeuvre in the context of its creator’s life story and of various “traces” of artists.16 Also, the pressure exerted by pop-science and tourism has finally forced scholars to initiate detailed research on many entirely forgotten places.

Concurrently, the ongoing process of rapprochement between the history of art and cultural anthropology began to bear fruit; for instance, in the area of architecture, scholarly concern focused on various margins of creativity, and a vogue for research in vernacular tendencies was observed. Harald Szeemann’s artistic and scholarly investigations, although “incorrect” from the point of view of academic history of art, undoubtedly played a seminal role in this; in addition, Szeemann’s own contribution to the discovery and preservation of some specific artists’ residences is invaluable. The success of explorations which, although themselves lying outside the history of art, have greatly enriched it in the last few ← 17 | 18 → decades, for instance Krzysztof Pomian’s research on the phenomena of a collection and a museum or the application of his concept of semiophores in explaining the history of collecting,17 inspires courage to investigate similar phenomena.

Just two examples will suffice to indicate how difficult the subject matter that opens itself up for research in the areas of interest to us here is going to be for the traditional history of art: firstly, the mysterious gesture of the Polish writers Maria and Jerzy Kuncewicz who, when construction of their house in Kazimierz Dolny was commencing in 1936, had copies of their own books laid under the threshold as a cornerstone; secondly, the far-ranging issue of the artist’s grave being located in his house, his garden or his museum.

The state of research is thus meagre. The few broader studies are concerned with always the same narrow group of edifices, usually the traditionally conceived “artists’ houses”, which are selected according to the criterion of the owner’s fame and their locations are limited to a few countries. The best of these monographs are clearly influenced by research directions in the social history of art. Such assumptions are formulated by Hans-Peter Schwarz, the author of a solid work on the history of the artist’s house from the 15th to the 18th century, who directly refers to Martin Warnke’s conception; he understands the artist’s house as a “medium sui generis, through which an artist may establish his position in society”18. Departing from these assumptions, he perceives the history of an artist’s house similarly to the history of this or that type of residence, i.e. as being in a relatively simple relationship to social processes. Other no less important motivations of the house-owners’ strategies seem to escape scholarly attention; this is evident in the otherwise valuable history of English artists’ houses by Giles Walkley.19


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Ateliers Creation process House as poetry Artistic individuality
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 412 pp., 170 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Pieńkos (Author)

Andrzej Pieńkos is Professor at the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw, Poland. He was a guest researcher at the Universities of Mainz and Vienna and lectured in Geneva, Rennes, and Paris, where he was granted a Mellon Fellowship. He authored several books and edited numerous publications on the houses of artists.


Title: The House of Art