The surroundings of an artist can ultimately become intertwined with their work and legacy. Claude Monet is associated with Giverny, France as Frida Kahlo is to Coyoacán, Mexico. Looking at these artists through the lens of their surroundings can lead to new insights into their artistic techniques, processes, and beliefs. Let’s pull back the curtain and look into the homes and art studios of history’s most influential painters.
The New Mexican Homes and Art Studio of Georgia O’Keeffe
The wide windows in the art studio of Georgia O’Keeffe look out at the sprawling landscapes of New Mexico. It was this landscape that first captivated O’Keeffe and would eventually become her home for the remainder of her life and career. Her connection to the land provided her a renewed sense of independence. It gave her the ability to create a space that was distinctively her own.
Ghost Ranch: The Wild Backdrop of O’Keeffe’s Southwest
There are two places in New Mexico that Georgia O’Keeffe used as her home/studio. Ghost Ranch, or Rancho de los Burros, was a dude ranch where people could rent rooms and work on the land. O’Keeffe would stay during the summers and return back to New York to visit her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, until his death.
The ranch is set between the rugged layers of a mesa and the flat desert land. The mesa is layered with rust-colored sandstone and sediments that range from purples, blues, and yellows. A desert is strewn with green shrubbery and trees that dot the landscape. Although the land is breathtaking, Ghost Ranch was difficult to manage. It was isolated with no telephone and had a poor irrigation system. In search for a home that was arable, yet beautiful led O’Keeffe to her second home.
Abiquiú Homestead: Where Nature Meets Architecture
The demanding effort of running Ghost Ranch led O’Keeffe to discover the Abiquiú house. It was in poor shape and initially un-inhabitable, yet O’Keeffe knew she had to have it. When she visited the property, its enigmatic presence drew her in. The renovations included incorporating architecture seen in the region from Native American and Spanish influences. Vigas made of cedar logs line the ceilings, and the adobe bricks were made from O’Keeffe’s own land.
These themes ran through the interior of her home as well. O’Keeffe had skylights, picture windows, and open doorways to let natural light into her home. Her furniture is matched with sleek unadorned adobe walls and minimal decoration. The Abiquiú house creates a calming presence compared to the rugged wildlife outside her door. It is harmonious with the wild and rustic landscape of the American Southwest.
The New Mexican Landscape: Where Art Reflects Life
The surrounding land of the desert greatly inspired O’Keeffe’s paintings in her career. Her homes, particularly in Abiquiú, are geometrically linear with her vigas, smooth adobe walls, and pathways. The open doors and windows let in natural light creating different shapes, lines, and tones. These linear paintings are reminiscent of her paintings of the sleek modern skyscrapers of New York. The difference in New Mexico is the use of natural earth tones that she saw every day outside her window.
While New Mexico still attracts artists currently it has become synonymous with Georgia O’Keeffe. It is her depicts of its majestic mesas and extensive landscapes that continue to mystify and create discussions over her work.
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s East Hampton Art Studio
The New York City skyline was passed over for the peaceful valleys and streams of East Hampton for Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Pollock, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, chose to live in the country away from the demanding city. The surrounding land was filled with grasslands and marshes with a variety of wildlife and flowers. They chose a house that once belonged to a fisherman and converted the home and barn for their art studio. The countryside offered not only more freedom in space but also the ability for both artists to expand their creative ambitions.
The Art Studio: Pollock’s Process and Supplies
The barn offered Pollock more space to create his large-scale paintings compared to New York. An example of this is when Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock for a mural. He reportedly knocked down a wall in his apartment to fit the large-scale painting. The newly acquired space allowed him to lay the canvas on the floor and have room to move around the image. This art studio was the space where Pollock showcased his painting technique for photographer Hans Namuth as shown above.
The space would be filled with the various supplies that he used. There are paint cans, thick brushes, rags, and other supplies as seen in the photo above. The house or enamel paints that he used were very fluid and would splatter onto the floor beneath him. Even today, paint stains remain on the hardwood floor. Pollock would use unconventional materials like sticks, old brushes, or turkey basters to paint. He would also use rocks, glass, string, or sand while painting.
The Influence of East Hampton Scenery
It has been debated how much the natural world inspired Pollock’s work or processes. However, many of the series Pollock created while living at East Hampton have titles that are inspired by nature. He completed works such as Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) and Lavender Mist (Number #). His titles of series include Sounds in the Grass and the Accabonac Creek series, which was named after the creek that ran behind his home.
Compared to Pollock it is more known that Krasner used nature as a source of inspiration. Lee Krasner’s The Seasons was a painting she created after Pollock’s death. Krasner would use the barn art studio after Pollock’s death but tacked canvas on the wall rather than on the floor. The gestural brushstrokes and organic figures lead to the idea of the changing seasons that she would have witnessed. She completed works such as Milkweed, Bird Talk, or Right Bird Left that have nature-inspired imagery or titles.
Both Pollock and Krasner created some of their most memorable paintings at East Hampton. The scenery has also drawn artists such as Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko. It is still an attraction for visitors today for its connection to the complex life of Jackson Pollock.
Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul
Azul de añil is the bright cobalt paint traditionally used to ward off evil spirits and to protect its inhabitants. This is what covers Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, a paradise that she created. It’s brightly colored walls shelter a lush tropical garden in its center. The home is filled with the objects, plants, animals, and art that Frida collected. These objects and her home are representations of her heritage and the love of her home, Mexico.
The Bedroom: A Portrait of Reality
Frida’s bedroom was a place where she spent large portions of her life. She contracted polio as a child and suffered multiple injuries when she was hurt in a bus accident as a young woman. Frida’s father and mother gave her art supplies and a special easel to use in bed, which is where she studied and practiced her art. Above her bed was a mirror that she use to paint her self-portraits.
Towards the end of her life, she was confined to her bed once again. These times of isolation lead Kahlo to paint images of the things that surrounded her. These include her family, objects in her own bedroom, and, of course, herself. In real life, a skeleton Judas figure rested above Kahlo’s bed and appears in the painting The Dream. It was used not only as a reminder of death but also as a symbol of the ever-changing cycles of life.
The Collections of Diego and Frida
Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, collected artifacts and folk art of Mexico. These include little figurines, toys, retablos (small altar paintings), clay figurines from Metepec, and Judas figures (or fiesta figurines) made of paper-mache. These figures and their placement within the home all represent their passion for establishing pride in indigenous art and culture. The collection of these objects reflects Mexicanidad, or the prideful act of celebrating their ancestors and heritage. These objects also created a connection for Frida and the outside world.
The Garden: Rebirth of a Home
When Casa Azul became Frida and Diego’s property it was given a makeover, including the garden. Frida also collected plants and incorporated them into the courtyard of Casa Azul. One outstanding item is the pyramid located in the garden. This is one of the few pieces that distinctly represent Diego’s presence in the home. The pyramid is based on the pyramid at Teotihuacan and is used to display pre-Hispanic artifacts. Other plants located in the garden include marigolds, cactus, leafy palm plants, and other tropical plants native to Mexico and Central/South America.
Plants, flowers, and fruits/vegetation were constant images seen in Kahlo’s paintings. They were used for still life’s, the background of her self-portraits, or as human/plant hybrids. Her images of plants growing from humans or vice versa show the intertwining relationship between life and death. She continually references this theme in a variety of her paintings like the painting shown above.
Frida’s paintings and collections of objects are examples of her love for indigenous and modern Mexican culture. It is this desire to connect with her ties to Mexico that define Casa Azul. It is where her life and career started and is where her legacy continues to flourish today.
The Charleston Home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
The Bloomsbury group was founded on a collective ideal of rejecting the societal constraints instituted by their Victorian Era parents. The art of these members is exemplified no better than the Charleston Home in Sussex, England. No wall, bed frame, fireplace, or bathtub was left unpainted within the home. Two members who lived and painted in the house were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Their home is a literal manifestation of their design ideas, as well as an expression of their views on their way of life. The house is a sanctuary that was separated from the constrictions of the traditional society that they rejected.
Painted Surfaces and Décor of Charleston
It is the dream of children to draw on the walls of their homes unpunished. This dream is realized by the Bloomsbury group because they were not afraid to discover outlets of artistic freedom. Both Bell and Grant’s artistic styles are evident in the decorations of the house. Rooms and objects in the home are decorated in simplistic forms, bold colors, and expressive brushstrokes. Subjects ranged from the still life of fruits, flowers, or the human form. Chairs, rugs, sofas, pillows, and lamps were even designed by Bell and Grant, which were then manufactured by the Omega Workshops.
Bell and Grant used patterns of paisley or checkered prints and combinations of circles, stripes, and dots to create a rhythm between different parts of the house. Their usage of color ranges from mustard yellows, pale sky blues, rich rust oranges, or pale mint greens. Even though there is a variety of colors used within the house they all manage to coincide together in unity. This is because of their consistent expressive style and is a testament to their masterful use of color theory.
An Enchanting Garden: Full of Meetings and Flowers
The English countryside of Sussex with trees and orchards pulled Vanessa Bell to the property. Eventually, Bell filled the gardens with flowers, which became a source of inspiration for her paintings. The garden is where meetings would take place among Bloomsbury members. The creation of the garden is similar to that of Monet’s Giverny or Frida’s garden at Casa Azul. It was a source of artistic inspiration, but also reprieve. The garden influenced Bell’s painting Arum Lilies, which depicts a still life with objects that are similar to ones found at their Charleston home.
The home and garden of Charleston is a collection of people coming together to create something that was uniquely identifiable to them. From the constant comings and goings of people and ever-changing décor the Charleston house is still ultimately a home shared by many.
Claude Monet’s Gardens: An Outdoor Art Studio
After moving from place to place during his artistic career, it was Giverny that became Claude Monet’s final home. There are climbing roses and vines engulfing the front of the Giverny house. The bright green doors contrast with the vivid reds of the rose beds at the forefront. The front of his home is only the beginning of Monet’s ability to create a masterpiece of land and garden. Giverny became the source of inspiration for some of his most recognizable works that still continue to captivate viewers today.
The Flower Gardens of Giverny
Monet was particular about what types of flowers he planted and where he planted them. He would arrange his flowers by color blending rare species with the most common flower ranging from roses, tulips, daisies, sunflowers, or foxgloves. His gardens were allowed to grow abundantly with trees draping over his flowerbeds and climbing roses spreading along the walls of his house. Monet treated his garden as if he was creating a painting. Color ruled above all else and the combinations of these colors would be planned as meticulously as his impressionist paintings.
Monet’s gardens give a sense of immersing viewers into his world just like his paintings do. Similar to the hazy brushstrokes of his paintings one cannot tell where the house ends and the garden begins, melding the two into one. An example is the painting Le jardin de l’artiste à Giverny. The bright purple flowers in this painting stand in focus against the blurred green background of his house and trees. Even in this painting the viewer can see the purposeful placement of his flowerbeds to create distinct shapes and colors within the painting.
The Japanese Bridge and Water Lily Pond
Monet had the bridge built in a Japanese style that was surrounded by wisterias, bamboo, irises, and a water lily pond underneath. Creating his own scenes in the gardens allowed him to have a constant space where he could focus and study on a specific scene. Monet’s paintings of the pond focused on the reflections of water rather than the physical objects themselves. The idea of reflections and immersions lead Monet to create multiple representations of this one scene.
One of these interpretations of the Japanese bridge is seen in the painting above. By the 1920’s Monet’s use of color and application of paint changed at Giverny. His colors transformed from the calming greens and blues to energetic reds and yellows. His brushstrokes were less controlled and lines were freely placed on the canvas. This could be because of Monet’s aging eyesight, but nevertheless there is still a visible change in this work compared to his earlier ones.
The Art Studio: The Creation of Monet’s Water Lily Series
Monet is known for creating his paintings in the plein air style. He would walk the countryside of France, or float on a boat studio down the Seine to create his plein air paintings. However, for his large-scale panel paintings of his water lilies, he needed to move into an art studio. Monet was in his sixties when he started the series, and they are some of the largest he ever worked on.
Giverny grew throughout the years and Monet with it. He continually added to its existing gardens and orchards, which allowed for him to never travel far away from home. His inspiration was always footsteps away and led to the creation of his most famous works.