Artists’ Immediate Surroundings Give Clues to Their Lives, Work : Lecture: New York art expert William McNaught leads a slide tour through homes and workplaces of various artists.


Sometimes the mountain does come to Mohammed. This week, it came to Fullerton and Santa Ana.

The Smithsonian Institution of Washington is presenting, through Sunday, a series of lectures, seminars and other events at various places in the two cities as part of a program designed to share its vast resources nationwide.

The institution houses about 135 million objects in 14 art, science and history museums and galleries. It launched the local series Thursday night with a slide show and lecture on a corner of the art world to which most are never made privy: the American artist’s studio.

“By looking into the artist’s own world, we can see how he lived, how he worked, what inspired him,” visiting lecturer William McNaught, New York Regional Director of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, told about 60 people at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.


McNaught said the archives, which acquire and preserve documents and memorabilia, also contain hundreds of photographs that “tell us about the image artists wished to project,” an image of themselves and their life style that--like art itself--has changed radically over the past 100 years.

Studios of the early 19th Century were modestly appointed, but as artists’ gained prominence in the world, the idea of the “grand style of studio” was born, McNaught said. Artists’ studios then began to reflect the change in social status and became “a major preoccupation” for many.

“The consciousness of their surroundings had a lot to do with the increasing social standing it brought to be an artist in an increasingly richer, industrialized America,” McNaught said.

Paris, where American artists flocked to study with the masters, had the greatest influence on the new style of interior design. The “extraordinary” Parisian ateliers were furnished with “imported fabrics, porcelains, glasses from North Africa, carvings, strange and exotic furniture, potted palms, hanging Oriental carpets and countless objects of every sort,” McNaught said, proving the point with several slides.


The most famous American studio of the Parisian style was that of William Merritt Chase, whose ostentatious workplace McNaught showed in photographs that prompted his audience to gasp.

“Determined to claim his rank as one of the nation’s pre-eminent painters,” Chase had a lavishly appointed place, as described by an art journal at the time, McNaught said, cluttered with huge Japanese umbrellas, a rich Venetian tapestry, armor and musical instruments all over the walls, a carved Renaissance chest, a Turkish coffeepot and myriad other items.

Chase, who by the 1880s had set the standard for artists’ studios, even gave out autographed photographs of his garish gallery.

Portraitist John Singer Sargent, although he exhibited less extravagant taste, had an elegant high-ceilinged studio in Paris that “became the ideal for the successful artist,” McNaught said.

Not everyone adhered to these standards, however. Albert Pinkham Ryder, for instance, lived in a room known for its filth. Reading from another 19th-Century periodical, McNaught said that Ryder’s room was “cluttered with bags and barrels filled with paper, empty food boxes, old clothes, especially undergarments . . . and mice that had decayed in traps.”

With the turn of the century, a new generation of artists interested in greater simplicity rebelled against the precedent, paving the way for more change.

Many artists before the war considered themselves “workmen,” not members of the elite, and their sparse, utilitarian studios reflected this attitude, McNaught said. The large-scale works of modern art led to the popularity of the loft, the trend for huge, cavernous spaces launched in New York, McNaught said.

“But perhaps it is in the field of sculpture that one can see the most dramatic changes in what constitutes the artist’s working place,” he said.


Advances in technology in the 20th Century allowed artists to use new materials made of steel and other metals, thereby necessitating studios “equipped with welding torches and other machinery required to twist, bend and cut these industrial fabrics.”

Indeed, many factories--which can also supply cranes and other tools needed to produce the large-scale works still in vogue--now specialize in producing sculpture for artists, McNaught said.

“The factory as studio is a far cry from Mr. Sargent or Mr. Chase,” he said. But, he added, “in the end, it is the work of art, not the working environment, that matters and that lasts.”

Weekend events being presented by the Smithsonian Institution’s Lecture and Seminar Program today include a seminar on “Photographing Nature: A Closer Look,” 9 a.m. to noon, Ruby Gerontology Center, Mackey Auditorium, Cal State Fullerton, $20; a workshop for primary school teachers on “Planning a Mini-Museum: A Workshop for Teachers,” 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, $10; a concert, “Salute to American Popular Song and Jazz,” 8 p.m., Wilshire Auditorium, Whiting Avenue at Lemon Street, Fullerton, $5.

Sunday: a slide lecture on “Treasures of the Smithsonian,” 2 p.m., Bowers Museum, $4; a lecture on “Celebrating Photography’s Early Years,” 3 p.m., Visual Arts Center, Cal State Fullerton, Room 197, 800 N. State College Blvd., $4.

For information, call the co-sponsoring institutions: Cal State Fullerton School of the Arts, (714) 773-3262; Bowers Museum, (714) 972-1900; for the Wilshire Auditorium, call North Orange County Community College District, (714) 871-4030, Ext. 15.