Hello again, Hudson344.
I've attempted to balance two factors in this answer: the depth and
quality that a $200 question deserves; and your desire for fast
information. If you would like more information in any given area, by
all means feel free to ask. I will provide you with as much
additional information as I can, within the allotted time.
I've divided my answer into sections corresponding to various aspects
of your question. I have tried to provide a mixture of references
both to widely-available works, and to immediately-accessible
information on the internet.
So, to begin: a brief discussion of the artist's studio/guild system
in the Medieval/Renaissance periods. Although this system has carried
on, in some respects, to the present day, the apprentice arrangement
existed in its most (excuse the expression) pure form during that
I will not offer much commentary in this portion of my answer, since
you seem to know the context reasonably well already. The following
links provide the necessary information in fair detail. To summarize:
The painter, in the medieval and renaissance periods, was perceived as
a tradesman; someone who belonged to a guild, and operated a "shop"
(so to speak); and was contracted to provide a service...just as, say,
a carpenter would be. The client typically would dictate the theme,
subject matter, and frequently the details of the work to be done.
There was no expectation, in that time, that the painter who was
contracted would do all the work himself. That's what assistants and
apprentices were for. The master painter himself would typically
concern himself with telling details, such as the faces of portrait
figures (especially those of the patrons, one would presume) and
technically difficult areas of the work.
A discussion of this system of working is to be found in almost any
textbook used in introductory art courses; or any good general work on
the history of western painting. A more specific work, which you may
want to refer to, is The Renaissance Artist At Work, by Bruce Cole
(New York: Harper & Row, 1983). An outline of several key points from
his book may be found on Chreighton University's website at the
A second work which may be of use to you is The Craft of Art,
Originality and Industry in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque
Workshop, A Ladis and C Wood (eds), (University of Georgia Press,
Athens and London, 1995). For an online abstract of the contents, you
may refer to the website of UK-based art teacher/art historian P.E.
Michelli (Phd), here...
I will also provide links to two concise online articles outlining the
workings and merits of the system.
The first is from the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies
Another such article may be found at the Slow Art website:
You will note that, as the Renaissance comes into full swing, there
begins to be a perception of the painter as "artist", a significant
shift in the art world. This is encapsulated in Giorgio Vasari's
well-known work, The Lives of the Artists. Although modern
scholarship is dismissive of Vasari's reliability as a biographer, the
book enjoyed a huge popularity in its day. Vasari, a contemporary of
many famous painters of the era and a painter himself, popularized the
conception of an artist as an original, lofty soul; someone touched by
a divine spark of creativity.
He may have been somewhat self-interested in doing so.
The practicality of the artist/workshop system ensured that it would
continue. As John Iverson asks rhetorically on his CraftSmarts
website, "How else was artistic knowledge to be passed down through
the Ages without modern education and those ubiquitous MFA programs?"
Although this is only tangentially related, the link below provides a
breakdown (for the city of Florence) of which guilds artists might
belong to, and why. You may find it useful for providing some context
in your article. It is taken from a community college's online
materials for a course entitled "The Business of Art"; not inapposite,
as it happens:
Later artists such as Reubens, Rembrandt, and Reynolds used large
numbers of assistants. Some things had changed. The relationship was
frequently master/student, rather than master/employee. The painters
also exercised much more originality; patrons would be more likely to
give them free rein to paint as they liked. This was circumscribed by
practical considerations on the artists' part...if a patron didn't
like the end result, payment might not be forthcoming (Rembrandt's
"Night Watch" was famously unappreciated...). Some clients were
capable of more...pointed expressions of disapproval, as well: one
imagines that Reubens was scrupulously solicitous of the client's
desires in his work for the French royal family.
In the years since Vasari, public perception of painters and other
artists has vacillated between these two notions. On the one hand, we
have the view of artists (and poets, and composers) as heroic, almost
mythic figures. On the other hand, the continued perception of
painters as workmen, albeit of a superior sort. Both views (which for
convenience, I will refer to hereafter as the ideal and the pragmatic)
are alive and well today.
For most of the twentieth century, the "ideal" dominated public
perception. The romanticization of the Impressionists; the constant
experimentation of Picasso; and the anguished personae of "lone wolf"
painters like Pollock and de Kooning in the post-war years all fed
that perception. Stories of an elderly Matisse struggling each
morning to wrap his gnarled, arthritic fingers around a brush
just...one...more...time made good copy for writers.
The use of assistants and apprentices, however, began to be more open
and accepted by the sixties. This change in climate was due, in large
part, to change in the dominant artistic styles of the day. "Op" art
frequently involved large-scale works which were impossible to
undertake single-handed. "Pop" artists like Warhol were unapologetic
about using large numbers of assistants, and high-volume (almost
industrial) production techniques. They were, after all, recycling
consumerist pop culture iconography as a comment on consumerist pop
culture; using the volume-production techniques of that culture just
made the joke better.
On a more practical level, however, many artists found that they
simply could not turn out enough work on their own to make a living;
or, for the fortunate few, enough to keep up with the orders! Hiring
assistants to speed production is and was the time-honoured solution
to that problem.
So, today we have this dichotomy. Artists who adhere to the "ideal"
perspective will, perhaps, have assistants to stretch & prime
canvases; or to take care of the many non-creative aspects of a
successful art career (for a discussion of that, you may wish to read
an answer posted earlier by my colleague Ericynot-ga, a former gallery
Artists of the "pragmatic" cast, on the other hand, have the goal of
selling work. Assistants to artists of this stripe may execute
considerable portions of the finished work, although the artist will
"brand" the finished product. One individual I spoke to, earlier
today, likened the artist's role in that model to the director of a
film: while numerous skilled individuals had input and even some
creativity, responsibility for the overall shape and final form of the
work rests with the director.
So, enough summary, then...let's look at a few specific current
artists, who make use of assistants in their work.
Any discussion of current art in Britain will touch on Hirst, for
better or worse. Some see him as a shameless charlatan and
self-promoter; others consider him to be a genuinely talented and
original figure. I've located a fairly balanced evaluation of Hirst's
work on the website of the UK's Channel 4. The site is a companion
piece to the network's documentary on Hirst's successful New York
gallery show in 2000. Covering his use of assistants (and other
controversial techniques), this site deliberately includes pro- and
anti- Hirst articles:
A leading figure for many years in the "Op Art" genre. Riley's
biography at artsworld.com is matter-of-fact about her use of
assistants to execute her designs:
Her reputation has certainly not suffered by it, though. As the Tate
Gallery observed, in its notes to an upcoming Riley retrospective,
"Respected both by her peers and by a younger generation of artists
and students, she is admired for her dedication to certain artistic
ideals and also as an incisive communicator about her own work."
Longo's work is in many galleries, and several of them have
biographical sketches of the artist on their websites. This one gives
a brief look at the mechanics of how he works with an assistant on a
piece. A sample quote: "Though his use of assistants has on occasion
been controversial, the practice has several precedents, from the old
masters with their workshop minions to the minimalists whose creations
involve the talents of industrial fabricators."
Interestingly, in light of the "movie director" comment I'd
paraphrased above, Longo has worked in music videos and film (most
notably the Keanu Reeves vehicle "Johnny Mnemonic"). See comments on
I'll include two more links to commentaries about specific current
artists, before I move this discussion along. These are not as
high-profile as the first three, but perhaps are more representative
for just that reason.
Dinh Q. Le
A few more points I'll make, here, which might be of at least
tangential use to you.
First, from a page I'd quoted earlier, a laundry list of sound,
practical reasons for any artist/artisan to hire an assistant. I've
already given you this link, but you may not have followed it (given
that I provided you the pithy quote up-front):
Kostabi...well, I wasn't going to go there, but since you'd mentioned
him as an egregious example of exploiting assistants, I thought you
might find some interest in this link at the Art Museum of Estonia.
On this page, Kostabi interviews Kostabi about his attitudes toward
In the course of my research on this question, I'd contacted two local
artworld figures by telephone. One is a personal acquaintance, a
rising artist with a strong local reputation (local, for me, is
Halifax NS). The other is the director of the art gallery at the Nova
Scotia College of Art and Design.
Their responses nicely illustrated the two sides of this argument. My
artist friend spoke of having "ethical issues" with the idea of
assistants doing large portions of a work that would bear someone
else's name. The gallery director, on the other hand, inclined to the
pragmatic view. As a visual artist himself, he said, he'd *love* to
be able to hire assistants.
His feeling is that the practice is widespread, particularly in major
centres like New York, which boasts large numbers both of high-profile
artists and impecunious art students...certainly a recipe for
arrangements of this nature. Further, for many artists, their work
simply requires the assistance of others.
On this site, noted SouthWest artist R.C. Gorman discusses his use of
stone lithography, a medium which inherently demands collaboration
with skilled printers. Usefully, this article also interviews his
longtime collaborator, printer Frances Theil.
Large sculptures, like Richard Serra's "Vortex" (2002) also inherently
demand outside assistance...in this case, including a German foundry
and a freighter!
I'm going to insert a few personal remarks, here, before I leave the
subject. I am in the early stages of a career change; after two
decades in sales I've followed my heart into professional cooking. I
raise this point, because I see some analogy between painting and
Fine dining, like fine arts, is a world in tension between its
artistic/creative side and its pragmatic/business side. An artist who
wants commercial success can't get too far ahead of art buyers in his
locale; likewise a chef cannot create dishes - however excellent -
that local restaurant goers will not buy.
I'm not going to belabour that point, however, but touch instead on
the apprentice relationship. For many people in the art world there
is an assumption that the relationship between the established artist
and the assistant/apprentice is inherently exploitive. I contend that
this is not necessarily the case.
If you looked at the answer Ericynot gave to an earlier question on
this site (the link is above) you will see that the would-be artist
has much to consider, besides his/her own creative abilities. Most of
this falls into the "things they didn't teach you in art school"
category. Many artists will deal with these things by partnering with
(excuse the expression) a "bean counter", who will deal with the
business end of affairs.
Still, for many, the opportunity to work in the studio of an
established artist can be an important step in a successful career.
New painters could do worse than to observe and possibly emulate the
habits of those whose success they would also like to emulate. Not
necessarily to follow another's pattern slavishly (some established
artists might provide, if anything, negative examples), but to learn
how it's done.
In my field, it's common for up-and-coming cooks to spend time in the
kitchens of several top chefs, working their way up to sous-chef and
learning the ropes hands-on. Eventually they will strike out on their
own, but in the interim they learn by watching several of the best as
they do what they do. There are worse ways to learn.
We're coming down the homestretch, now. I have just a few points to
address about authorship, and then I'll wrap up by detailing my search
I will not touch on issues of attribution arising from the apprentice
system in earlier periods. The links provided by Ragingacademic-ga
last night seem to cover that facet of the question reasonably well.
Today, of course, attribution is not really the issue. We don't
especially care whether a given piece has had enough of the master's
hand in it to be considered canonical.
Today the issue is more straightforward. Degrees of creative input
are of less importance than copyright law, or "authorship."
Intellectual property law is a constantly changing field, especially
in the US. There are portions of American copyright legislation that
deal specifically with the visual arts, and others which are
significant in a general way. I've tracked down a couple of online
discussions of this for your reference.
The artist/assistant model has some legal aspects which may come as an
unpleasant shock to the artist involved. I located a concise
discussion of these points on the website of Washington, DC lawyer
Joshua Kaufman. Kaufman, as a lawyer and artist, has a nice grasp on
the potential pitfalls of the master/assistant model in today's world:
The Visual Artists' Rights Act (VARA) gave explicit legal protection
within the US to artists who enjoy recognized authorship of specific
pieces of work. Unfortunately, there are (as always) some exceptions,
and one of them may be pertinent to our current discussion. VARA
attempted to balance the rights of a work's owner with those of its
creator. Use of employees or contractors to create or help create a
work for a specific contract may result, in some cases, in the artist
losing legal protection over the integrity of his/her work. See the
discussion on the website of the Villanova law school of the Carter
vs. Helmsley-Spear Inc. ruling:
I'll include one more link to a site created by the Australian
government. The art of many aboriginal Australians provides an
additional, and interesting, wrinkle to this whole discussion of
authorship/attribution. In Australia, the artist who owns the
copyright on a particular "dreaming" retains legal rights to work
based on that dreaming...even if the actual painting is entirely
executed by someone else. There is a tradition of collective
ownership within that community, which creates some unusual legal
issues for dealers and gallery owners. Many, of course, assume that
aboriginal images are in the public domain because "they've been
painting that on rocks for centuries." For a full discussion, click
I've followed two separate courses of action in answering this
question. I've done numerous searches on the Internet using Google
(natch); and I've telephoned two people within my local art community.
The director of the Anna Leonowens Gallery at the Nova Scotia College
of Art and Design was most helpful, and gave me some interesting
perspectives to work with. His name is Peter Dykehouse (spelling is
subject to verification), and the gallery may be found at this link:
I do not at present have permission to provide you the name of the
local artist I'd spoken to. I expect you'd be better off to canvass
working artists in your own area, anyway.
I searched with a variety of keywords in the course of the day. This
list contains the most successful keywords, as used (quotes should be
used as shown):
Renaissance artist "use of assistants"
"use of assistants" artist
artist assistant authorship
"Visual Artist's Rights"
"Visual Artist's Rights" exception
I also searched on the names of specific artists, in order to find
more detailed information.
The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies is a site I have
bookmarked, and turn to automatically for inquiries that involve
anything medieval/early Renaissance.
Finally, I would like to gratefully acknowledge Ericynot-ga for
providing me with the Gorman and Serra links used above.
Thank you for an interesting question, Hudson344. The world of art
fascinates me. I've done extensive reading (by layperson standards)
in the areas of art history and criticism; my wife is a skilled
artist/hobbyist and many of our friends are either art students or
Although I've reviewed this document as carefully as my burning eyes
will allow, I'm painfully aware that my ability to write coherently
has been on the wane for the last hour or two. Please forgive any
errors which might have escaped my vigilance.