In a lineage that includes the likes of Tintoretto, Titian, and Rubens, artists have long maintained large studios, in which assistants—previously called apprentices and students—helped execute these famed Old Masters’ major commissions in order to keep up with demand.
With a team of nearly 10 people, Paris-based artist Olivier Masmonteil is following that example, as one of the last peintres d’atelier in France. The impulse stems mainly from his adoration and respect for Old Masters, but is also pragmatic as it allows him to keep up with an increasing amount of commissions since 2016. But most important to Masmonteil is the hands-on experience that the emerging artists he employs get while working in the studio.
After growing up in France’s central Corrèze department and studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux in the late ’90s, Masmonteil left France to spend a year at the former cotton-mill Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei in Germany, where he came into contact with artists Neo Rauch, Tim Eitel, Tilo Baumgartel, standard bearers for the New Leipzig School. He soon returned to his home country before traveling around the world twice between 2008 and 2012. Those travels gave rise to thousands of small landscape paintings that first brought attention to the artist.
Also in 2012, Masmonteil started a series of homages to the likes of Titian, Vermeer, Courbet, and other Old Masters, copying their works and adding various layers to them to create a series called “La Mémoire de la Peinture” (Memory of Painting), like a flamboyant version of the already exuberant Entrée d’Alexandre dans Babylone (Alexander Entering Babylon) by Charles Le Brun, the premier peintre du roi (First Painter to the King), that Masmonteil has turned into a triptych.
Some of those personalized copies, including Masmonteil Alexandre à Babylone I, II and III, are currently on view at the Fernet-Branca Foundation in Saint-Louis, Switzerland, which is responsible for the artist’s first institutional solo show in 20 years. During the press view ahead of Art Basel, Masmonteil proudly gave credit to those who have helped him along the way, starting with master printer Emmanuel Mattazzi, who has found a way to create serigraphs with oil rather than ink especially for Masmonteil. Together they worked on a series titled Les Demoiselles retrouvées (The Rediscovered Young Ladies), which features feminine figures gracefully fading into or out of a furnished background, sometimes juxtaposed onto a landscape, all as a way of “recovering [the canvas with various layers] to unveil.”
“When I wander about the Louvre, I want to be part of the history that hangs on the walls”, said Masmonteil, who always keeps in mind that Rubens had about 250 people lending him a hand. The passionate peintre d’atelier refers to his assistants as collaborators.
Masmonteil’s first assistant, Nicolas Marciano, landed in his studio in Saint-Ouen, to the north of Paris, in 2017. His arrival coincided with Masmonteil’s first commission from chef Yannick Alléno to contribute to the design of the Pavillon Ledoyen, a three-Michelin-star restaurant located next to the Petit Palais in Paris. “At first I was not sure how much his presence would bother me. There is something so sacred about art in France, that it should be the work of one person,” Masmonteil said. “After letting Nicolas square the canvases up, prepare the backgrounds, apply the first layers—tasks I normally enjoy—I soon realized they would benefit him more. That’s how our collaboration began.”
By the time a commission came from the St. Regis Venice for Masmonteil to create his own interpretations of Tintoretto’s masterpieces in the Palazzo Ducale, Nicolas was already standing on his own two feet, ready to take the lead in the paintings’ fabrications. Former art teacher Lara Bloy, who now oversees the studio, soon joined. She was followed closely by Alexandre Lichtblau, a painter who can now afford to work only twice a week as a dentist. (Masmonteil was so struck by his application that he felt it impossible to turn the budding artist down.) And finally the group was joined by 24-year-old Agathe Chebassier, the youngest of the group, who was to enter the École des Beaux-Arts in Marseille but decided to study under the aegis of an established artist like Masmonteil instead.
With the responsibility of ripe talents on his shoulders, Masmonteil had to stock up on supplies (academic plasters, additional paint, brushes) and create a detailed but balanced schedule with slots devoted to his projects and free time for them to find their creative voice. On Thursday mornings the entire studio is invited to draw nude models. “They have all been female so far but we will also have male sitters coming into the studio from September onward,” said Masmonteil, who is determined to give his pupils the best education there is. Those classes were established thanks to Lichtblau, who taps into his contacts from his time at the Académie de La Grand Chaumière beginning in 2017.
“Sure, the more we are, the faster we can work but I mostly love teaching, sharing my experience with a younger generation, helping them get rid of the stereotypes that were imparted to me when I started 20 years ago,” Masmonteil said. “When I was their age, I was told that painting was dead. There were no painting classes at the Beaux Arts in Bordeaux. I had to teach myself how to use a brush, by reading, observing, assisting restorers and copying old masters, which I still do.”
By picking Masmonsteil over seemingly more prestigious schools, his collaborators say they have deliberately signed up for the university of life. “We are learning from the old masters he has us copy but also from him while working on his projects. And I have time to develop my own figurative technique on the side,” said Bloy, who also maintains a studio in the same building as Masmonteil’s.
“Not only do we learn how to stretch a canvas, but also how to deal with galleries, mount an exhibition, issue an invoice,” Chebassier said. “There is no one else more pedagogical than he is.”
If Masmonteil’s studio were ever to adopt a motto, as other art schools have, it would probably be “There is strength in unity,” he said.
Added Chebassier, “I know art students who complain about being left to their own devices while we, on the other hand, are always helping each other out. This kind of synergy is, I believe, quite unique in France.”
“Those art students, relying on regional authorities and FRACs [public regional collections of contemporary art], remain rather isolated,” Lara said. “We, on the contrary, work as a collective, always showing a united front. I grew up in the South of France where art was not considered career material. I am glad I did not listen.” Earlier this year, she sold a painting to real estate and finance tycoon Paul Talbourdet, one of Masmonteil’s most regular buyers.