Picasso’s Villa La Californie (Cannes, 1956), Damian Elwes, 2008

The work of Damian Elwes is part history lesson and part story telling through an exploration of craft–both the artist’s rooms that he portrays and his own. Meticulously researched, the detailed rooms draw you in and fill you with questions. The interaction of the rooms with the natural environment and the work of the artists interact to create a fascinating narrative.

Frida Kahlo’s Studio (Coyoacan, Mexico) 1944.

Keith Haring’s Studio (New York) 1988.

Not surprising when you consider his work, his father was the portrait painter Simon Elwes and his mother is the famous interior designer Tessa Kennedy. When they met, she was a socialite and her family disapproved of the match. They ran away to Cuba, where they lived at the hotel Riveria until they moved to Miami. A talented family, one of his brothers is the famous actor Cary Elwes.

The Hotel Riveria in Cuba.

His father Simon Elwes at work.

Tessa Kennedy is a world renowned interior designer.

For an education, he attended Harvard to pursue a degree in math. As the story goes, when he graduated his writing professor gave him a palette knife that was said to have once belonged to Henri Matisse. He was inspired to go to Paris and make paintings of the studios of contemporary artists as a way to learn what he could from them about the craft.

Warhol’s Studio (New York) 1964.


Calder’s Home (Sache, France) 1976.

We look at a lot of staged images of rooms, carefully edited to show off the architecture and design and yet devoid of clues that inform the people inside the rooms. In his work, Elwes works the other way around, staging the rooms with clues like a puzzle hunt, so as to understand what the artist was thinking about in the moment. He painted a lot of versions of Picasso’s studios over the years, changing styles to correspond with his different periods.

“Picasso’s Villa” wraps around three walls.

This one is clearly, the blue period.

I came across a picture of Picasso’s studio as it is today, but after looking at Elwes painting of the same room, I realize how little of the story is left out without the context Elwes adds. In his painting, he shows the interaction of the room with his work and through the open window a sense of place and life is breathed into the room.

Picasso’s studio.

I realize as I get lost in one of my favorite paintings, that Elwes exaggerates the room in such a way that you start to wonder if you are seeing the world around you through borrowing the eyes of the painter. If only we we could borrow the vision of the masters, but through the work of Damian Elwes we get to at least marvel at his study of it.

Matisse’s Studio in Collioure.