Five of the Most Influential Artists' Assistants

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From Ultra Violet to Camille Claudel, these innovative young protégés surpassed the expectations of their mentors and became icons in their own right

In 2012, British painter David Hockney famously released a statement ahead of the opening of his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy. It read: "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally". The comment was widely considered to be a contraversial dig at contemporary artist Damien Hirst, in the wake of the revelation that his money-spinning 'spot' paintings were entirely produced by a team of assistants.

Needless to say, the all-important master and apprentice dynamic dates back to the early days of art history and, fortunately, it hasn't always entailed aides replacing the artist's own craftsmanship. The Old Masters used to run esteeemed schools, teaching their discipline to several pupils who assisted them on their most ambitious paintings. In those days, training young talents was a great source of pride to artists – consider the Italian painter Masaccio, who assisted Masolino before forging his own path and spearheading the Italian Renaissance. Things have changed since then, and with the advent of modern times the title of assistant has come to encompass something far broader, often comprising the role of caretaker and life companion too. Below, we present five assistants who have become art stars of their own accord. 

1: Isabelle Collin Dufresne
By the time Warhol uttered his most memorable statement, "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes", he had already assembled a clique of idiosyncratic, fashionable creatures to orbit his Factory and hedonistic lifestyle. One such figure was Isabelle Collin Dufresne, an outré model, muse and protégé of surrealist Salvador Dalí who originally introduced Dufresne to Warhol and the radical pop art movement. Warhol was immediately taken with Dufresne, re-naming her Ultra Violet due to her vivid purple hair and co-ordinating outfits. 

Despite her liberal sensibility, Dufrense was born in Grenoble and came from an upper class family of deeply religious practising Christians. Dufresne was a difficult child and reportedly burned her bras to rebel against her conventional upbringing, even undergoing an exorcism as a teenager. After moving from one reform school to another, she relocated to New York City in 1953, and by chance was introduced to Dalí, before promptly declaring that she'd "always been surreal". 

2: Juan Hamilton
Impoverished ceramist Juan Hamilton was 27-years-old when he ventured to New Mexico and knocked at the door of Georgia O'Keeffe, proposing himself as a jack-of-all-trades. Decidedly reserved and 85-years-old at the time, O'Keeffe was naturally wary of Hamilton, and only warmed to him after she discovered he could type – and therefore be of great use to her. She couldn't have possibly foreseen that this unlikely exchange would blossom into an artistic bond and unique kinship which lasted until her passing some 13 years later. Their alliance generated a tremendous scandal within the art world, and not even his marriage to another woman could halt the rumours about the seemingly dubious nature of their relationship. 

3: Salaì
Much has been written about Leonardo da Vinci's ambiguous bond with his young pupil Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salaì (or 'little devil'). Sporting soft, undulating curls and ethereal features, Salaì's unique beauty cast a spell on da Vinci, and he soon became a muse to the pioneering artist. Many of da Vinci's most famous tableaux, such as St. John the Baptist, Bacchus – and, according to some speculation, even the Mona Lisa – depict the apprentice's nude form and thus expose a sensual and sentimental connection between the two. Romantic as this may appear, their relationship was supposedly tortuous, with the artist reportedly referring to Salaì as "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton", but despite the apparent acrimony his protegé remained next to him for 29 years, until da Vinci's death. Suspected to be the hand behind many of da Vinci’s works, Salaì’s most famous painting is the Monna Vanna, an unclothed version of the Mona Lisa.

4: Camille Claudel
After spending her formative years in the lively Parisian district of Montparnasse with her mother and siblings, Camille Claudel set her sights on becoming a sculptor and enrolled in the prized Académie Colarossi from 1882, under the guidance of artist Alfred Boucher. 'A Gallehault indeed', it was he who, three years later, asked Rodin to take over in mentoring his pupil. Utterly charmed by the young sculptress, Claudel soon fell into Rodin’s favour as a zealous assistant and lover, and the two engaged in a relationship that lasted over 15 years. Rodin's reluctance to leave Beuret, the mother of his son, progressively drove Claudel mad – to the point that she was diagnosed with a persecution complex. Her legacy, though, was not limited to her association with Rodin, she was widely considered to be a talented artist in her own right, aptly described by art critic Mirbeau as "a revolt against nature: a woman genius".

5: Lydia Delectorskaya
After tragically losing both of her parents to typhus and cholera as a child, Russia-born Lydia Delectorskaya was raised under the care of her aunt. After a vicious civil war broke out in 1922, Delectorskaya fled to France with the intention of becoming a doctor like her late father. But, despite being accepted, she couldn’t afford the Sorbonne’s fees. Poverty-stricken and stuck in a disastrous marriage, she started to take on small jobs as a model, dancer and film extra. During this period she met the pioneering painter Henri Matisse, who asked her to help him to work on his now iconic mural The Dance, but her partner soon gambled away what little money Delectorskaya had managed to cobble together. She was bankrupt again, and started performing in dance marathons to scrape together a living. Matisse then took her situation to heart and decided to make her his wife's caretaker and, a few years later, his model and studio assistant. The resolute, skilled woman she was, Delectorskaya solidly ran the studio and the house for years and stayed by the painter’s side until his death in 1954.