7 September 2016. A choice of two or three examples for paintings of persons in interiors is not a lot to gain a comprehensive overview over the subject. On the other hand, a careful selection may allow to see changes in perception of the relationship between rooms and their occupants over the centuries.
First an example for Northern European genre painting, i.e. that period of time starting in 16th century Flanders, when the middle class first came into wealth, which allowed them to become interested in the interiors of their homes and surround themselves with paintings. The everyday situations depicted preferably – i.e. persons in their interiors – exerted a special appeal and became immensely popular at that time (Meagher, 2008).
Having to pick a painting I found that I was eerily uncomfortable with most scenes, no matter how brilliant the painting. For some unknown reason they felt both familiar and totally dark and foreign, so I went for a more lighthearted watercolour by Adriaen van Ostade (1610 – 1685, Dutch Republic) (Fig. 1):
The scene looks tidy, pleasant and at ease (maybe this is the special appeal to me, overwhelmed by our own situation as I am), the people look well-fed and comparatively well dressed. The weaver’s family is seated in a makeshift arrangement near the open door, presumably in order to allow the reader of the newspaper to see the print. As stated by Meagher (2008) the Dutch Republic was a poineer nation to publish newspapers on a regular basis at a time when being able to read the news and interpret the contents was by no means natural. I guess that one of the purposes of the depicted scene is the presentation of the family as well-educated and involved in the public affairs of the country. By producing a stable triangle consisting of the three grown-ups the primary focal point lies at the centre of the lower half of the open door, which at the same time is one of the brighter areas of the interior. While there is nothing in particular to see in that spot this setup might carry a message, although I might be totally wrong here: By opening the door light, and thus enlightenment, can enter the inside of the house. Both lie at the foundations of a prosperous family and this is what the commissioner of the painting may have had in mind.
When flicking through “Vitamin P2” (Schwabsky, 2011) in order to gain an overview over the trends of the present decade, I got the impression that there might be an increasing interest in fusing interiors of buildings with the interior, so to speak, of their occupants, and even the paintings themselves with the interiors of the buildings they are presented in. It is as if artists were investigating the limits of dissolving boundaries between all insides and outsides. After Vitamin P2 the concept of figures in interiors appeared somewhat outdated.
So I had to go elsewhere for more information. Looking for contemporary examples I came across the following in the Saatchi online gallery, by Sherre Wilson-Liljegren, called “Gallery Visit” (Wilson-Liljegren, n.d.). The style is described as magical realism. There is nothing like a gallery visit to be seen in this painting, two cuddling baboons are seated on a stylish sofa in a living room, which is bare except for an electric fan on the floor and a painting above a tall radiator. I like the setup, the extraordinary idea, the colours and the wonderful light in that painting. There is not a lot I could speculate about on the artist’s intentions for choosing such an arrangement, but it is a nice and at the same time worrying concept that other primates might take over seamlessly from what a failed human species left behind. Here the interior does not fit the occupants at all and this is what creates an impulse to have a closer look at a subjectwise inconspicuous painting.
A more typical example for what a present-day painted representation of figures in an interior might look like I found on Saatchi, too, by Pavel Kryz, “The Television” (Kryz, n.d.). The piece radiates that weird uninvolvedness, which I mentioned before in a number of research posts and which seems to have infected 21th century artists at a pandemic rate. Both the room and the person seem totally exchangeable, there is nothing there to help guess whether the man belongs in that space or was left there by the owner of the room. He seems unable to change anything about his position or the situation and his hovering near the wall radiates discomfort. Personally I find this style unspiring, because I feel that whatever there is to see in such a painting will make no difference to me or the world whatsoever. I rather wish for 21st century artists to take responsibility and get involved with all their strength. At least this is where I want to see myself with my own work.
5 June 2016. Feeling that I rather want to paint my own interior I embarked on some research regarding the painting of (external) rooms through the times, staring with the Dutch realist genre painters. In order to connect with my own mood I chose examples, where I believe I could read a connection between outer and inner spaces from a painting.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, genre painting deals with the realistic analysis of everyday life and is devoid of imagination, idealisation or a narrative . The period lasted from roughly 1500 until 1960. Its beginnings coincided with the Reformation, the decline of the importance of religious art and concomitant rise of private art lovers and customers (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010; Collins, n.d.(a)).
A famous early genre painter was the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys (1466-1530, Belgium), with his intriguing work “The Money Lender and His Wife” (Fig. 1):
Matsys was well known for his exuberant realism in his depiction of the physical appearance and mental state of the people he portrayed in their surroundings, which made him one of the early caricaturists and thus of great interest to me. The above painting is full of religious and moral symbolism (Bloom, 2007). For the purpose of this exercise, however, we are supposed not to analyse the ideas behind a painting, but the technical aspects employed to let the viewer connect with the experience made by the portrayed persons. Most obvious in this task is the enormous detail in all parts of the painting, making the viewer a keen observer by sitting at the table with the couple. At the same time, the painter includes every possible support to the viewer as to the possible meaning of the painting. It is obvious that the couple are in a way concerned with the buying or selling of valuable items, since the man on the left appears to not only to guess at the value of the item he is holding in his left hand, but at the same time to practically “feel” the balancing vlaue of the coin in his right hand. It is very likely that a contemporary viewer will have felt more at home with the furnishings of the time, in particular they would have been able to read from it much more of the social status of the depicted couple. From my own perspective, if I did not know the title of the painting, I might be tempted to suspect, from the quietly worried look on the lady’s face, that financial problems are forcing a wealthy couple to sell some of their belongings.
Particularly appealing to me from a technical aspect is also the work of Baroque painter Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678, Netherlands) (Fig. 2). Linear perspective is masterly applied by him, so that the viewer feels an impulse to enter the spaces prepared for him. In the painting below, the artist includes many items on the way, some of which only partly visible, which make it easy and interesting to follow the sequence of rooms through the various doorways. Although clearly a genre painting, there is still a narrative. A cage is hanging from the archway, from which a parrot is about to leave (pointing towards a wealthy household, since the owning of exotic animals would not have been a regular sight at the time). The dog seems to be unsure whether he should be welcoming the visitor (the viewer?), more so than the cat with its arched back and the people sitting in the next room, who do not seem to pay any attention whatsoever to the newcomer. It also seems obvious that the people are not expecting visitors, since a dust mop has not been cleared away and something or other has not been picked up from the stairs. Shadows, running into the scenery in the first room, block the visitor’s step in the next room, and thus force the eye to follow a designed path. The room right at the back seems somewhat unconnected, also by design. In my impression it appears to suggest, even with the door open and warm, welcoming colours employed, that it is out of bounds for the visitor.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675, Netherlands), on the other hand, draws the viewer into the painting below, “Officer and Laughing Girl” (Fig. 3), among other techniques, by his masterly transportation of a feeling of intimacy (Liedke, 2003; Collins, n.d.(b)). To me, the position of the soldier in the shade and his body posture suggest that he would not appreciate additional people at the table (technically, the placing of an object in the left or right foreground to create depth is known as “repoussoir” (Sloofman (2009)). The girl, on the other hand, appears to connect with the soldier only at a first glance. When examining her face more closely, her eyes look past the soldier and her smile does not appear totally honest. In my opinion, she feels uncomfortable in the soldier’s presence, which makes her hold onto the glass in her hand, and the (negative) space left between the two makes a viewer like me want to step into the encounter to save the girl some embarassment. I may be totally wrong, however.
18th century Rococo painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779, France) followed the tradition, but chose mundane, seemingly simple subjects. In the painting below (Fig. 4), the scenery seems a bit depressing. It appears that the lady’s everyday occupation includes an exhausting amount of peeling turnips. The viewer is drawn into the scene not least by a feeling of sympathy for the lady’s fate. Since she is very obviously not concentrating on her work, the artist provides the viewer with an opportunity to speculate about the reason. The meat cleaver on the chopping block (very cleverly highlighted by a tiny sport of white) is a very rough object to inlcude in a domestic scene. I suspect that it may be an allusion to war and thus it may not be difficult to guess at the thoughts of the woman. Technically, the painter made it very easy for the viewer to enter the scene via an open stretch of floor without real or symbolic obstructions.
For reasons of personal interest in caricature, I again include William Hogarth (1667-1764, England) (8), who became famous for his satirical view on the world (Benenson, 2010). Below a detail from his painting “The Gate of Calais” (Fig. 5). While part of a much larger scene, this detail carries all attributes of a genre painting. To me there appear to be several routes into this part of the painting, the strongest probably the giant lump of meat next to the horrible friar’s face, together with his greedy hands – the shape of which is probably replicated in the pointed ends of the portcullis, though which the head of a procession is visible.
Moving into the 19th century, I became aware of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) (Galitz, 2009), the leading realist painter in France at that time, and his painting “The Grain Sifters” (1854, Fig. 5). To me, the scene appears to be overly dramatic for the subject, while providing no way into the space for the viewer. To me, the girl in the red dress seems to carry a message on her back, reading: “We are not interested, leave us alone. We hate the work we do and we do not want you to see us doing it.” Which may be in line with Courbet’s interest in the working conditions of the poor.
Funnily enough, the style and subjects of genre painters seemed to be relatively resistant to major change and radical influence far into the 20th century. Max Liebermann (1847-1935) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011), for example, had no different view on domestic scenes than his colleagues in past centuries. August Macke (1887-1914) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005), during his incredibly short career to be ended by war, adapted his style somewhat to a mix of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, but in my opinion a funny out-of-place feeling of the subject remains (Fig. 6).
Maybe the defined limitedness of the subject does not allow a step to be made away from the traditional. Today, interestingly, any realistic portrayal of domestic life appears somewhat heroic, see e.g. the work of US artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978, USA) (Collins, n.d.(c)), one of the last representatives of genre painting, known as social realism (The Art Story, n.d.) during the early 20th century, before it finally died away.
Benenson, S. E. (2010) William Hogarth [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Hogarth [Accessed 5 June 2016]
Matsys, Q. (1514) The Money Lender and His Wife [oil on panel] [online]. Louvre, Paris. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Money_Changer_and_His_Wife#/media/File:Quentin_Massys_001.jpg [Accessed 5 June 2016]