Research point : Figures in interiors

Look at some paintings of interiors from different periods and choose two or three  that particularly appeal to you… Consider what you thought the artist’s intentions were and look at the technical and creative solutions brought to the subject.

I’ve put together a Pinterest Board on this topic  here. Looking back I find that I have already studied quite a few pictures of figures in interiors in my blog post here. The pictures I focused on included Las Meninas by Velazquez, The Awakening of Conscience by Holman Hunt, Opal Breakfast by Whistler, Sunlit Interior by Eduard Vuillard, Mother Bathing Child by Jack Smith and Maids by Paula Rego. I’ve added all these to my Pinterest Board.

For this exercise I will choose a couple more pictures but first I’ll outline some of the ways in which interior features may contribute to the impact of a picture and bring additional layers of meaning.

  • Doors and windows  Open they may symbolise the future or the anticipated arrival of someone signficiant. An open door may also suggest a departure or escape. Closed doors or curtained windows may represent being trapped or isolated. Figures may be standing in a doorway looking on  and lead us to think about  their relationship with the main figure(s).
  • Mirrors are a much used device. They may reflect the main figure or an ‘unknown’ person and lead us to ask ourselves who are they, why are they there? The reflection in a mirror may provide contrast… for example in Manet’s Bar at the Folie Bergere there is a sad-faced woman standing behind the bar but the mirror behind reflects jovial customers having a a whale of a time.
  • Furnishing, wallpapers, fabrics can all add framing detail and complement the main figure as well as making statements about interests and occupations..
  • Objects may symbolise moods and emotions (e.g. the shell in the Andrew Wyeth’s Chambered Nautilus described below).
  • Interiors may speak of wealth and richness or the workaday routines of daily life (e.g. ‘kitchen sink’ paintings such as Mother Bathing Child by Jack Smith.
  • A single figure seated at a table tends to speak of wistfulness and waiting. A woman quietly reading or sewing may speak of their diligence and qualities as a good wife. Of course interpretation will vary with cultural differences and historical perspective. The Taliban would probably consider a woman reading to be a punishable crime. Now I think about it, I realise that the picture probably wouldn’t be painted as in fundamentalist Islam depicting sentient beings is strongly discouraged… the artist would have to content themselves with geometric patterns or work very privately.
  • Space and distance can describe relationships between the figures in a painting. Are they close or distant, engaged with each other or absorbed in their own worlds? It can also express the relationship between the artist and the subject(s), e.g. David Hockney’s painting, My Parents – Mum is attentive, looking at the artist while Dad is absorbed in his newspaper, a bit bored with the whole process.

Chambered Nautilus, Andrew Wyeth, 1956

A woman is sitting up in a four poster  bed, she’s staring at a closed window and although the blind is up and light shines through we cannot see a view. There is a basket of books and paper on the bed and on a bench at the end of the bed is a shell, a chambered nautilus.

The first clue to this painting is in the basket of books and paper which indicates that the woman probably spends a lot of time in bed. In fact she is the artist’s mother-in-law and because of illness was confined to her bed.

As it grows the creature inside the chambered nautilus (also known as a pearly nautilus) moves from one chamber to another and seals off the one behind, the shell can have as many as 30 chambers. And so the shell symbolises how the woman is isolated and cut off from the outside world… she is imprisoned in her chamber.

Wyeth is a master of light and shadow. In this picture the fine, translucent drapes around the bed appear to be moving in a gentle breeze which may be coming from a door. Perhaps the door is open but closed to the woman? The painting of the drapes is exquisite. To achieve these wonderful effects with light Wyeth worked with multiple layers of transparent paint.

My mother alone in her dining room by Anthony Green, 1975

The artist’s mother is seated at a highly polished dining room table (she is reflected in it). The viewpoint is from above but the artist is not making eye contact with the mother who is staring straight ahead rather than up at him. The picture is framed in such a way as to include the walls and ceilings. The doors and windows are closed. The mother is surrounded by fancy possessions – china, clocks, silver… all kinds of decorative, precious objects.  Everything is very clean and tidy. The scene is pulled together by an intricately patterned carpet. There is a reflection in the  mirror at the back of the room.

This picture (and the title) shouts out loneliness. The mother looks stern and unapproachable. Perhaps her husband has died? Perhaps her home and possessions have taken on a disproportionate importance in her life and replaced human relationships? The walls and ceiling seem to be boxing the mother in. Has she chosen to cut herself off from the outside world? It’s hard to imagine friends or family in this room – they might mess it up or break something.  The reflection in the mirror at the back of the room seems to have angel’s wings. Has she become a martyr to her grief? Is no one good enough for her? Is she waiting to die and go to heaven? The viewpoint and lack of eye contact with the artist (and the viewer) suggests a cool perhaps broken relationship.

This intriguing picture prompts more questions than it gives answers.


Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich – Reality exhibition




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