The transformation of the Dutch interior from modest to extravagant is recorded in the 17c. interiors of Pieter de Hooch (1629-84). In his paintings from the 1650s we still see traces of abstemious living in the whitewashed walls, floor tiles, few objects, modest clothes, glimpses of the local inhabitants of Delft going about their simple daily lives in their interiors.
By the 1670s he had found a wealthier clientele in Amsterdam who wanted more contrived paintings depicting the luxury they owned. In The Card Players, below, there are marble pillars and inlay, gold Spanish leather, Oriental rugs, fashionable French costume, pearl earrings, elaborate hairdos. The occupants draw the eye, first the young pair of card players in the foreground, who by the expression on the woman’s face and their posture, seem to be hatching some plot together. My eye then is taken to the background couple, where he seems to be impressing upon her some devious winning strategy. The atmosphere, to my mind achieved by the rather deep contrasting colours, is one of secrecy and connivance – and who is the mysterious man in the corner, who seems to be observing everything?
But I prefer the simpler, more honest folk I see in de Hooch’s earlier paintings, with their atmosphere of calm restraint and virtuous domesticity. The scene is often an inner room or sheltered courtyard In most of them the geometry of tiles and ceiling beams lend perspective to compositions which often comprises floor, ceiling and two walls meeting in a corner. There is usually an open door or window letting us see out into a brighter exterior. The radiant sunlight floods in from outside through the doorway, transforming the scenes. De Hooch carefully studies and delicately depicts the play of light and shade as it falls on various surfaces in the room, defining their forms.
In terms of aerial perspective, the usual devices are brought into play – details are sharper in the foreground, colours are more saturated and generally warmer. In the middle ground – the space between the inner and outer doors – colours begin to be toned down and the fewer details to blur slightly. The far distance is hazily indicated in tones of coloured greys.
In The Bedroom the light infuses the atmosphere with harmony, intimacy and warmth. It comes from two sources, the open window and double door, both lighting up the child. The mother, placed out of the direct light from the door, is busy with household chores in the right hand, darker half of the composition. I’m drawn into the experience of these occupants by the setting – the compositional lines are stable verticals and horizontals; by the colours, which are warm and harmonious; and also by the figures’ stance and gesture, showing their familiar communication with each other.
Vermeer 1632-75 was a contemporary of de Hooch, and just as in the latter’s Card Players, in Vermeer’s The Concert the room contains much ostentatious luxury – fine chairs, painted harpsichord, impressive paintings on the walls, oriental rugs, marble floors and expensive costumes. There’s an atmosphere of diligent concentration among the participants – I feel they are a professional troupe practicing for tonight’s concert – the right hand singer reading her sheet music and indicating the time-count with her right hand to her fellow musicians. The large painting on the right is an explicit bordello scene by Dirck van Baburen, suggesting the setting itself is perhaps a high class bordello.
My eye is drawn into the scene first of all via the sumptuous red rug, then follows the trail of red via the bass viol (?) on the floor to the back of the man’s chair. These patches of bright red are enclosed by large areas of low-key silvery-greys, and dark browns, making them more noticeable. The group are also bathed in diffuse daylight from the left, presumably from a high up window, throwing the white skirt, red chair and the face of the singer into sharp detail. The bold design of the floor draws the eye, and this also may be a device to lead the eye to the group via its strong diagonals and from the gloom of the foreground to the startlingly bright contrast in the tiles on which they are placed.
Where Vermeer and de Hooch place an emphasis on a dream of domestic order, Jan Steen (1626-79) shows ‘the nightmare of a household totally gone to plot’ (loc 1726, Looking at the Overlooked). In The Dissolute Household everything is out of place and in uproar; our eye travels around the various occupants of the room and a narrative begins to unfold. The mother, normally upholder of purity and household order, slumps in a drunken stupor at five o’clock in the afternoon, before a plate of oysters whose shells litter the floor, along with discarded playing cards; the father smokes and leers at the bosomy female with a guitar; the biggest child is stealing from his mother’s pocket and the two younger ones gleefully holding up the coins;the dog is sniffing the dinner which has been left on the floor; and above it all, the monkey plays with time, yanking the pendulum of the clock above the bedchamber.
We’re being shown the perils of a household indulging in vice and pleasure and losing its moral grip. A serious message indeed, but told with humour – ‘Jan Steen enjoys his unruly households and makes us enjoy them’ (loc 2067 Looking at the Overlooked).
One device used by artists to create interior depth is that of doors – opening up on to other rooms and scenes.
Chardin (1699-1779) also painted scenes of everyday life in the the enclosed domestic interior, where human activity is the central focus. In The Washerwoman and Woman Drawing Water, doors open up further scenes of women working, expanding the interior in three dimensional space.
In Return From the Market there are a series of doors – a couple converse on the right in the background while the servant eavesdrops.
These Chardin paintings seem to portray an enclosed, oppressive interior spaces where all is quiet and secret.
Bonnard’s (1867-1947) interiors by contrast to Chardin’s are full of pattern, light and warm colours, some celebrating the open door or window leading to the garden and the outdoors. It’s difficult to decipher their perspective; space is truncated; there are illogical intruding and receding angles, tilted tabletops, objects which seem to hover. He used the layering of colour on the canvas to express his sensations when faced with his subject, setting carefully selected colours against each other, probing ‘colour as it translates light and light as it transforms colour’ (www.metmuseum.org). The rooms and objects in them seem familiarly describe daily chores – laying the table, pouring the tea. Apparently he started a painting with very small scale drawings and developed watercolours over time (from memory, in the studio, rather than sitting at the dining room table), becoming more and more familiar with the subject.
Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet shows a very small part of a room, unlike any of the other paintings I’ve chosen so far.
The figures in Bonnard interiors are elusive, blending into the background, disappearing off the margins of the canvas, as in the yellow shawl being worn by a person with her back to us. There’s a door, but it’s shut. The space is quite flat – there’s little depth. Bonnard uses architectural features such as the fireplace, and objects to guide the viewer around the composition. Colour is all, but as in Vermeer, in this painting it occurs in patches surrounded by grey-brown neutrals.
In The French Window The eye is drawn first of all to the white door and the idyllic outside landscape. But the door, although glazed, is closed – themes very much a sense of ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. The sunlight however flows into the room touching and transforming surfaces it lands on – the wall becomes a golden yellow; the hair and shoulder of the figure gleam and reflect the light. With Bonnard, colour is the subject, it describes the space and light and provides our entree into the painting. The figure is undefined and introspective. Behind her in the mirror is another figure – perhaps the artist.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) interiors, like Chardin’s, portray women in lonely, enclosed spaces, but Hopper’s figures are often completely isolated in their inner world – either because they are actually on their own, or where there are several figures each is immersed in its own introspective meditations.
He uses the angles of harsh light raking the interior, entering through doors and windows, to describe the space, the canvas divided and the composition delineated with the angles of the room’s construction. Colours are dull and dreary; rooms are furnished with large, utilitarian beds and armchairs – there’s no room for ornaments, loved or personal objects. The interiors seem as impersonal as a bad motel room. There is always a figure – usually one, sometimes more. The world outside the window is an empty forest of trees or high-rises.
I find it difficult to like Hopper’s interiors; they feel cold and inhuman. I feel that like Sickert and Uglow he treats the female figure in a way I slightly recoil from.
It’s interesting to compare Egon Schiele’s (1890-1918) Room in Neulengbach with Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Bedroom in Aries, where the furniture and objects are the central focus for both. The content is similar; there is no human occupant; an uncomfortably narrow single bed in each; chair, a table with some small objects, pictures on the wall. A major difference to note is the viewpoint – Schiele’s interior is as if viewed by a fly on the ceiling looking down! His furniture is finer, less rustic – but his room seems cell-like, a contemplative space, as it has no windows or doors – there’s no way out; or cocoon like, due to the absence of corners in the white, enveloping walls. The colours are harmonious, rather elegant and quiet.
The Bedroom in Arles on the other hand is a homely place; you feel at any minute its occupant will come cheerily through the door and clatter around looking for something or other – or that maybe we, the viewer are the occupant, standing in the room surveying it, wondering whether to have a cool siesta. The window, while shuttered, hints at sunny light outside. The atmosphere, provided by the pairing of the two main colours, yellow and lavender is calm, inviting, restful. There are other paired complementaries too, in the orange washstand and blue jug, the red blanket and greenish bed.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) interiors, like Edward Hopper’s, sometimes make use of a single figure posed in an urban interior – often a balcony or verandah, opening on to a spacious landscape. His lone seated figures are more relaxed and at home in their surroundings than Hopper’s , gazing out at the view, drinking tea, reading a book. Objects are few, limited to a chair, a book or a cup and saucer. One thing Ithat appeals to me and that strikes me about his paintings, is his use of rich colour hues in very dark shadows and very light tones illuminating the interior to describe the effect of the Californian sunlight.
bbc.co.uk accessed 04/08/2015