Interior Lives

A couple eating lunch
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Le Déjeuner, 1923. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

As we have been spending more time indoors recently, we thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight some of the works of art in the collection that focus on people in their homes.

From portraits displaying the trappings of wealth, to humble genre scenes, to records of fleeting moments in everyday life, there are many fascinating works in the collection exploring the ideas of home and domesticity, gender roles, status and taste.

Let's look through the keyhole at some of the private spaces painted by artists.

Painted portrait of a family in an interior Attributed to Strickland Lowry (1737-c.1785), An Interior with Members of a Family, 1770s. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Attributed to Strickland Lowry (1737-c.1785), An Interior with Members of a Family, 1770s.

This painting has frustrated scholars for many years as the family represented in it have not been identified with certainty. The painting is an invaluable record of late eighteenth-century Irish interior decoration. The narrowness of the room and the window openings indicate that the interior belongs to an urban house. Confident and finely dressed, the family present themselves in a room that stands as a testament to their affluence and modishness.

A fireplace

Features such as the key-hole grate, the door panelling, the gilded pier-glass, the chimney breast and the curtains were all highly fashionable in Ireland in the 1770s. The wallpaper, which bears an architectural pattern, and the Smyrna carpet, from Izmir in Turkey, were similarly expensive and on trend. Firescreens, such as the one visible in the background, were employed to shield women’s lead-based make-up, which was prone to running.

Having spent most of his early life in his native Cumbria, the artist Lowry first came to Ireland around 1762. He returned on several occasions, working for patrons in the east of the country.

Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848-1943), 'Le Petit Déjeuner'. © National Gallery of Ireland. Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848-1943), 'Le Petit Déjeuner'. © National Gallery of Ireland.

Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848-1943), Le Petit Déjeuner, 1881.

Many late nineteenth-century artists painted informal portraits of friends and family members in domestic settings. The sitter here is Maria Feller, music teacher and daughter of an Italian count, who shared an apartment in Paris with Sarah Purser and the Swiss artists Louise Breslau and Sophie Schaeppi. Feller’s rather vacant expression suggests ennui rather than contemplation. Urban ennui was a recurring motif in painting of the period, and characterises several works by Edgar Degas, who Purser is known to have admired greatly. Degas was among many artists to paint solitary young women in interior settings, whose appearance communicated the dislocation experienced by many in the rapidly expanding urban environment.

A cup and bread
A woman's face and lamp

Although Purser went on to become an established portrait painter in her native Ireland, this picture is not a portrait. The title, meaning The Breakfast, indicates that it is intended to be viewed as a depiction of an everyday moment. The setting, featuring among other items a gilt-framed mirror, a fine china cup and a porcelain lamp, is bourgeois but modest, as is the young woman’s clothing. 

A couple eating a meal Abraham de Pape (1620-1666), The Repast, c.1658. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Abraham de Pape (1620-1666), The Repast, c.1658

This tranquil scene shows a couple having a simple meal in the company of their dog. They are seated in a modest interior with a fireplace, and a box bed to the right. The artist included a variety of domestic details. A bed warmer, used to heat up the bed before sleeping, can be seen hanging on the far right. The woman's foot rests on a foot warmer: a perforated box with an earthenware vessel inside to hold hot coals. The empty cupboard and the hole in the woman's stocking hint at the couple's poverty.

Sometimes, in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings, seemingly straightforward items are actually symbolic. For example, in other paintings, a woman's discarded shoe suggests promiscuity. A foot warmer and bed warmer could represent a woman's desire for love and comfort. However, such symbols must always be read within the context of the painting.

These items in De Pape's painting could, perhaps, alongside the woman's gloomy facial expression, be read as hints that the old couple's marriage is not a happy one. However, the objects may simply serve to reinforce the representation of poverty: the cast off shoe reveals the woman's threadbare sock, the foot warmer and bed warmer suggest that the house is cold and damp, and the woman's expression may reveal nothing more than her disappointment in her meagre meal.

A footwarmer
A woman and a bedwarmer

The scene is similar to another painting by De Pape which depicts Anna and Tobit, an impoverished married couple referenced in The Book of Tobit, an apocryphal book of the Old Testament.

A couple eating lunch Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Le Déjeuner, 1923. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Le Déjeuner, 1923

Bonnard is known for his depictions of private life in domestic contexts. This vibrantly coloured scene is set in Ma Roulotte (My Caravan), the artist's country house at Vernonnet in the Seine Valley. Bonnard purchased the house in 1912, and for several decades its light-filled interior, sunny terrace and verdant grounds provided inspiration for him to explore the effects of light and colour.

The woman pictured at the dining table is Marthe de Méligny, the artist’s muse, model and future wife. The man is believed to be Bonnard. Their relaxed poses, along with the crumpled napkin and casual table setting, convey a sense of informality, warmth and ease. The bold diagonal stripes of the tablecloth playfully distort perspective and enhance the decorative nature of the scene.

Bonnard is likely to have painted Le Déjeuner in his studio, working from sketches, photos and memory to create a composite of real and imagined details. He enjoyed renewed success in the 1920s; Henri Matisse and Paul Signac, who were similarly preoccupied with colour and pattern, greatly admired his work.

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