Project 3 – Research Point: Figures in Interiors

I am going to make first an overview about figures in interior in art history before looking specifically at some painting I find appealing.


In part 2 I researched the interior genre in art history (Schaffeld, 12 Jul  2016) and found that in the Dutch genre paintings quite often people, mostly women and children, were depicted. I think for obvious reason that men can show their style and way of living home. Interestingly I found one different one from Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627 – 1678)  ‘Les Pantoufles (The Slippers)‘, 1654/1662 in which a domestic interior is shown without figures. But is is obvious from the painting that it is about human presence with items telling a story. It is up to the observer’s imagination and perhaps to at that time accustomed habits to explore the pictorial space and to make the mind.

Another great dutch artist of domestic interiors with figures was Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). In his painting ‘De liefdesbrief (The Love Letter)‘, 1669-70 Vermeer took similar to the  painting by van Hoogstraten a looking through a doorway viewpoint into another room with a woman with her maid who passed a letter over. A painting at the back wall enlightens in the visual vocabulary of the 17th century that it is obvious a love letter (sea = love, ship = lover). Poses of the figures alongside visual cues can add to a narrative. The viewpoint into another room adds a certain intimate atmosphere to the scene. (Available from:,3 )

This brings me to the newer painting by Gwen JohnRoom in Paris‘, 1907-09 (Lubbock, 2010). A room with a window and an empty chair. The painting in calm muted pale colors conveys a serene atmosphere. There is one clear and sharp interruption by the shadow arch from the ceiling wall. It is said that the painting was done after the broken relationship between Gwen John and Auguste Rodin for whom she was sitting as a model.

An empty chair that inspired Vincent van Gogh to paint two empty chairs. one for him and one for Gauguin during the time they lived together in Arles: ‘Gauguin’s Chair‘, 1888. Oil on canvas (90.5 x 72.7 cm). Available from:; and ‘Van Gogh’s Chair’, Oil on canvas (91.8 x 73 cm) Available from: Both chair paintings on the traditional french canvas format for portraits.

Some further figurative interior paintings I came across and finding worth making note here. Also as suggested by my tutor to look into these artists:

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947)

Bonnard was interested in interplay of reflections of coloured light on body and the room. The model is Marthe, Bonnard’s companion and favourite model. It was assumed that she had a neurotic illness as she use to take bath quite intensively.

Richard Diebenkorn (1922 – 1993):
– ‘Seated Figure with Hat‘, 1967. Oil on canvas (146.69 × 156.85 cm)  Available from:
=> This large scale painting is a cornerstone in Diebenkorn’s development from his mature figurative paintings toward abstraction. Wider areas are getting flatter in color and bolder. The background seems like a huge abstract painting.

An earlier figurative painting in interior by Diebenkorn shows his development.
– ‘Sleeping Woman‘, 1961 Available from:
=> Bold and vibrating color areas seem to contrast with the silence and calm of the sleeping woman, as Diebenkorn it is about the “strenght in reserve – tension beneath the calm” (Stilwell, 2011) The painting consists out of a more organic forms and more geometric shapes in the surrounding space.  Key elements in this painting are the partly conceal head and the mirror. The paintings at the back wall are in reference to Henri Matisse (1869-1954) ‘Studio, Quai Saint-Michel’, 1916.

Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992)

[online images]

I would have loved to see the recent exhibition at Tate Liverpool ‘The Invisible Rooms‘ (18 May – 18 September 2016) (available from: The title already fascinates me and reminds of the vacant room by Gwen John  (click here) but in a kind or reverse order.

  • Man and Child‘, 1963
    Oil on canvas (197.5 x 148 cm)

  • Study from the Human Body after Muybridge‘, 1988
    Oil on canvas (198 x 147.5 cm)


Selected paintings of figures in interior:

1) Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940)

In the 1890s, Vuillard explored one of his most famous subjects: interiors with his mother, sister and workers in the corset factory doing their daily tasks. In the surrounding space boldly painted speckled wallpaper so that at times it merges with the figures. Vuillard painted this world as if he were weaving a tapestry – one of his major visual sources in the 1890s – using the whole range of textured effects. Vuillard gave his everyday scenes a heavy, disturbing atmosphere which he owed to his taste in literature and drama.
– ‘Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist‘, 1893
Oil on canvas (46.3 x 56.5 cm) Available from: 


=> Vuillard depicts his mother and his sister at home. Could be normal family portrait but the picture seems quite awkward. The sister pressing herself against the wall. The speckled wallpaper alongside the checkered pattern of her dress – like a continuum of the wall pattern – makes her merging with the mall or disintegrating. His mother, a powerful woman, widow and running her own business, is depicted in dark with a sitting pose demonstrating that power. The flat dark and large areas of her dress is dominating the picture plane. Opposite to that must the sister bend or bow her head – towards the mother and/or the viewer.

The overall composition and the steep linear perspective turns the room into a claustrophobic scene. The cropped picture frame at the top enforces the steep perspective further. All elements seem to fall off balance and into a center of gravity = the mother. The cropped and light coloured objects on the table at the right add further to the center balance of the composition.

Vuillard’s painting approach is a combating of linear textual qualities, flat bold coloured areas, and a dramatic perspectival composition.

Vuillard’s painting ‘The Stitch‘, 1893. Oil on canvas (42 x 33.5 cm). Available from: is another examples of his uniques painting elements: speckled wallpaper, bold tonal contrast, use of black, a at first glance unbalanced composition, unfamiliar viewpoints. 

Vuillard’s later paintings became more realistic although he remained a contemporary artist  challenging tradition and observing modern life with discernment and at time irony.


2) Eric Fischl (b. 1945) an american painter, sculptor, and printmaker. He is married to April Gornik, an american landscape painter of dreamlike and mystic landscapes.

Fiscal is considered as a neo-impressionist painter and since the 1980s he depicted figures in domestic interiors. He works from photographs and combines imaginative scenes in a narrative context. One of his earlier paintings  ‘Bad Boy‘, 198. Oil on canvas (168 x 244 cm) in: Falconer (2015) or [online image] Available from: does show an imagined american domestic scene. An allegory about a boy “experiencing a sexual awakening while stealing a look at his naked mother and pilfering the contents of her purse” (Falconer, 2015 – p. 289). I enjoy the linear qualities and the luminosity depicted in this painting.

What I found an interesting project of depicting domestic scenes is Fischl’s ‘Krefeld‘ project that he organised in 2002 in the Krefelder Kunstmuseen, Germany. He was asked to do an exhibition in the ‘Esters house’ (designed by Mies van der Rohe) within the museum, he approached this in a different way and re-created the domestic interior of that house. A staging, a fictitious life quite in context of re-enactments and reality-TV shows.

Two actors – man and woman – inhabited a temporarily modernly furnished house (The Esters House). Around 2,000 photographs were shot every day from those Fiscal selected a few as sketches for twelve large-scale paintings. The depicted scenes were a mixture of fact and fiction: actors, playing normal people, in an artificial domestic surrounding. At times the scenes in the bedroom, bathroom, living room or dining room are showing intimate or uncanning moments.
– ‘Krefeld Project; Living Room, Scene #3‘, 2002
Oil on Linen (216 x 290 cm)
in: Godfrey (2009) or [online image] Available from:

=> a luminous scene in the living room. The man sitting on the left and the woman dancing on the right. Fischl applies a combination of blurred and sharp edges in his painting to convey a sense of movements and still. A strong light from the left is flooding the room (and the dining room in the back) and makes the shapes. The palette used is rather limited, mostly red and ochre, umbras and black with bold tonal contrasts. Interesting eye catching color use of the complementary green to the left of the red dressing gown of the woman.

I feel reminded to Gerhard Richter’s blurred paintings. And in another painting ‘Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene #2, 2003’ is actually a version of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Woman Descending the Staircase‘, 1965 hanging on the wall.

There is a strong visual sight line between the laminated head of the man and the luminated right hand of the woman. Feels to me like desire, longing. I feel somehow reminded here of Michelangelo ‘The Creation of Adam‘, 1512. Not two hands reaching each other – here one hand and one head. Not quite sure from contextual point of view and I doubt that there would be any intention by Fischl.

This scene out of the 2,000 photographs does show a balance and tension at the same time. By the bold tonal contrasts with the man more merging with the background and the woman pulling forward the overall composition.

3) Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977) a romanian painter who takes inspiration for his paintings  from his personal memories of growing up in communist Romania under the dictatorship of Ceausescu. In that sense his approach seems quite similar to Anselm Kiefer who confronts in his paintings his culture’s dark past in Germany. Ghenie’s paintings are done in a blurred, intense bodily manner. At times the scenes do look like crime scenes. The human presence and human conditions are on stage. I have thoughts of loneliness, hopelessness, abusiveness,

=> A brutal depiction of the reality of Ceausescu and his wife’s last hours before execution. Ghenie used the footage of the trial that went less than one hour to show the room, sparely furbished (table, chairs, sofa, a plant). The figures and especially the faces of the two person are distorted. They look rather empty into different directions with no clear focus. Ghenie applied thick paint and uses knife and other tools to move, to blend the paint over the surface. The palette used is limited mostly reds, browns, blacks and some white areas, spots.

Ghenie reflects with his paining approach the brutal situation and adds the feeling of loneliness and helplessness to the scenery. Without knowing the context one would not come to the conclusion of a trial and execution. The single chair in lighter color to the left is emphasised by the tonal contrast and it spatial distance to the two figures. By that the composition becomes more balanced towards the center. Other than the two figures and the chairs and the plant, the picture is rather an abstract painting. The combination of abstract strokes, marks and figurative elements is something adds to the tension and uncanny moment of this painting.

see also Youtube video (SFMoMA, 2012)



  • Just noticed at the end that I selected three paintings of figures in interior where the stage is a key element. Although the sources used are different (Vuillard: sketches, life drawing,painting of real people (my assumption), Fischl: photo shots from a re-created domestic life with actors,  Ghenie: trial footage)
  • All three paintings do show merging color and shapes of the figures with the surrounding space alongside bold – contrasts to emphasise certain areas. Dark – at times rather black – areas do act either as a frame, compositional element or as a narrative element to enforce expression.
  • A combination of linear qualities and flat coloured areas are consistent in all three paintings.



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