I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week looking at two pictures of bedrooms: we’ve been examining the justly-famous Arnolfini Portrait in two of my classes, and then I came across a painting of a mysterious bedchamber by an anonymous artist when I was (of course) searching for something else entirely: what’s going on here? Actually, what’s going on in both paintings? Bedroom scenes are pretty provocative.
Scene in a Bedchamber, Unknown Artist, c. 1700, Victoria & Albert Museum; The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434, National Gallery, London.
I’ve got very little information on this first painting, so it invites speculation and many return visits. We have a well-appointed bedchamber in which something has happened: is the person in the doorway looking at the remains of the night before? A chair has been overturned, a little dog is running towards the door with a slipper in his mouth, wallpaper in peeling off the wall, cards are on the dressing table. Some sort of wild card party in which someone lost his/her shirt, or at least a slipper? I’m not sure if anyone is actually in the bed; we can’t quite see in there. I’ve got too much information on the Arnolfini portrait but it remains somewhat enigmatic: ostensibly it is a double portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but at what stage in their relationship/lives? Is this a betrothal portrait, a wedding portrait, or perhaps a memento mori? Does the woman’s apparently-expectant appearance represent fertility (along with the symbols in the room) or is it just a fashion statement? Like the painting above, we have a rather flagrant display of wealth here: Arnolfini was a member of a wealthy Italian merchant family living in Bruges and he looks the part. And who are those figures in the doorway, reflected very cleverly in the convex mirror? We have a dog and slippers here too!
Scenes of curtain lectures purport to give us a little bit more information about what’s going on behind those bedclothes, but they are really just commentaries on nagging housewives. From its first use in the seventeenth century, the phrase referred to those moments after the curtains had been drawn and the wife would berate her (poor) husband with all the pent-up demands of the day, until he (mercifully) fell asleep.
Two Curtain Lectures: Thomas Heywood. A curtaine lecture. London, 1637 (STC 13312); Richard Newton print, London, 1794, British Museum.
Rather less compelling, but still interesting to me because they are both so staged, are two Salem bedroom views published by Detroit Publishing Company in the first decade of the twentieth century: one is a “New England Bedroom c. 1800” and the other is “Clifford’s Bedroom” in the House of the Seven Gables. I’m not sure where the first one actually was, but the Essex Institute retains the copyright, so I assume it is one of George Dow’s period rooms (the first in the country). I love the fancy chairs in Clifford’s room at the Gables, and the portrait: Abraham Lincoln? These two cards much have had a huge print run, as I see them everywhere.
Back across the Atlantic, to a painting that was produced around the same time as these postcards. Again, this image has captured my curiosity as I can’t figure out what is going on between these three people in the bedroom. And that bed and their shoes! Like the painting at the beginning of the post, I think a creative person could conceive a complete sketch–perhaps even an entire novel–around just this one scene. Or just a funny caption.
Two Men and a Woman in a Bedroom, Otto Friedrich Carl Lendecke, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.