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.
February 26th, 2013 at 9:50 am
I had never thought about how enigmatic and charming bedroom paintings are. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck is one of my favourite paintings ever, I’ve literally spent hours looking at that painting in the National Gallery.
February 26th, 2013 at 10:08 am
I know; I cannot look at it too many times. It never fails to captivate and delight me.
February 26th, 2013 at 9:55 am
The top photo is very interesting. The second photo is plain creepy. I remember seeing it before and it scared me as a kid.
The next to the last one makes me think that it is from about the late 1800’s and could be something from times we can remember. It reminds me of my Grandparents style.
February 26th, 2013 at 10:09 am
February 26th, 2013 at 10:28 am
The man on the left is clearly a salesman! It’s an upmarket salesroom, and he is telling her ” Seriously Ma’am. suspension is all the rage at the moment, you won’t know until you try!!’
I loved trying to work out the mystery in the first painting, it looks to me as though the figure on the doorway looks guilty, and the dog is carrying ladies slippers, the detail of the wall hanging is a lovely one, but I think it is a fabric wall hanging rather than paper, which used to hang in Elizabethan houses for warmth as well as conspicuous wealth. Perhaps?
February 26th, 2013 at 10:35 am
Your guesses are as good as mine–but I do think you’re right about the salesman and I love your caption. But what a strange subject for a “serious” painting!
February 26th, 2013 at 11:00 am
These are all fascinating to look at and wonder…
February 26th, 2013 at 11:30 am
The van Eyck has always weirded me out a bit. Even as a kid my first thought was that these two don’t seem happy, and now as I look at it, they don’t even seem to be coherent. Yet, it’s definitely a captivating painting.
February 26th, 2013 at 5:44 pm
I really like the first one because it’s interesting to see where your mind automatically takes you in the interpretation. I saw the overturned chair and immediately thought wild party!
February 26th, 2013 at 6:16 pm
I have always found this 16th century painting called “Tobias and Sara on their Wedding Night” interesting as well; dogs (fidelity)… slippers.
February 26th, 2013 at 8:48 pm
I love it, Emma–it’s particularly interesting in stained glass. What is it about dogs (and slippers)? I have a loyal cat who sleeps on my bed every night, but they never get any credit.
February 26th, 2013 at 9:10 pm
I agree! I wonder what the connection was. I only know of one painting in particular by Bacchiacca (sp?) called “Woman with a Cat” c. 1500. The Egyptians had it right.
February 26th, 2013 at 11:52 pm
The 1st painting reminds me of Louis 14 bed at Versailes – a bad with a secret door next to it. Second is clear to me – the woman is asking him to pay her for the future baby (her extended hand). He looks exhausted and hesitate….obviously he lost a lot of weight doing his job……LOL. Just a joke – please, no disrespect is intended.
February 26th, 2013 at 11:54 pm
regret bad spelling above – “bad” in lieu of “bed” – well that was BAD!
February 27th, 2013 at 9:27 am
The ‘slippers’ in the Arnolfini painting look like clogs to me, what you wear when you go outside to keep your feet out if the muck.
I always felt sorry for the woman: the guy looks like such a pill and she seems quite sweet.
I agree about the salesman with the swinging bed! quite funny –
and I also find the cards suspect – pretty-ing up our history, hoping to sell reproductions of the furniture…
A great series
February 27th, 2013 at 9:47 am
That’s the Colonial Revival for you.
April 24th, 2013 at 11:22 am
“Yes Lady Pumpernickleby, I can assur you that the Gondola bed will re-ignite His Lordship’s “enthusiasm”, reminiscent of your honneymoon in Venice.
April 25th, 2013 at 6:13 am
January 17th, 2017 at 1:44 pm
I think the first painting suggests the end of life: The cards on the table, fate; the overturned chair, death; and the peeling wall paper, the ravages of time. The person in the doorway is looking at what is to come.
January 17th, 2017 at 1:45 pm