In an article for the November 2020 issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Mull considered “Why Americans Have Turned to Nesting.” She noted that when the pandemic forced her to spend more time in her apartment, she noticed its flaws: “The dusty ledges and shelves, unsightly window-unit air conditioners, and scuffed, jaundiced paint job.” As she started cleaning, fixing, updating, not only did she derive satisfaction from a revamped dwelling, but also a reassuring sense of agency: “I couldn’t control much in the pandemic, but I could control what happened in my own 450 square feet.” She also realized that she was not alone and that an entire nation had decided to ransack home-improvement stores to make their abode more comfortable, or, as a New York Times article put it, “making home a sanctuary”—a logical response to our times’ anxiety-producing uncertainty. (That our living quarters are now visible to all on Zoom certainly plays a role in this new version of “keeping up with the Joneses”!).
As this issue of the Maine Arts Journal invites us to reflect upon how we have adapted to the “new normal” brought by the pandemic and, in particular, how it has limited our sphere of activity to the domestic realm, I was reminded of how this retreat into our homes (some artists were not even able to leave to go work in their studios) has been featured in art for a long time. So, taking a cue from the “nesting” provoked by the pandemic and putting a positive spin on what we’ve been experiencing for almost a year, I decided to take a look at what I like to think of as the “comforts of domesticity.”
Dutch 17th-century artists specialized in depictions of ideal domesticity, and one of my favorite examples is Pieter de Hooch’s interior with two women who are shown placing neatly folded and stacked fresh linen into a massive kaas. At the same time, a girl plays “kolf.” Further into the pictorial space, behind the room where the figures stand, another room opens up onto a street, thus opposing domestic and public realms.
The same dialogue between interior and exterior spaces appears in the famous double portrait that Jan van Eyck painted two centuries earlier. Giovanni Arnolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant from Lucca, poses in his Bruges residence with his wife Giovanna Cenami, the daughter of another powerful Lucchese merchant. Giovanni stands close to the window that looks onto the street, alluding to the city and to business activities, while Giovanna is next to the bed, for she belongs to the domestic realm that she oversees (notice the broom hanging by the bed!). In art, no choice is gratuitous and, more often than not, suggestive of much more than what meets the eye. In a foundational essay, Erwin Panofsky declared the room “by no means an ordinary living room, but a ‘Nuptial Chamber’ in the strict sense of the term, that is to say, a room hallowed by sacramental associations.” Panofsky goes on to list the myriad symbols that transform the double portrait into “a pictorial marriage certificate.”
The principle of hiding symbols under the guise of objects whose presence seems natural in that environment—indeed “at home”—is a distinctive feature of Flemish painting and is referred to by art historians as “disguised symbols.” They are an essential element in Northern Renaissance Annunciations that take place in domestic interiors, the earliest being the Mérode triptych, which, in the memorable words of James Marrow, “seems to assault you with its domesticity.” In the central panel of this small work, meant for display in a private setting and not over an altar in a church, we see the archangel Gabriel visit Mary to deliver the news of the forthcoming birth of Jesus (who, represented as a tiny baby, glides down sun rays towards Mary’s womb, holding a small cross that leaves no doubt about the purpose of his incarnation). The way the triptych is displayed at the Cloisters (the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) with period pieces of furniture is a potent visual demonstration of how truly “modern” the scene’s setting is. And yet, virtually every object in the depiction conveys a profound theological meaning. I couldn’t start listing and discussing them all, so I will limit myself to just a few of the items that form the still life on the table. The open book has two columns, the typical layout for a Bible since at least the 13th century. The vase contains lilies, a flower traditionally associated with Mary’s virginity; there are three of them, thus alluding to the Trinity, but one is a bud as Christ is about to assume human form. The majolica vase, a type used in the Eucharist, is decorated with pseudo-Hebrew writing, and this, along with the scroll (an older type of book, associated with Judaism and the Old Testament) that rests under the codex (the format that in the West replaced the rotulus, the scroll), expresses the passing from the Old to the New Law that is ushered by the birth of Christ, and thus stresses the pivotal moment represented by the Annunciation. Here too, we find a dialogue between interior and exterior: between the room where the Annunciation takes place and the city that appears on both wings of the triptych: on the left, in the back of the courtyard where the donors witness the Annunciation through open doors (symbolizing the doors of heaven) and on the right, through the window in Joseph’s carpentry shop. In so doing, the depiction relates sacred events to our world, literally making the Annunciation at home in the beholder’s here and now. The contemporary viewer, expecting an archaeologically-correct recreation, might condemn the idea of setting a Gospel scene in an early 15th-century abode as a naïve anachronism, but it is instead a potent statement that gives visual form to Thomas Aquinas’s declaration that physical objects are “corporeal metaphors of things spiritual.”
With time on our hands and days on end stuck at home, some might have rediscovered the pleasures of long soaks in the bathtub, an activity that brings to mind the series of paintings Pierre Bonnard did of his wife. These works remain quite mysterious, as in many of them, Marthe is represented much younger than she was (when Bonnard painted this particular version, Marthe was close to 70), and the reasons for her endless bathing are disputed. Whether she was taking cold baths to relieve inflammation due to tuberculosis or as a result of a mental disorder, the fact remains, as we look down on Marthe’s naked body, we are allowed to step into a private area of the Bonnards’ villa on the Riviera to share an intimate moment.
In many of his works, Félix Vallotton similarly makes us privy to what happens behind closed doors. In the painting aptly titled Intimacy, we feel as if we have entered a secluded room—the disarray on the table indicates a personal space, not meant for visitors—and the light hints at drawn curtains, further isolating the space from the outside world. The viewpoint and the cropped furnishings make us feel like we are standing right there, but the couple, absorbed in their embrace, is oblivious to our presence. What is going on in this painting remains a mystery. Who are these people? Is their tryst illicit? As in many of Vallotton’s interiors, there’s a sense of secrecy that permeates the depiction. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled its 2019 exhibition, Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. The show included a series of ten woodcuts, created between 1897 and 1898, titled Intimités— Intimacies. One of the prints shows another couple kissing, comfortably seated on a sofa, next to a table with a carafe, two cups, and a cream jug. What at first glance looks like a bourgeois romantic moment is complicated by the title carved into the block: Le Mensonge—The Lie.
Unlike Vallotton’s unsettling interiors, Vilhelm Hammershøi’s quiet chambers bring a sense of peaceful harmony through their delicate and soothing monochromatic palette. In tidy rooms, tastefully decorated in Biedermeier furniture, bathed in soft sunlight, Hammershøi’s wife Ida often appears, turned away from the artist (and the viewer) or looking down, attentively engaged in serene activities. Other rooms are left empty and in Dust Motes Dancing in Sunbeams, it’s the viewer who becomes focused on a meditative observation of light.
A source for domestic bliss that became remarkably popular during times of lockdown was baking, especially bread, the most basic of foodstuffs, and also the most comforting: can you beat the smell of freshly baked bread? When I think about bread and art, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s paean to life’s simple pleasures, La Brioche, immediately comes to mind. The branch of orange blossoms jabbed on the baked good, perhaps suggesting that it was flavored with orange blossom water, adds a pleasantly fragrant note. On one side is an exquisite Sèvres sugar bowl, its rose finial echoing the orange blossoms; on the other, a glass bottle that holds a golden liquid, very likely a sweet alcoholic beverage. In the front are two peaches, three ladyfinger biscuits, and three cherries. Despite the subdued color palette and stately pyramidal composition, Chardin paints a picture of genteel indulgence: the brioche is a delightfully light type of bread that includes eggs, milk, and butter, an indulgence matched by the valuable Sèvres sugar bowl and its precious content, a recent—and exotic—culinary development, the result of the cultivation of sugarcane in the French Antilles.
Although refined, Chardin’s still-life is a far cry from the over-the-top genre called in 17th-century Holland “Pronkstilleven” (showy still life): an ostentatious accumulation of luxurious objects and foodstuff (many imported), such as in this painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. In Calvinist Holland, such paintings were not just for enjoyment, but also conveyed a moral lesson about the vanity and transience of earthly possessions. Hence the existence of another type of still-life, consisting of simple repasts, as in this work by Clara Peeters. Although pared down, it displays nevertheless hints of luxury with the delicate Venetian glass goblet, the fancy silver knife (whose handle bears the artist’s signature on its side), and the shavings of butter to accompany the hard cheeses, a symbol of abundance. As we think about this retreat into the domestic realm, still life occupies a privileged place: a genre born from the gathering, assembling, and painting of objects, most of them part of our quotidian environment.
During confinement, home improvements were not limited to interior spaces, and so, as soon as the weather permitted it, many turned to gardening. There’s a wonderful lineage of artists’ gardens and, of course, the readers will immediately think of the most famous of all, that of Claude Monet at Giverny—and how its “Water Garden,” with the water lilies, Japanese bridges, and weeping willows, were an undying source of inspiration for the painter: the aging artist didn’t have to travel as he had in the past to Le Havre to paint his foundational Impression, soleil levant (1872), to Chartres (to paint views of the Gothic cathedral façade, 1894), or to London (to produce views of the Houses of Parliament between 1899 and 1905).
Closer to us, there’s the captivatingly stark garden designed by artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman for his Prospect cottage in Kent, on the southern coast of England, with the Dungeness nuclear power plant in the distance. There’s something punk about Prospect cottage with its mixture of plants and flotsam—Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee is saturated with punk culture. Jarman, who died in 1994 at 56 of AIDS-related illness, bought the cottage in 1986, the very year he tested positive for HIV (a diagnosis that, with his characteristic honesty and exceptional courage for the times, he made public). He started gardening immediately, and on the inhospitable terrain of shingles (in his diary, he wrote in 1987 that “the shingles preclude a garden”), he created a “sweet garden of vanished pleasures” that provided comfort and solace. As friends all around him died of AIDS, he wrote in his diary about walking in the garden “holding the hands of dead friends.”
Little Sparta, on the grounds of Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s home in the Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh, is a multi-media Gesamtkunstwerk that seamlessly blends garden design, poetry, and art. Little Sparta allowed Finlay to travel through space and time—references to Antiquity, the French Revolution, World War II, and nautical history abound—and also through the history of art, as he paid homage to beloved artists Albrecht Dürer or Gianlorenzo Bernini. The expansive nature of the garden, which holds nine different areas, is a bit of a paradox since Finlay suffered from extreme agoraphobia: as a matter of fact, from his move in 1966 until his death in 2006, he only left Little Sparta a handful of times.
By the time this MAJ issue is out, it will be over a year that we’ve been living with a pandemic that prevents us from enjoying the world out there. But our shrinking horizon might have taught us to look no further, focusing on what’s around us, finding comfort in our immediate environment, enjoying the pleasures of a home-cooked meal, and tending our garden. Voltaire concluded his philosophical tale by having Candide declare that we must cultivate our garden (“il faut cultiver son jardin”). Voltaire’s eponymous hero meant it figuratively, as a rebellion against the abstract philosophy of the time, an invitation, as it were, to stay close to home. As a matter of fact, staying put opens up a space of self-reflection, of exploration of one’s interiority. My professor of medieval French literature, Roger Dragonetti, once noted that “stanza” refers to a section in a poem but that in Italian it means “room.” It turns out that the Italian word itself is derived from the Vulgar Latin “stantia,” “stopping place.” And what if stopping and staying in place opened up a space for creativity?
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. In The Collected Works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Charlottesville: InteLex Corporation, 1993.
Jarman, Derek, Modern Nature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Panofsky, Erwin. “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.” The Burlington Magazine 64.372 (March 1934): 117–27.
Voltaire. Candide, ou l’optimisme (1759). English: Candide: Or Optimism. Trans. and ed. Theo Cuffe. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Image at top: Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard, oil on canvas, 28 x 30.5 in., 1663, Amsterdam Museum, on loan to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Wikimedia Commons).
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