Contemporary Look at Domestic Interiors

In researching contempory artists who focus on domestic interiors, I happened upon an interesting article by Nicola Moorby on the Tate website. It discussed how artists from the Camden Town group often painted women in domestic settings, whilst excluding female artists from membership. It’s also interesting to note that at that time, men were responsible for decorating and furnishing the house.

In the Edwardian era things changed, the campaign for women’s suffrage grew and more women worked out of the home. Traditional roles were challenged, as husbands commuted to work so the decoration of homes fell into a woman’s domain. In spite of exclusion from various groups, female artists began painting domestic life from their point of view, finally able to display their own tastes. They painted their tastefully decorated rooms ( see The Chintz Couch), places where they were comfortable, whereas the male artist depicted them engaged in domestic activity, such as Douglas Fox Pitt.

How times have changed, but what I liked about women artists from this time, such as Ethel Sands and Vanessa Bell, they began to include themselves in the domestic interiors in a different way. In Vanessa Bell’s Conversation Piece at Asheham, 1912, the only thing that is missing here is the artist herself, she is very much a part of this social interaction, making a social statement about equality.

Going forward, I discovered some contemporary artists interpreting domestic interiors.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu, 2013, Acrylic, coloured pencils & transfers on pencil

Njideka is a Nigerian-born artist, now living in America, her work combines elements from both countries in a mixed media format. This is a large piece of mixed media which perfectly combines many elements, with multiple layers,  representing herself and telling her story.

This is a different way of showing the dining room, the composition has the table almost coming out of the picture, pushing up right into the face of the viewer. The shadows of the chairs are made of other images. The table has many objects, arranged in a casual, non-formal way.

Whilst seemingly an ordinary, everyday scene of a dining room, there is clearly more than meets the eye, there are references to Nigeria and America, making a more global and political. The many layers express her personal journey from her home place to the life of an immigrant. Undoubtedly there are questions of identity, nationality, and gender, woven into a scene, mixed with memories from Africa.

The next image is a very different view of an interior by David Diao which caught my attention for this very reason.


David Diao, Salon 2, 2011, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

The image on the right shows Andy Warhol, David Whitney, Philip Johnson, John Dalton and Robert Stern in Johnson’s house, a famous modernist building, The Glass House.  The left image shows the artist, comfortably reading a newspaper at leisure, in the same interior. His image is smaller and depicts his own artistic connection to the men on the right, famous architects, artists, the trendsetters of the day, and yet he feels apart from it, perhaps diminished.  Apparently, all the men on the right are gay so possibly there is a connection there too.

The colour turquoise sets a tone of calmness and creativity. and may be a link to another artist, Barnett Newman, an abstract expressionist and colour field artist who often painted in a different shade of blue, known for his existential tone.

To understand this, Newman’s quote about sense of place seems to express it perfectly “The painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there… [Hopefully] you [have] a sense of your own scale [standing in front of the painting]… To me that sense of place has not only a sense of mystery but also has a sense of metaphysical fact. I have come to distrust the episodic, and I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”¹



They are after you, whoever they are. You are not playing against him tomorrow. You’re playing the system itself, 2012. charcoal on paper

Rinus Van de Velde is a Belgian artist who, in dealing with the realities and challenges of life, he has created his own fictional characters. His black and white charcoal works are like photographs, documentary style, adding to the effect of someone playing a role.

Van de Velde says that photographs are viewed as being true and factual whilst drawings are not, they are seen as fictional. He is playing with idea of what is reality, by using a character in his work,  this allows him to depict different situations with changing points of view, without revealing his personal beliefs. In this way, his themes can be universal and have multiple viewpoints.

At the same time, he often uses references to real life people, here it is Bobby Fischer, making a connection between the chess player and the artist. He has said in an interview²  that the caption is clear and specific, adding that we should not trust the drawing. He is testing the possible meanings in an image, and believes that the art work in isolation has no meaning, hence the long captions. He is asking us to question the work, what is real, what is imagined and leaving to us the viewer to decide.

It is an interesting viewpoint from above, reminiscent of a scene from a movie, looking down on the character, trying to get into their mind. The composition cuts diagonally across the paper, the man lies in an awkward, uncomfortable way. The viewer feels the tension which is uncomfortable, looking at this scene.

This effect is similar to that experienced when looking at Philip Pearlstein’s nudes, he uses mirrors to reflect further angles and views. It feels very matter-of-fact, but the complex composition of limbs and cropping the view, adding many folds of fabrics, adds a dynamic quality of movement, direction, form and structure, see Two Seated Models in Kimonos with Mirror 1980. The image seems cramped with so much to take in, it is hard to know where to focus, challenging the viewer.  Extremely realistic, yet we don’t have a full view, often we can’t see their faces fully, or their heads are cut off. Almost as if he is deliberately keeping the full story from us. some would say this makes it more abstract, it certainly makes us detached from the subjects.

Even though this is a photograph, by David Hockney, it’s an excellent example of an image taken from multiple viewpoints and a little reminiscent of Anthony Green’s Study for Mrs Madeleine Jocelyne with her Son, 1987. Taking an everyday object and making into something more interesting, more complex, playing with the horizontal lines of the desk drawers and the vertical ones of the floorboards. The factual nature of a photograph is embellished with a narrative of the multiple views, as if we were actually walking through the room and past the furniture and able to see everything.


David Hockney, The Desk, July 1st 1984, Photograph

Hockney believed that photography was flawed because it only showed one single perspective, by using this method it allowed for more and yet these works were inspired by photography.  He called these images ‘joiners’ and believed he could add movement, space and time by using this technique, better than the effect of wide-angled lenses.



  1. Sylvester, David (1998). The Grove Book of Art Writing. New York, NY: Grove Press. p. 537. ISBN 0802137202.



Vitamin P3, New Perspectives in Painting, Phaidon



Research Point: Positive and Negative Space

For some reason my brain is struggling with the concept of positive and negative space, even though I understand negative space to be that which surrounds the main subject of an image. Perhaps it is because it is not always a conscious thing that the eye notices but the brain understands. If I am understanding this correctly, it provides a clear defined boundary between the positive and negative thereby giving the image balance.

The first artist who came to mind was Matisse, one of the original Fauvists.


Matisse, La Danse (1), 1909

What strikes me most is the apparent simplicity of the composition, perhaps because of the bold negative space, representing the sky and green grass, it gives a sense of movement whilst the colour sets the mood of joy. The dancers seem fairly focused on dancing.

Whilst researching this topic, I came across a Malaysian artist, Tang Yau Hoong, who cleverly tells a story in a simple yet fun way.


Tang Yau Hoong, Danger Ahead

Banksy came to mind too and I found this well known image.


Banksy, Girl with Balloon Unsigned, 2004

The simplicity of the image makes the message more poignant, is she reaching for something lost or did she let it go on purpose?

Reading Experimental Drawing (again, I know, it’s my go-to resource), Kaupelis gives us a fine example in Georgia O’Keefe.


Georgia O’Keefe, Drawing IV, 1959, charcoal on paper

It’s simplicity with the barest of details, doesn’t give us much to go on, but on closer inspection it seems the light is coming from both sides. I don’t know why she did this but it makes it a  little mysterious and yet it has life. Kaupelis compares this with deKooning’s work, created in the same year. I couldn’t find the one Kaupelis publishes but here’s a similar one.


Willem deKooning, Black and White Rome F, 1959,oil on paper

DeKooning clearly painted this quickly, splashing paint around, yet it has a clear structure, his work is expressive and dynamic and I think the negative space here works as a stop.

Clearly the balance between positive and negative space is paramount and needs careful consideration when deciding on the composition of a drawing or painting. It can be used in a striking way to make the object stand out more, or convey emotions and is not just dead space.

Research Point: Still Life

The earliest examples of Still Life go as far back as the ancient Egyptians who believed drawing food images in burial chambers would allow the dead to provide real food in the afterlife. The Greeks and the Romans also left many examples too, ranging from lowly depictions of the working lower classes whilst the upper classes depicted the luxurious range of food they consumed.

Up to this point religious painting had been viewed as the most important and highest genre of all, by the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch Republic had gained independence and were mostly Protestant. Artists looked towards their immediate surroundings and away from religious subject matter. Genre painting was born, depicting the very ordinary situations of regular, daily life. Still life became popular and although they may appear to be simple scenes, often they hid a more complex message; they painted luxurious objects, flowers and fine foods set against a plain background, painted in realistic detail, with a variety of textures. Vanitas paintings emerged, with poignant reminders of the inevitability of death in candles, skulls and hourglasses.

Willem Claesz Heda (c.1594-1680) was one of the most renowned painters of this time.


Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with a Gilt Cup, 1635

The colours are somewhat muted but beautifully arranged in a seemingly careless manner, against a lighter background and highlights of reflected light throughout, masterfully depicting a variety of different textures.

Painting flowers also became popular, complete with vanitas references, such as butterflies and candles.


Ambrosius Bosschaert, Still Life

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the European Academies, Still Life fell out of favour as it was considered the lowest form in the Hierarchy of Genres, the highest being historical, biblical and mythological subjects.

A new group of artists began to challenge the academies, these were the Impressionists, who were concerned with bold colours, depicting light and technique over subject matter. Goya, Courbet and Delacroix worked with more emotion than realism.


Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808-12



Courbet, Still Life and Pears, 1871



DelaCroix, Still Life with Lobsters, 1826-27

After a period where the background went to its very darkest, Monet then broke away from this, and used colour in an almost shocking way, the brushstrokes seem looser and less precise.


Monet, Still Life with Bouquet, 1871

His brushwork has changed from small, detailed movements to broader strokes, the use of colour seems brighter, the colour orange dominates. The Impressionists were inspired by light, the colour schemes of nature and portrayed this in a new way, there was even a change of painting perspective.


Gustave Caillebotte, Fruit Displayed on a Stand, 1881-2

Looking at the fruit, it’s not always clear if we are looking from above or in front. Whilst the fruit is not overly realistic we are given a sense of it in shape and colour, the use of broad brushstrokes gives an impression of solid flesh and juiciness.

Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers  may appear flattened but the vibrancy of the differing tones of yellow give them a vivid quality. More interesting is his Still Life with Drawing Board, although essentially a still life, in character it is a self-portrait, his possessions allow a representation of him to be depicted.


Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing Wax by Van Gogh, 1889

Post-Impressionist Cézanne’s work bridged the transition from nineteenth century Impressionism to twentieth century Cubism. His work contains a more sculptured quality, for Cézanne colour, line and form were inseparable, as if every item is examined from more than one perspective. His work was a major influence to the Cubists.

Cezanne Still Life

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, 1898, MOMA

He reinvented Still Life, showing that the ‘lowest’ form of art could represent form, light and space, whilst breaking the old rules of perspective and defined edges.

Picasso and Braque together invented Cubism, the first phase of which was Analytic Cubism, due to their focus on the analysis of form. They depicted multiple perspectives, breaking objects down into line and textures. Braque invented collage when he used a patterned oilcloth as a background, incorporating it into his artwork, Picasso was quick to follow suit.

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 by Georges Braque 1882-1963

Braque, Bottles and Fishes, 1910-12, Tate


Picasso, Nature Morte au Compotier, 1914-15

Both Cubist works take a while to decipher, the objects being so fragmented and geometric, combined with a skewed perspective.

Later on, artists like Lichenstein created their own versions of Still Life where the only similarities lay in the type of objects painted, his style is often described as cartoonish, give that the objects have bold outlines and the colour copies the way ink is printed in newspapers. He became a leading figure in the American Pop Art movement, his work seems overly simple but would have been very exacting to produce.


Lichtenstein, Still Life with Palette, 1972

After so much variety it is hard to imagine how Still Life can continue to be reworked but contemporary artists are still doing it. It’s interesting to see the influence of the masters and their very different approaches.


Ori Gersht, Time After Time: Blow Up No 3, 2007

Israeli artist Ori Gersht captures the moment an arrangement of flowers is blown up, contrasting a normally serene picture with violence.


Darren Jones, A Time and a Place, 2011

Compare Darren Jones’ still life/self portrait with the Van Gogh Drawing Board image above. This image depicts the personal belongings that come together only for the duration of a trip.

Whilst approaches have differed over time, composition has not changed as much, Still Life as a genre still has a lot to offer clearly, perhaps the connection is with the personal and symbolic statement the artist depicts.