When composing a painting, the artist gives careful consideration to all the elements of their piece. Nothing is included unless the artist wishes it to be; and thus even the most humble and overlooked factors can be imbued with great meaning.
Furniture can be one of those factors. It is, of course, most often found in interior paintings, where the choice of furniture betrays a wealth of detail about the room’s inhabitants, even when they themselves are absent. However, furniture can also be significant in other types of artwork, both in its presence and in its absence.
Until the 15th century, the standard form of portraiture was the sitter’s bust, in profile, against a solid single-colour background. Towards the end of that century, artists began to innovate, turning the sitter first to a three-quarter profile and then to face the viewer, and opening up the space behind the sitter; adding windows, gardens, curtains – and furniture. Here the meaning of the furniture can be quite obvious; for example, consider the difference between a portrait of a person sitting on a wooden stool and one sitting upon an ornate throne.
In David Oyens’ Young woman reading in the studio, 1901, the furnishings of the room combine to create an air of comfort and leisure, particularly in the pattern and texture of the comfortable soft chair upon which the titular woman reclines. The textures of her dress and the still focus of her pose set her in harmony with the room, almost blending in with her surroundings.
By contrast, Stephen Rose’s study of Leticia reclining entirely foregoes the surface upon which the model lies; with no distractions from the furniture, the viewer is free to focus purely on the form of the figure.
In still life paintings, too, the furniture upon which the subject is arranged adds to the meaning of the piece. In these two still life works by George Weissbort, the tables chosen complement the items displayed. Both are worn and well-used, but the table in The Brass Saucepan is an altogether sturdier affair, in keeping with the practicality of the subject. It speaks of a homely, earthy sensibility which is deeply rooted in tradition. By contrast, In the studio: a break for Pepsi shows a table with a much more temporary and disposable air, just like the plastic bottle and cheap glasses which stand upon it.
Furniture does not have to be a mere complement, however; it has, of course, been the focus of some very famous pieces of artwork. Vincent Van Gogh is a prominent example, with his complementary paintings of his own chair and that of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, as well as the iconic Bedroom in Arles.
Stephen Rose’s The worn leather chair has some qualities in common with Van Gogh’s chairs; the worn, polished leather upholstery speaks of a lifetime of use and is imbued with a distinct personality. One can almost picture the seat’s customary occupant, perhaps leaning thoughtfully upon their left elbow where the leather is particularly worn.
Sunlight on the table, by an unknown artist of the Belgian or French school, is as effortlessly colourful as Van Gogh’s Bedroom; the chair in front of the table is even of a similar design. The varied brushstrokes evoke the differing textures of the furniture, creating a sunny and welcoming room which is so full of life, one can imagine that the occupant has only just stepped out.
One must wonder, then; if an artist were to paint your room, or your favourite chair, what would the viewer make of you?