Empty chambers, crowded with life

Belgian or French School, Sunlight on the table, 1909

Paintings of interior scenes go back in date as far as figure and still life subjects, as they were a necessary part of the background of each; but a whole furnished yet unoccupied room is something different – a subject of interest all by itself. The empty interior has been spasmodically popular at various points, but it reached the peak of a wave of fashion during the 19th and 20th centuries.

 Villa Farnesina, Rome, c. 20 BC

The earliest approximation of what came to be the empty interior painting is found in Roman art.  Pompeiian wall frescoes include architectural trompe l’oeils and faux niches, which could be considered as partly on the way to the representation of an interior scene. They might include columns, windows and doors giving onto landscapes, steps, balustrades and daïses, pieces of fictive furniture, statues and framed paintings, and are untenanted (except for what might be seen through the windows or in the paintings).

 Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study, c.1475, NG

After this, however, the empty interior drops away; rooms become the background for biblical and other scenes – St Jerome in his study, the Virgin and saints in a church, the Annunciation in Mary’s bedroom, etc. During the Renaissance these interiors become realistic enough in their space, architecture and furnishings to tell us a great deal about daily domestic life in that particular time and place; and – when they appear in mythological, history and portrait paintings as well – the information about secular homes and their contents grows even more detailed.  They are still settings, however: stage sets for the subjects of the paintings, rather than having any importance in their own right. There is always at least one figure, and often the articles and furniture around him or her (although frequently realistic) will have some iconographical bearing on this figure’s story.

 Samuel van Hoogstraten, View of an interior, or The slippers, between 1654 & 1662, Musée du Louvre

It’s not until the 17th century that we see rooms which are completely unoccupied – although in the case of this extraordinarily resonant scene by Van Hoogstraten, the inhabitants of the house are hardly invisible at all, such is the impression of personality  here. The corridor with its enfilade of doors, through which we can see into the sun-filled room at the end, appears to tell us of the owners’ prosperity and also about the work which is done here by the servants, through the broom propped by the hanging apron.

However, the objects which furnish a Dutch painting can never be taken solely on their own overt appearance – a broom is often the symbol of a love affair without a wedding: a ‘common-law marriage’. That this might be the meaning here is reinforced by the discarded slippers (mules, with no backs) – one of the prime erotic motifs for the Netherlandish artist. Thus a scene which seems at first to juxtapose the hard-working servant who cleans the house with her wealthy mistress, now turns into a warning: the ‘mistress’ may be so in terms of erotic love, as well as of property.  The picture we see on the wall opposite us appears, at first glance, to show a young woman at a prie-dieu, in pious contemplation; but it is a conflation of two paintings by Gerard ter Borch – a woman seen from the back in a bedroom, regarding herself in a small looking-glass, and the same woman in identical dress and pose, reading a (love?) letter whilst the messenger stands by.  The messages in these two paintings are respectively of vanity, possibly with immoral ends, and of illicit love, conveyed by a young boy who is a stand-in for Cupid. Meanwhile, on the table beneath this fictive Ter Borch stands an extinguished candle, pointing to the passing of time and the shortness of life; whilst the book may be an abandoned prayer book. In short, this empty interior may be full of warning for the young unmarried woman or bride (she should not let the keys to her virtue out of her hands, for one misstep in her slippers and she will be on a slippery slope of vice); it may equally be the story of a woman who has already fallen, and whose stolen love will shorten her present prosperous life, and lead her into ruin.


 Marianne Rush, An upper gallery, 18th century, watercolour, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library, from The Library Time Machine, by David Walker

The eighteenth century seems not to have cared very much for deserted rooms; its offspring preferred their houses thronged with merrymaking crowds, decorously peopled with a few family members, or forming the appropriate background for the portrait of a scholar, a collector, or a matriarch. The psychological or allegorical messages of the empty room gave way to the information conveyed by possessions or furnishings on the individuals or groups portrayed within those rooms. Amongst the few unoccupied interiors of this century are those recorded in strange, surreal watercolours by Marianne Rush, who died in 1814 and whose work belongs to the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Library. These are particularly empty rooms: almost aggressively so, they emphasize the richness of the interior decoration by the enhanced perspective and desolate lack of paintings, objects or furniture.

 Marianne Rush, Inside the Rotunda at Ranelagh, 18th century, watercolour, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library, from The Library Time Machine, by David Walker

This feeling is perhaps most marked in the painting of the Rotunda from the pleasure gardens at Ranelagh; although the benches remain in the centre, the conspicuous absence of any human at all in such a public space (one designed for enjoyment and celebration) combines with the cool blue tones of the scene to suggest something more akin to a mortuary chapel in a crypt.

Mrs Rush’s watercolours are in the van of a gathering army of painted interiors. During the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th, palaces, aristocratic apartments, hunting lodges, villas, and then middle-class homes, artists’ studios, and later hotels would all be memorialized by professional and amateur artists alike, and more often than not in a state of uninhabited splendour.

 William Henry Pyne, The Queen’s State Bedchamber, Windsor Castle, from Pyne’s Royal Residences, 1819

William Pyne’s work on the British monarch’s palaces, Pyne’s Royal Residences, published in three volumes in 1819, and illustrating the empty interiors of Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, St James’s Palace, Buckingham House (as it then was) and Carlton House (later demolished), must have given a fillip to this growth in the depiction of interiors for their own sake. Pyne had employed leading artists of the day to execute the original watercolours (100 of them), as well as engravers to reproduce the designs and hand-colour the results. These interiors are not the palpably deserted though opulent settings depicted by Marianne Rush, nor the psychologically teeming, vivid interior of Hoogstraten; they are rich, warm, furnished and magnificent – merely drawing breath before the next ingress of monarch, courtiers or servants.  The intent was to exhibit to George III’s subjects, the majority of whom would never see them in the flesh, the splendour of the royal palaces as an expression of Britain’s increasing power and prosperity in the world.

Fonthill Abbey: The Grand Drawing-room, from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill Abbey (1823)

Possibly Pyne’s work may have influenced books which illustrated equally palatial buildings; for instance, John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill Abbey, which came out four years later. This was published with the intention of functioning as a guide-book, and was thus even more neutral than Pyne’s Royal Residences. There is no symbol, allegory or psychological insight lurking here – in fact, this view of the drawing-room feels strangely modern in its clean representation of an architectural space and its contents, neither lonely and deserted, nor overflowing with an unwanted mood or presence. The Gothic revival style loses all its inherited resonances of haunted monastery and mediaeval keep when presented tidily in graphic black-&-white.

Leopold Zielcke, A Biedermeier ‘Zimmerbild’ or chamber painting, Berlin, c.1825; from Biedermeier: Die Erfindung der Einfachheit (The Invention of Simplicity); exhibition catalogue, Hatje Cantz Verlag Ostfildern

The nineteenth century, as it progressed, saw a steady rise in the number of paintings of interiors, and an accompanying widening in the type of home portrayed – from royal and aristocratic, to middle-class and mercantile. This German bourgeois study, with its simple, comfortable furniture, well-lighted urban outlook, stenciled frieze and embroidered bell-pull, has much more in common with Van Hoogstraten’s View of an interior than with Pyne’s regal chambers, or even with Rutter’s Fonthill drawing-room. Not that there is a moral warning encoded in the sunny yellow walls and curtains; merely that there is a sense that the owner of the room has walked out briefly to meet a friend or have a coffee, leaving his chair angled away from his desk and the morning’s newspaper folded on the plush tablecloth. Light floods the next door room as well – probably the drawing-room – and a decanter and glass bear witness to recent occupation there, too. Perhaps this is one of the greatest charms of the empty interior; the sense that it has only just been vacated, and the owner has left us, the spectators, to make ourselves at home in his room until he returns.

Friedrich Wilhelm Klose, The Etruscan Room at Potsdam, 1840

This manner of portraying the interior in a way which was less distancing began to influence the depiction even of the grander salon; the Etruscan room in the palace at Potsdam, Berlin, the Royal Prussian residence, seems at first to have little in common with the Biedermeier study, but the angle at which it is shown, with the sofa on a slant and partly cut off, creates the impression that we are again within the room – guests of the Prussian king, invited to sit on that inviting sofa, to enjoy the sunlight flooding through the windows and the views out into the town, to study the antique vases and the NeoClassical decorative scheme. We might then observe that the warm golden tones of the walls, the geometric patterning of the floor, and the airily draped curtains are very similar in both paintings; and that perhaps Klose’s picture has leant indefinably nearer to Zielcke’s vision, and away from the feeling of the room as it was first installed in 1805.

 John Singer Sargent, My dining room, c.1885, Smith College of Art, Northampton, Mass.

By the later 19th century, the middle-class home had become, in many instances, even more relaxed, and definitely more cluttered. John Singer Sargent’s dining-room has lost all pretensions to exclusiveness; the spectator has not only been invited in, wandered around and examined the china and all the paintings, but has probably been entertained to lunch, and has just risen to light a cigarette. The sense of recent presence is again almost palpable in the rumpled napkins and hastily pushed-in chair, just as the evocation of light on the still life of the table indicates the daily ebb and flow of sunshine, life, and activity. The feeling that that life has been carefully designed and possibly slightly censored, as in the Biedermeier study, has been lost in the general squashing of furniture into a small room, objects onto the dresser, pictures onto the walls, and hospitality onto the table. This feeling is enhanced by the painterly brevity of description here, as compared with Zielcke’s pristine delineation of immaculate decoration and furniture, all highly finished and accurately installed in its exact position (save the evocatively angled chair).

 Gustave Caillebotte, Interior of a studio, c.1872, Private Collection

Caillebotte’s studio is even more casually cluttered and bohemian, with its tumble of drapery, basin and broom, stacked canvases, coffee pot and bowl warming on the stove, and props gathered on every surface.  It has its own decorative harmony of colour, but this seems accidental or adjusted by the painter rather than consciously aimed. The artist has swept his room and gone out; we are at liberty to enter and look around, but not particularly thought of or regarded.  We can see some of the tools of the trade that is practiced here, but perhaps not so much of the personality of the owner as in Van Hoogstraten’s interior, or Sargent’s.

 Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with the artist’s easel, 1910, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark

Another thirty years, and we come to Vilhelm Hammershøi. Hammershøi’s interiors are the reverse of Sargent’s dining-room and Caillebotte’s studio; spare, simply furnished, monchrome, filled with a vast quietness and simplicity. The artist who works in these rooms seems to manage his art with the minimum of fuss and props: an easel, a drawing board and a chair; no box of colours, no rags or brushes, no draperies or coloured vases to dress up his subjects. This is a study of space, light and geometry, complex in its various levels, yet rigorously controlled. And yet this ascetically minimal interior seems no more deserted than Sargent’s: the door standing open and the chair at a slight angle indicate that someone has been here recently, and may shortly return.  There is life here, although it is contemplative and silent, and the sunlight itself seems diffused and muted.

 Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams, or Sunshine dust motes dancing in the sunbeams, 1900, Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen

Even where bright light is the subject of the painting, it sneaks aslant into the empty interior, making the room seem even emptier and veiling the view through the window so that we are shut in and contained. Hammershøi’s interiors are strikingly 18th century in their bareness – no carpets, no coloured paintwork, no curtains, no patterned upholstery. The room above seems to be in a house from which the family has recently moved, leaving behind the ghost of the spectator and a few dead flies on the window-sill. We imagine the artist’s palette which has been used (the absent palette from the interior with the easel): a white plate with a very few subdued colours and a lot of white – little else; nothing to spill and mark the white walls or the charcoal floor. On the other hand, the lack of objects and the open doors, the sense of more empty chambers and of quiet presences, gives an aura of significance to these deserted rooms, leaving them charged with an air of imminence.

 Edward Hopper, Sun in an empty room, 1963, Private collection

It’s a short jump from Hammershøi to another master of light falling in an empty room: half a century later Edward Hopper uses the same motif, although with rather more colour and with more sense of an outside world beyond this contained calm. Hopper’s single figures in rooms are often lonely and slightly melancholic, absorbed in activity, but isolated; here, the room is almost more empty that Hammershøi’s, if possible, and yet the emptiness is peaceful and contented.

Adolf Heinrich Hansen (1859-1925), Interior in Overførstegaarden, Collection Mark Mitchell

The magic of mood generated by all these unoccupied spaces is extraordinarily engaging and compelling: we are allowed into the domestic or the intimate areas of other lives, and see their familiar surroundings as though we were their friends or colleagues. We also sense something more of them, if we are lucky: some empathetic engagement with their occupations or with the kinds of lives lived in these resurrected interiors. The best of these paintings are fraught with significance, and provide windows for us onto other souls like our own.

We have a vast range of original paintings for sale within our collection so that you can celebrate the magnificence of phenomenal artists and intricate compositions in your home or your gallery space. The moods created and the painting techniques used are truly exquisite and wonderfully unique. As specialist fine art dealers in London we have a passion for this style of art and are dedicated to keeping it alive in the contemporary art world.

Franz Pitner,  A bourgeois drawing-room, s.& d. 1850, Collection Mark Mitchell

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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