Interior Illusions

, June 25, 2012 - Art

Today I’m launching my blog History by Design!

It’s going to be about great design of all ages: cities, buildings, interiors, furnishings, objects, art, fabrics, colours, patterns… even movies and food.

First up is a selection of my favourite 17th century Dutch interior paintings.

Interior paintings are my favourite genre. Not only because they give you an idea of what homes looked like in bygone times, but also because of the many different materials, textures, patterns and objects that are often depicted. Also, the play of light in the rooms can be beautiful, the most famous examples of which are the paintings by Vermeer. But as most people probably know those well, I will here discuss some lesser-known interior scenes.

In the 17th century domestic scenes were very much in fashion and thus produced en masse. Some painters even specialized in the subject, like Pieter de Hooch and Gerard Dou, who both painted in a very delicate manner, producing paintings with smooth surfaces, intricate details and amazing simulations of different materials and textures.

Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Figures, 1663-65, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The above painting, titled Interior with Figures (1663-65)is one of my favourite of De Hooch’s, because it shows a room furnished with a very precious type of wall-covering: gilt leather. This luxurious furnishing product has Arabic origins, was brought over to Europe via Spain and produced in Holland for the rich from the 16th century on. It consists of stamped leather, covered in silver leaf and painted in a decorative pattern. The whole (both silver and painted areas) was then covered with a gold varnish to give the silver leaf the appearance of gold and so creating a precious look. This costly material was very fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries and there are still a couple of rooms with original gilt leather in existence, although they tend to be quite discoloured and damaged because of the complex build-up of materials and their irreversible ageing-processes.

De Hooch’s painting beautifully captures the way the light plays with the surface of the gilt leather, and the interaction of matt and glossy areas in the design. It creates a glittery, glamorous effect. The rest of the room is left quite empty: it contains a typical Dutch ‘kussenkast’  (a chest partly executed in ebony) topped with porcelain bowls and a painting of Amor & Psyche, and furthermore there is a table covered with a Turkish carpet. The stone floor has a large-scale geometric pattern that echoes the details of the chest and the colour of the leather dressed wall. Although we cannot rashly assume that this painting depicts a real interior of the time – amongst art historians it is even considered very unlikely that private homes had marble floors like these, for example. But to me it is just a lovely image of 17th century splendour, in a sort of restrained way: the wall-covering is over-the-top glamorous, but the other features, like the window treatment, have been kept simple. A nice detail is the mirror next to the window (conveniently hung there to have good lighting whilst looking at oneself) that subtly reflects the glittery gilt leather.

Gerard Dou, Lady at her Toilet, 1667, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Up next and equally luxuriously furnished is the interior in Lady at her Toilet (1667) by Gerard Dou. In this painting however, one cannot speak of restraint anymore. It is very obvious that this is not a realistic representation of a 17th century room, but, quite the contrary, a theatrical, dramatized version of one, an effect that is emphasized by the hung tapestry in the foreground. I love it because there is so much going on in this room. Drapes everywhere, costly furnishings, upholstery and trimmings, and gilt-leather once again (but here only on the lower half of the walls): it’s like a showcase of all that was available to decorate a room at the time.

The simulation of varying textures and materials is something Dou mastered like no other painter of his age. You’ll have to go and see the painting in real life to be able to fully appreciate this. It is such a pleasure to closely examine those tapestries, the velvet, the silk, the fringes, the glass, the different metals, and the beautiful marble wine-cooler in the foreground, all created with some paint and brushes (and a lot of talent and practice, obviously). Also, the daylight flows beautifully through the room whilst the back area is engulfed in shadows, infusing the painting with atmosphere and giving the highlights on the different materials (like the metal birdcage, the marble, the edges of the tapestry) extra impact.

There are numerous other interesting 17th century domestic scenes to discuss, many of them showing more sober interiors, with simple wooden floors and bare plaster walls, that probably give a more realistic representation of contemporary interiors. But as a lover of highly decorated rooms I just had to go for luxury and splendour: it was, after all, the Golden Age!



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