When you think about it, most of the events throughout our lives take place in bed. From birth to death, beds are imbued with the ultimate expression of life: Love. Indeed, what is more intimate than a bed? Depictions of beds, as a form of genre scene, thus take us into people’s daily life and intimacy.
Genre Scenes: The Emergence of Daily Life in Art
Paintings of genre scenes represent every-day, familiar scenes. It is a way to bring us into the intimacy of the subject of the painting but also to introduce us to the social realities and living conditions of the families in the times represented.
The reputation of genre scenes started to build upon Flemish primitives, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Art historians consider Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Rogier Van der Weyden the masters of this period. Jan Van Eyck actually painted the first genre scene in art history: The Arnolfini Portrait achieved in 1434.
The subject of the scene is debated by art historians. Erwin Panofsky assumes that it might be the celebration of an intimate wedding. As is usual in genre scenes, the clothes and the setting, shown through the luxurious furniture, are indications of the social status of the subjects. Here, the man is wearing a velvet purple tabart (a type of short coat). The man’s clothes, as well as his wife’s dress are both lined with fur. They are expensive clothes, only worn by the wealthy upper classes.
One element in the painting that particularly draws the eye is the bed. It is one of the main pieces of furniture in a house; therefore its size, choice of wood, workmanship and linen are a social indicator. In this scene the bed is imposing, red sheets and elaborate hangings cover and decorate it. The fact that the fabrics are dyed and elaborate is a testimony to the owners wealth.
Into Daily Life
In Arles Van Gogh chose to paint his bedroom, which is not a trivial matter. Bedrooms are the incarnation of our tastes and personality. The paintings on the wall echo with his artistic career (we can see two portraits – of his friends Eugene Bosh and Paul-Eugene Milliet), and his attraction to art. What stands out in the painting is the simplicity of the room and its composition. The straight lines and colored surfaces are thus a testimony to the simplicity of the composition.
I wanted to express absolute rest through all these various tones.Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo Van Gogh, 1888
Thus, the room acts a symbol of tranquility for Van Gogh. The main object of the room being the yellow and red bed, a strong sense of tranquility stems from the overall picture. The bed being simple and solid lays emphasis on the idea of comfort and security. One could assume this is exactly what the artist was looking for at the time.
Daily life is Jan Steen’s favorite subject. The bed in which the woman is seated as well as the sombre setting symbolize the intimacy of the scene. A young woman is slowly undressing, taking off her stocking, revealing the mark of her garter on her calves in the process. Her hiked up skirt then offers a view of her naked legs, the eye of the viewer progressively climbs up her thigh, gazing at the darkness inside of her skirt. This washing scene is laden with erotic atmosphere, which is underlined by the presence of the bed, the symbol of daily intimacy.
The Greatest Expression of Life: Love and Eroticism
Depictions of beds are often linked with their implication in love lives. They are therefore imbued with an erotic aspect, which take us into a physical and sexual form of intimacy.
Beds can also be the symbol of seduction and the power that comes with it. The Hercules and Omphale mythos is a great example of this. Omphale is the queen of Lydia whereas Hercules is a Greek hero. After he killed someone, Apollo’s oracle advised him to sell himself as a slave to the queen Omphale. She forced him to submit to doing all sorts of tasks and married him after she offered him back his liberty. She thus seduced him while he was her slave.
Boucher’s painting depicts Hercules as he fell into the queen’s arms and into her bed. The bed therefore represents the accomplishment of the queen’s seduction. The woman’s leg, up over her lover’s own legs symbolizes her domination. The two little putti carry the symbol of their relationship: a beast hide (for her) and a spinning tool (for him). The traditional scheme of domination between male and female and their activities is inverted here as the hero submits to the queen.
Complicity with a Loved One
Here we see a scene of lovers gazing and kissing in a series of four paintings which depicts lesbian couples in bed. In the first painting you can only see the head of the lovers, they are facing each other, connected by their eyes. The sheets hide their bodies. As the emphasis is is on the bed, the setting becomes intimate and warm, favorable to a moment of complicity. The use of warm colors such as red and brown also conveys the coziness of the scene. The women are wrapped in a loving embrace in this image.
The focal point of the next scene is also the bed. This is the development of the initial image. Toulouse-Lautrec painted their heads, arms and the upper part of their backs. The painting does not depict the pure sentimental complicity but rather the result of such complicity; the kiss. The viewer is shown more of their bodies than in the gaze scene. This sets the scene for a more erotic and intimate moment.
Testimony of the Act of Love
Once more, the bed is set as the place for the physical expression of passion and love. When couples lie in the bed or when it is stripped, it usually is the symbol or the testament of recent sexual intercourse.
In this 135x200cm painting Courbet depicts two women, naked and asleep in a bed. The painter decided to break the Academic rules of painting sizes -only paintings of historical, biblical or mythological subjects were supposed to be this big. Courbet embodies the aesthetic of the 20th century realist artists. The representation of a lesbian couple, as for Toulouse-Lautrec, is a testimony to the social realities; realist artists chose not to depict ideals or heroic characters but real ones, who are a part of their daily life.
In this painting, the posture of the women -embracing each other naked and asleep- and the clothes and jewelry scattered all over the bed are indications of the carnal moment that just ended. In this bed, Courbet breaks with the ideal Antique beauty and depicts two types of sensual beauties, playing on their physical differences and hair color.
When MOMA offered to expose his work, Felix Gonzalez-Torres refused and ask them to rent him billboards. In the billboards, he put up pictures he took. In this one we can see an empty bed. The pillows still hold the head shapes, probably from the people who slept there. The undone bed is such a symbolic object that the presence of the couple or of a naked person is not necessary to imply what happened in it. By confronting the passersby with it, he asserts the universality of the understanding of the meaning of this untidy bed.
Expression of Despair
Henri Gervex, inspired by a poem written by Alfred de Musset depicts the tragic end of a ruined bourgeois -Rolla- in love with a prostitute. The young man used all the money he had left to spend the night with his dearly beloved. Here, the bed is the representation of the only place where they can meet, the only place where he feels whole and the last place he chose to stay, moments before he commits suicide. His despair is almost palpable as he stands next to the window he is bound to jump-out of. He looks one last time at the young woman sleeping in the vestiges of their night of passion.
Tracey Emin’s bed is also a testimony to her despair. She chose to expose it in the Tate Gallery, the very bed in which she spent several days after a bout of depression due to romantic disappointment. Hence the chaos of the bed and the objects lying on the carpet. Those are the depiction of her state of mind at that time. Empty bottles of alcohol, used condoms, pregnancy tests, cigarette’s butts are scattered all around; all of these objects highlight her despair.
In Sickness and Death
Beds of Illness
Jean-Baptiste Greuze is famous for his genre scenes. His paintings recount French daily life in the ‘Ancien Regime‘ and give a view into the relationships in the families depicted. As in The charity lady, his work is often used to convey a specific lesson in morality. In this painting the bed and its occupants, an old dying man, are in the center. They are the starting point of the story being told. The man’s sickness is thus linked with the presence of the bed. The bed therefore enhances the pity we feel for the man. He is the subject of the rich woman’s lesson to her daughter. The movement of her hand shows to the little girl as well as the viewer that they must give charity to the dying man, whose nobility is noticeable through the hanging sword above his head.
One of the most famous representations of death is the one of the dying Christ by the Renaissance painter; Andrea Mantegna. In this depiction of the lamentation (it is the moment between the Deposition of Christ and His burial). Christ lies on a bed, dead and is mourned by his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. The viewpoint from which Mantegna painted the scene is interesting because it is so uncommon. As the feet are in the foreground, the Stigmata are clearly visible to the spectator. This perspective, focused intimately on Christ gives a dramatic effect. In addition to the accentuation of the Stigmata in His feet and hands, the visibility of His thorax allows us to see the wound to his ribs. This gives the spectator an idea of the Passions he went through.
Beds are a recurrent motive in Nan Goldin’s work as she reports her daily life through her photos. Relationships and love life are therefore an important part of her work. With those empty beds she shows the absence of loved ones. This longed for but missing presence -implied by the undone bed- is the subject of the picture. It thus draws a dramatic and tragic aspect in the emptiness. As in Felix Gonzales-Torres’ bed, this absence is synonymous of death, hence the forever absence of the loved one.
If bedroom stories peaked your interest, here are some more:
Painters’ Bedrooms: Art for Moving Houses