Daily domesticity in figurative art

Life drawing sessions usually result in a beautiful drawing of a nude in an indeterminate space, but the setting can feel contrived - almost removed from life itself. The opportunity to sketch a model in the context of their daily life is, therefore, a rare and valuable one. 

Under the old Academy system, this would have been out of the question. Depiction of the nude was only acceptable within the most prestigious of genres, History Painting, traditionally under the guise of a mythological of allegorical figure to be on the safe side. However if you dared to descend the hierarchy of genres you would find ‘genre painting’. Developed in 17th century Dutch art, these are paintings depicting ordinary people going about their everyday lives – but strictly with their clothes on! 

Vermeer is one such artist who painted many domestic interior scenes. Almost all his paintings are set in two small rooms in his house in Delft, featuring the same furniture in different arrangements. Vermeer lends equal importance to setting and figure, resulting in a sense of context and narrative. ‘The Milkmaid’ portrays a kitchen-maid going about her daily work preparing food (in this case bread pudding!). Representing her modesty and hard work elevates this from a simple painting of ordinary life to an image of domestic virtue, one of the highest values in 17th-century Netherlands.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1657.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1657.

As we follow artistic developments into the 20th century and beyond, the nude is released from the confines of the mythological and enters into the modern and not so moralising equivalent of genre scenes…



The Bathroom

Bonnard, In the bath, 1925.

Bonnard, In the bath, 1925.

With historical precedent in Titian, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, the subject of the bather was a seamless way to integrate the nude figure into a painting of domestic life. Bonnard is the master of domestic bathroom scenes. Depicting the bather allowed him to express a new unromanticised view of the human body.

The paintings depict his wife, Marthe. She spent many hours in the bath, believed to be a form of therapy for suspected tuberculosis, or the result of an obsessive neurosis. But Bonnard made the most of a situation which provided him with a regular model!

Bonnard’s bathrooms date from the time of the exciting introduction of the fitted bath, adding a geometric structure to his later compositions. His nudes are often semi-obscured by a towel or the bath itself, denying the viewer complete intimacy, as the figure dissolves into the blue bathwater.

The Bedroom

Lucian Freud, Man with leg up, 1992.

Lucian Freud, Man with leg up, 1992.

It is likely that the opportunistic sketchers among us will have drawn a sleeping friend or a stranger nodding off on a train once or twice, only to have them inconsiderately change position or wake up before we are done. Domestic Life drawing will offer us the luxury of drawing a model half in, half out of bed, delicious crumpled sheets and all. 

Whilst the draped nude is a delight to draw in itself, it is the surrounding features of the bedroom that give mood and character to the work. We need only look to Tracy Emin’s infamous ‘My Bed’ to see how many intimate details a person’s bed can reveal about their lifestyle. Working with paint in a similar vein is Lucian Freud, favouring dishevelled nudes over sleeing beauties. ‘Man with leg up’ shows his friend the performance artist Bowery, one leg up on the bed, the other folded underneath him as if he has just slipped off, bringing the sheets with him. He rests on the mound of sumptuous off-white drapery. Freud uses setting and pose to indicate vulnerability, whilst his muted colours and subtle shading evoke the peacefulness of the bedroom.

The living room

Balthus, The Room, 1952.

Balthus, The Room, 1952.

As we move into the living room, a more public part of the home, the nude figure becomes less commonplace. However, this has failed to discourage artists from painting it.

Balthus is known for his dream-like paintings featuring female figures in domestic interiors. In ‘The Room’, a girl lies sprawled on a couch, wearing only her socks. The awkward pose and starkly furnished interior are both characteristic of his work. A heavy curtain is drawn back by a second figure, showering her in daylight. The chiaroscuro (contrasting light and shadow) pulls the focus back to the figure and creates a sense of mystery as to what may lie in the shadows. 

In opposition to Freud’s restful bedroom scenes, the absurd placement of this nude in a domestic setting suggests there is a story behind the work, at which the viewer can only speculate. We are made to feel the voyeur of a private moment. 

The kitchen

In the 1950s, a group of artists earned themselves the glamorous title ‘The kitchen sink painters’. In their interpretation of genre painting for a new era, otherwise called social realism, they painted the most everyday subjects including -  you guessed it, the kitchen sink. (You can find more info about them via TATE here.)

The kitchen and the nude are two subjects that we may not instinctively put together. Whilst the idea of the naked chef might be playful and humorous, in recent feminist art, the kitchen and the female body have been brought together with a social/political message. For the most well-known example of this see ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’, a performance piece released in 1975 by Martha Rosler. She parodies television cooking demonstrations, fuelled by the frustration of oppressive women’s roles. 

Linder is another feminist artist from the same period, who combined the female nude and the kitchen through collage. Untitled, 1976 shows the figure of a naked woman tied in string, emerging from a saucepan with a blender for a head, in an otherwise seemingly normal kitchen. The work touches upon associations between the female body and the traditionally female role of cook, a far cry from the celebration of domestic virtue in Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’.

Linder, Untitled, 1976.

Linder, Untitled, 1976.

Whilst not all art requires an underlying message, such examples of the ways other artists have used the figure in a domestic setting can hopefully get us thinking about the myriad of opportunities we all have to sketch the figure - not only in the life drawing room, but as we go about our daily lives.