I love paintings and drawings of interiors. When done well, they are not only beautiful to look at, but a source of inspiration as well. A drawing of an empty room, sometimes even more than a photograph, gives the viewer a glimpse into the soul of a room. It leaves something to the imagination, and one can imagine who just left the room or who will enter.
These illustrations are not simply beautiful works of art, but historical documents as well. They illustrate furnishings and decorative objects in their settings, and are also a history of interior design. Long before photographs of interiors filled glossy magazines and sites on the internet, interiors, their fabrics and furnishings, were preserved and displayed in carefully detailed drawings or paintings. There was a long tradition in Europe of interiors being represented in paintings, usually done by artists who were commissioned to make accurate renderings of a home’s architecture and furnishings. During the first half of the 19th century, interest developed in rooms themselves, as distinct from interiors being depicted simply as a backdrop to a portrait or a scene with people. First the aristocracy, then the middle and upper classes participated in a movement to document their living spaces.
In 2009, The Smithsonian ‘s Cooper Hewitt Museum presented “House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection,” which looked at the representation of domestic interiors in 19th-century Europe., and how it changed over the course of the century. “The paintings were usually made after a room had been redecorated, or they were made as mementos for royalty or their families,” curator Gail Davidson explained in a podcast. “They would put the interiors in albums and turn the pages and reflect on their lives and what the rooms meant to them.” House Proud featured paintings from several European countries that not only are beautiful, but reveal much about the design trends of the period. “At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, you see a more impressionistic kind of painting,” Davidson said, “which you didn’t have earlier on in the century, where everything was much more meticulous.” There was a gradual movement away from precise, architectural drawings to more subjective, inviting portrayals.
One of the most accomplished interior artists of the 19th century was an American named Walter Gay. Although born in Massachusetts, Mr. Gay lived and worked for most of his life in France with his beloved wife Matilda. His works, depicting interiors in his own homes as well as in those of wealthy friends and acquaintances, serve as a lasting record of European and American interiors and taste of the 19th century. His interiors are not precise renderings of a space, but a more impressionist representation. Mr. Gay said that the purpose of his art was to capture the “spirit” of a room. Below are three of my favorite interior paintings by Walter Gay, which I believe illustrate how magnificently he succeeded.
To learn more about Walter Gay and his work, I recommend these two books: A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay, by William Rieder, and Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay, by Isabel L. Taube.
Mark Hampton was not only a talented interior designer, but a skilled artist in his own right. In his book, Mark Hampton on Decorating, Mr. Hampton complements his delightful and extraordinary advice on decorating with exquisite watercolors of his own creation. A few of my favorites appear below. Although separated by almost a century from Walter Gay's work, Mr. Hampton's paintings also invite the viewer to imagine the elegant dinner party that is about to take place, the quiet study in the middle of the day, or retiring for the night in a plush canopied bed.
One of my favorite discoveries was a series of original watercolor interiors created by a little known (but quite talented) architect in Washington, D.C., Richard Plyler. I spotted this collection at a Virginia auction and knew I needed to have them in my shop! Here are a few—the detail and depth of color make these pieces more real than a photograph and quite literally draw you into the space. To view these beauties, stop by our New York showroom or click here:
A well executed interior drawing or painting is much more than a beautiful work of art. It is an historical document that illustrates the decorating taste of the period and how tastes and trends have changed over time. It can also inspire contemporary designers to re-interpret the taste and style of other periods and incorporate them into today’s interiors.