Most of us spend at least a third of our lives in bed, where we’re likely to have been conceived, may well have been born, lived our childhood dreams, grew up, shared with lovers, read books, snored, felt terribly sick, and finally die. This weekend I look at a small selection of paintings in which beds are a major feature: today is more about beds through history and their role in the family; tomorrow I conclude by looking at beds with special roles.
In the earliest human towns and cities, beds seem to have been simple platforms built into houses, although some have revealed grizzly secrets, in that parts of dead ancestors may have been buried underneath them. That’s a tradition which we seem to have moved away from several millenia ago, thankfully.
Their oldest appearance in paintings is from the great Assyrian empire ruled from palaces in Nineveh, in particular Sardanapalus, the last of the line.
Eugène Delacroix’s masterpiece of The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) shows the king on a vast bed, surrounded by half-naked women, servants, slaves, and his court, as his empire crumbles around him. This is a thoroughly romantic revision based on Lord Byron’s dramatisation of events interpreted and elaborated much later by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus.
In contrast, the beds of the Greeks and Romans of classical times are shown as simple if not Spartan.
Jean-Paul Laurens’s painting of The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) 1863 shows him attempting suicide on his bed in the city of Utica in 46 BCE. Because of a hand injury he failed to inflict a fatal wound, struggled and fell off the bed, which woke the servants. The former statesman finally succeeded.
Despite extensive information, some artists chose anachronistic beds when painting stories of classical times.
One of the most incongruous is that used by John Everett Millais in one of his last paintings, Speak! Speak! (1895). Millais bought this huge four-poster bed from Perth in Scotland for this painting, and had the lamp copied from one he had seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Millais’ son reported that this scene is set in ancient Rome. The young man had spent much of the night reading through the letters of his lost love. At dawn, the curtains were parted to reveal her, dressed for her bridal night, gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes. The title of the painting is therefore the words that he said to her spectre, and must at the time, given the artist’s own terminal illness, have had personal relevance too. The woman’s figure is intentionally ambiguous, Millais himself being unsure as to whether she was real, or just a spectre.
One of the most famous beds in classical mythology has had similar modern treatment.
Joachim Wtewael’s account of Mars and Venus Surprised by the Gods from about 1606-10 leaves no doubt as to what the couple were doing when caught, but he puts them in an elaborately decorated ‘four-poster’ more characteristic of the artist’s era. There’s also that essential accessory, a chamber-pot, underneath the bed.
By the Golden Age, the beds of Holland had become small rooms of their own, and painters such as Gerard ter Borch featured them in their paintings of domestic scenes. These are known by the term box bed, but in fully-developed form put the occupant in a warmer world of their own.
Ter Borch’s Messenger, popularly known as Unwelcome News, from 1653, is set in the front room of a house in the Golden Age. Behind them is a traditional bed (typical in living areas at the time), with some of their possessions resting on a table between the couple and their bed. Hanging up on a bedpost is the husband’s sword, and behind them is a gun and powder horn.
Such pride was taken in these box beds that they were even included in portrait paintings.
Ter Borch’s Portrait of a Family from 1656 shows the couple and their three children quite informally in a living room with the ever-present bed. At the left edge is something of an innovation: a dressing table, with brushes for the mother’s and daughters’ hair.
Among the more affluent, ornate children’s cribs were in widespread use, as shown in Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Newborn in a Cradle from about 1583. This example comes from Italy, not the Netherlands, and the infant’s string of pearls attests to the family’s wealth and status.
Emmery Rondahl’s Doctor’s Orders (1882) shows a Danish country doctor writing a prescription for an older patient who is tucked up in a magnificent fitted bed in their own home.
But in most European countries beds became both plainer and simpler by the nineteenth century.
Christian Krohg painted a series of works showing exhausted or worried mothers with their children, of which Mother and Child (1883) is an early example. A young infant lies asleep in their crib, their exhausted mother fallen asleep on the head of her bed, her hand still resting where it had been rocking the child to sleep.
Krohg’s Mother at her Child’s Bed (1884) continues his theme of motherhood, sickness, and sleep. In another barren bedroom, a girl lies asleep in her bed, with her mother sat anxiously at the bedside.
Félix Vallotton’s early Naturalist painting of The Sick Girl from 1892 is altogether more detached and clinical, with its modern iron bedstead. He curiously obscures the face of his model, who was his muse and lover Hélène Chatenay.
Just before the Second World War, Eric Ravilious painted a series of highly contemporary and deserted bedrooms. The Bedstead (1939), with its wide angle projection, is full of patterns: the wallpaper, floorboards and rugs, and features another mass-produced iron bedstead.