In the first article of these two looking at a selection of paintings featuring beds, I looked at their history in paintings of scenes from the ancient Assyrian empire to the outbreak of the Second World War. This article looks at some of the special roles played by beds in paintings, starting with the deathbed.
Paul Delaroche’s painting of The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1828) is quite a surprise: a powerful monarch dying when she’s slumped on a makeshift bed on the floor. Although this may seem implausible, the artist had good grounds for this scene. When she was nearly seventy, Queen Elizabeth’s long-serving lady-in-waiting and friend Katherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, died, throwing the queen into a state of distress. She refused to rest, and stood for many hours at a time despite her increasing frailness.
Her ladies-in-waiting spread pillows on the floor to encourage the queen to rest when she was able, and Delaroche shows her in that state. However, at least one account reports that the queen did eventually take to her bed, where she died on 24 March 1603.
Many artists have painted their partners and others close to them during their final hours of life, or immediately thereafter. For a professional painter, it’s the greatest expression of love and remembrance. I have chosen two of Edvard Munch’s as examples.
By the Deathbed (1895) is Munch’s painting from memory of his sister Sophie resting in her deathbed in 1877, when she was 15 and the artist was not quite 14 years old. She died of tuberculosis, an unfortunately common event at the time. Munch explained that, when painting from memory like this, he depicted only what he could remember, and was careful to avoid trying to add details which he no longer saw. This explains its relative simplicity.
Sophie is seen from her head, looking along her length to her feet, her figure compressed into almost nothing by extreme foreshortening. Her deathbed resembles the next step, in which her body will be laid out in a coffin prior to burial. More than half the painting is filled by the rest of the family, father with his hands clasped in intense prayer. At the right is the mother, who had died of tuberculosis herself nearly nine years earlier.
Munch had earlier painted The Dead Mother (1893), which was inspired by Max Klinger’s print from 1889 of the same name, and the death of his own mother. Outside, the world is bright, sunlit, and green. Inside it is pale blue, and the mother’s skin has assumed the slightly cyanotic pallor of death. Behind her head is a fern leaf.
Hospital beds are also rather special, and have evolved quite separately from domestic beds, particularly in the last few decades.
In Adam Elsheimer’s view of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Bringing Food for the Inmates of a Hospital from about 1598, the beds are large, wooden and robustly domestic. Above each is a religious painting, and watching over them all is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ.
By the Age of Enlightenment the first major voluntary hospitals were being funded by benefactors, charities and public subscription. Johannes Beerblock’s painting shows the very modern Wards of the Hospital of Saint John in the city of Bruges in 1778. Each of these beds was, in effect, its own private cubicle, and based on the popular box-bed.
Just over a century later, Luis Jiménez Aranda’s painting of Doctors’ Rounds in the Hospital Ward (1889) shows a ward densely packed with modern manufactured iron bedsteads with a touch of Art Nouveau design about them. Their black colour makes stark contrast with the white bed linen, preferring a cold clinical appearance to anything in the slightest homely or humane.
In the late eighteenth century, artists dared to show more explicitly what went on in real beds too.
Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece The Nightmare from 1781 shows what might happen in our sleep. A daemonic incubus squats on the torso of a young woman, who is laid out as if in a deep sleep in a rather non-descript bed, her head thrown back, and her arms above her head. Lurking in the darkness to the left is the head of a black horse, whose eyes appear unseeing. The incubus stares directly at the viewer in a manner which arouses discomfort.
A mundane single bed, again using a contemporary iron bedstead, is key to the reading of Edgar Degas’ Interior (1868-9), also known as The Interior and even The Rape.
A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing away from the man. The man stands at the far right, leaning against the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. The single bed is made up, and its cover is not ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, an item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) hangs loosely. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons, and her corset has been dropped on the floor by the foot of the bed.
The man and woman appear to be a couple, who have met in that room to engage in a clandestine sexual relationship. However, the bed is a single not a double, and shows no sign of having been used, nor has the bedding been disturbed in any way. Degas provides many small details, just as in a detective story, none of which points clearly to a resolution.
Gustave Courbet’s Sleepers from 1866 leaves little to the imagination in or on the bedclothing. This was commissioned by Khalil Bey, a rich collector of erotica, and is one of several of Courbet’s paintings for which Joanna Hiffernan modelled. It was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872, when its explicit lesbian motif resulted in a police report. The painting was removed from public view until 1988.
Henri Gervex continued Courbet’s association of beds and sleep with sex, in the painting for which he is now most famous: Rolla, which he submitted for the Salon of 1878. There would have been nothing wrong with this nude had she been in a classical setting, but like Manet’s notorious Olympia (1863) before, her contemporary surroundings and the heap of clothes beside her were deemed immoral.
Rolla was inspired by a poem by Alfred de Musset about a prostitute, and Gervex depicted her asleep in bed as her client gets dressed the following morning. Their clothes are mixed together, and tumble onto the floor beside her. The bed is a variant of the Lit à la Turque, with its canopy or baldachin at one end, and a foot based more on classical architecture.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Pierre Bonnard painted his partner Marthe lying relaxed on a huge double bed, which is little more than a mattress, taking us full circle to Sardanapalus. Woman Dozing on a Bed or Indolence of 1899 shows Marthe lying with her right hand tucked behind her neck and her left hand below her right breast. As her right foot dangles off the side of the bed, her left almost grips her lower right thigh, spreading her legs and exposing her sex. A brown blanket lies at the foot of the bed, it and the sheet wrinkled where the couple had been in bed together. The artist makes his presence known by wisps of blue smoke from his pipe, which are scattered around the edges of the painting.
The nineteenth century had seen a much stronger relationship between the bed and sex, which spilled over into the twentieth century. When I first went up as an undergraduate student to Oxford University, its colleges were still single-sex. One of the major women’s colleges permitted their students to be visited in their rooms by men only after the woman’s bed had been wheeled out into the corridor. As if its removal would have made sex physically impossible.
I finish with the most extraordinary bed of them all, which formed a raft on the River Seine.
A thoroughly unreliable legend claims that Clovis II, king of Neustria and Burgundy in the seventh century, entrusted his kingdom to his wife when he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While he was away, his older two sons fell out with their mother, and conspired to seize power from her. Clovis rushed back to control this revolt, and ponder what to do with his sons.
Clovis wanted to execute them both, but his wife proposed punishment which would deprive their limbs of all power, so they couldn’t revolt again. The main tendons, particularly those of the hamstrings, were cut in their arms and legs, and the helpless boys were placed on a raft bed on the river Seine. They floated downstream to Jumièges, near Rouen, where Saint Philibert took them in and gave them shelter. Évariste Vital Luminais’ painting of The Sons of Clovis II (1880) shows this extraordinary story.