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The Art of Lying Down: A Survey Of The Best Beds In Art History

by Emily Barasch 

The history of art has been rife with bed imagery. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a powerful way to make a statement about sex, love, marriage, aesthetics, and even class (see the great Édouard Manet’s groundbreaking Olympia). Artists have ranged from using it to portray beauty to emotional hurt; or animal instincts to societal norms. But whatever the intended meaning, at Hill House, we’re grateful to have the masters and their interpretations to look to for bedroom inspiration. 

Scholars have looked to the Renaissance masterpiece, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, created in 1538, as the beginning of a rich tradition of depicting the female form. His work would later be drawn upon (and subverted) by the Impressionists, Modernists, and Pop artists, amongst others. A challenge: Titian’s Venus painting contains hidden allegorical symbols that extoll the virtues of motherhood, fidelity, and physical beauty—see if you can spot them all. 

More saucy is seventh-century master Rembrandt’s French Bed (Ledikant in Rembrandt’s native Dutch; Le lit à la Française in French)—especially for an artist known for his brilliant depictions of, ahem, safer subjects than a couple mid-coitus. 

Things only got more risqué from there. When French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, known simply as Ingres, exhibited La Grande Odalisque in the Salon of 1819, he caused a critical stir with his audacious merging of styles and lack of anatomical realism. The subject, a concubine, reclines on a plush, deep blue pillow with marigold sheets and a fur throw—not to mention, matching azure patterned curtains. Putting aside the controversy, this painting is a veritable bedding feast. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say Olympia by Édouard Manet changed the game. She rests on simple but deluxe white sheets, giving the viewer a direct stare that seems to say: I simply couldn’t care less what you think of me. And this attitude, coming from a prostitute as Olympia was said to be, was nothing short of radical, altering the course of art history. As Émile Zola put it, “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”

It’s hard to put Henri Matisse in a proverbial box, as his artistic style was so patently unique. Color is essential to Matisse’s auteur-like expression and Odalisque (Harmony in Red), from 1927, is no exception. The bed is decadent—in whites, greys, and red—absolutely inviting the viewer to jump right in. And the subject is the very picture of sensuality from her exposed chest to unexpected ankle bracelets. 

Early Pop artist, Robert Rauschenberg put an entirely different twist on the bed trope with his 1955 work, Bed. According to lore, before his commercial success, Rauschenberg could barely afford to buy a canvas. In lieu, he grabbed his sheet and quilt for a canvas, and then, of course, a pillow, and splattered some paint across it. Bed is a primary example of Rausenberg’s Combines, seminal works of art he made using found objects. 

In one of his later works, Interior with Waterlilies (1991), Roy Lichtenstein applied his trademark comic book-esque style to portray a familiar domestic space. The bedroom, and the bed especially, look neat but inviting—oddly realistic while cartoonish.   

Confessional; thoroughly and painfully personal; brash but real: all descriptors given to the work of Tracey Emin, a pivotal member of the YBA (Young British Artists) movement. My Bed, from 1998, is a perfect example of this diary-like approach. The piece is a bed that has—along with the artist—gone through the stages of an emotional breakdown. There are cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles, stained underwear and sheets, crumbled up papers, and a sinister stuffed animal amongst other remnants of a painful time. Never aspirational but always genuine, her work has struck a chord in the art world and general audience, proof of the universality of experiencing life as sometimes messy and difficult. 

Here at Hill House, we certainly do not endorse smoking in bed (hello fire hazard!), but if there’s anyone who could make it look appealing, it’s contemporary photography star, Alex Prager. Here, his subject reclines on a sheet with fabulous floral print that chicly matches her retro frock. A supine woman with full lips and voluptuous eyelashes, the photograph is certainly subversive but also true inspiration for those who prefer a more funky aesthetic.