An Analysis of the Depiction of Wallpaper in Fine Art

Nicholas Forrest
Dec 2, 2012 4:28PM

Wallpaper seems to have made a comeback in the world of interior design so I thought it might be interesting to see what came up with in relation to wallpaper.  Yes, I know, it’s a slightly obscure topic, but stay with me because it turns out that the depiction of wallpaper in fine art is actually quite an interesting topic of analysis.

It was particularly interesting to see that wallpaper seems to be perceived as having a feminine quality that extends from the depiction of women in interior scenes framed by wonderful wallpaper designs, to works of art depicting women in the act of wallpapering.

Mary Cassatt’s The Letter, 1890 is a wonderful example of the feminine qualities of wallpaper.  The lady depicted in the etching wears a beautiful patterned dress that perfectly complements the wallpaper design in the background.

Using colours and patterns, Cassatt creates an environment that exudes both harmony and conflict.  Although the patterns on the dress and the wallpaper link the figure to the interior scene, the bold colour of the dress and the subtlety of the wallpaper in the background draw the female figure to the foreground of the scene.   

John Currin explores the outer limits of femininity with his work Tolbrook, 2006 which challenges the way women are perceived by presenting a provocative image of a young lady juxtaposed with an interior filled with references to a more traditional era.  

In the usually male-dominated realm of home improvement, the act of wallpapering seems to have been claimed by modern women as an expression of independence and empowerment – even if it doesn’t always go to plan.

Gil Elvgren’s Wanted!, 1952 shows a woman attempting to apply wallpaper but failing miserably.  The clueless expression on her face and the provocative pose appears to present a somewhat archaic perception of women as nothing more than slaves to the desires of men and capable only of engaging in the most simple domestic tasks.

There is, however, another dimension to Elvgren’s pin-up style of painting.  Although his work could be interpreted as embodying the objectification of women, it can also be viewed as a representation of the power that women have over men.  Taking this alternative view, the woman in Elvgren’s painting transforms from a helpless handmaiden to an empowered heroine who uses her femininity to manipulate men.

Cassandra C. Jones’ Rara Avis, Wallpaper Installation uses wallpaper as a work of art in its own right. Obsessively sifting through online archives of images and accumulating them as her raw materials, Jones arranges series of photographs, or elements within them, to form patterns and cohesive line drawings.  Jones uses the found digital images to create collages, wallpaper, and video loops that she calls “snap-motion re-animations.”

Who thought there could be so much to discuss in relation to wallpaper!!

Nicholas Forrest