The Great Pieces of Furniture in Art

So, many readers of this blog may not know that I actually hold a graduate degree in literature. I’ve always had a keen interest for books, but also for art and, more recently, for movies. As I write my posts for this blog, I often start thinking about important pieces of furniture in art–whether it’s literature, paintings or on the screen. As my Furniture Matters series showed, furniture has meaning in our lives… and artists have sought to capture this importance in many ways. Here are my favourite pieces of furniture of artistic importance.

Odysseus’ bed in Homer’s The Odyssey

Odysseus and Penelope Bed Francesco_Primaticcio

Odysseus, Penelope, and their all-important bed. as depicted by artist Francesco Primaticcio in 1563

If you recall the end of the The Odyssey, after Odysseus has killed the suitors and punished the maids, he can finally reveal himself to Penelope. However, wary of the man who pretends to be her husband, Penelope makes the following request:

Come then, Eurykleia, and make up a firm bed for him
outside the well-fashioned chamber: that very bed that he himself
built. Put the firm bed here outside for him, and cover it
over with fleeces and blankets, and with shining coverlets.

Odysseus, a bit miffed by his wife’s reluctance to sleep with him (and also of his wife’s apparent ignorance as to the main feature of the bed), answers and thus confirms his identity to Penelope:

…What man
has put my bed in another place? But it would be difficult
for even a very expert one, unless a god, coming
to help in person, were easily to change its position.
… I myself, no other man, made it.
There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing
strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column.
I laid down my chamber around this, and built it, until I
finished it…
Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive…
making a bed post of it…
I began with this and built my bed, until it was finished,
and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory.

The only two people who know about the bed are Penelope and Odyssseus. At this moment, thanks to a special bed, Penelope is reassured of the stranger’s identity and can finally be reunited with her long-lost husband.

Vincent Van Gogh’s bed in Bedroom in Arles

Vincent Van Gogh Bedroom at Arles

Vincent Van Gogh “Bedroom At Arles*, 1888, which you can see up close if you find yourself in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh Museum.

This painting represents one of the most famous beds of the artistic world. The striking yellow colors, one of Van Gogh’s favorites, really make a statement. This lonely bed hints at the presence of the lonely man sleeping in it, accompanied with two simple chairs and one small desk holding most of his possessions. Very few artists have rendered such a sparse room so beautifully. Van Gogh’s work with colors still calls to our modern sensibilities, more than one hundred years later.

The bed in Stephen King’s Misery–both the book and the movie

I must admit I am not a fan of horror films, but the bed in Misery, both in the book and the movie, will send chills down your spine. Nobody would want to be tied to this bed with obsessed Annie making the shots. The movie presents the bed as this simple metal frame with floral print sheets.. the symbol of simplicity and innocence… but for how long?

The mirror in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel

The little-known second part to Alice in Wonderland features a looking-glass (Victorian speech for mirror) that lets Alice travel back to Wonderland for more adventures. Alice begins this book by describing the world she imagines beyond the looking-glass… only to cross it moments later.

“How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink–but oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things it! Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—–” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down the Looking-Glass room.

This scene has been interpreted in many different ways, but I personally see it as the triumph of imagination and play. The “world-beyond-the-mirror” is a common enough literary trope. It speaks of alternate worlds, sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful, but never benign. Whoever visits beyond the looking-glass comes back transformed. Humans always wonder what is on the other side of the glass–is it a world of bounty and happiness, or a world crueler and even worse than our own?

The desk in Vermeer’s Woman With a Balance


Johannes Vermeer.”Woman With A Balance” or “Woman Testing A Balance”, 1662-63

I love Vermeer’s paintings. His works still dazzle by their realism today, decades before so-called “realism” appeared in European painting in the 19th century. In this painting, you see a merchant woman weighing some pearls on a desk. The desk takes up most of the space and is covered in pearls and other precious objects, recalling the importance of work and trade to Vermeer’s society. The delicate scales can mean a few things, but to me they describe the equally delicate balance of power in Europe and how it was easy for a merchant to lose everything in one fell swoop, should God (or fate) decide to put its weight with one or the other big powers.

The Iron Throne in Game of Thrones

Beyond being a literature geek, I’m also a geek… period. I’ve loved Game of Thrones since the very beginning and have since read all available novels… so I pretty much know what’s happening before everyone else. But what fascinates me the most in this series, apart from the complex political relationships, is the Iron Throne itself, forged of the swords of those who surrendered to the first Targaryens who conquered the Seven Kingdoms.

The throne’s sharp edges and pointy ends could kill anyone who sits on the throne too… comfortably, constantly reminding the ruler that kingship should not be taken lightly. Not that King Geoffrey is learning this lesson very well, it seems… And I believe this throne is a great symbol for all men and women in power today: that one false move, in any direction, can end everything.

What have I missed?

For the sake of time (and of taking out too many books from the library), I have passed over many important pieces of furniture, like the round table from the Arthurian myths, Agatha Christie’s The Spanish Chest, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari, Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture Fountain and the electric chair in The Green Mile. What are your most memorable pieces of furniture in artistic works?

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