Cézanne and Wallpaper: “Backgrounds As Imaginary As They Are Real”

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne Sewing (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife) (c.1877), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne Sewing (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife) (c.1877), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

At the turn of the 20th century, a curious symbiosis developed between decorative arts—especially wallpaper—and painting, even as modern painters were increasingly asserting their independence from tradition. The Nabi artists Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard designed wallpaper, screens, murals, furniture and ceramics throughout the 1890s and early 1900s.1 The Maison Cubiste at the 1912 Salon d’Automne displayed Cubist painting alongside decorative products and wallpaper. The origins of this complex relationship between painting and the decorative arts can be traced back along many avenues, from Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerken to the socio-aesthetic reforms of William Morris, but one intriguing line of descent runs through the development of modern painting itself.

In the 1870s a number of French artists began using strange, nonrealistic depictions of wallpaper in the backgrounds of their portraits and still life paintings.2 As a decorative, mechanically produced product, wallpaper presented a series of rules (symmetry, balance, order) that could be broken. Susan Sidlauskas identifies a “mix of asymmetry, imbalance, and distortion” as three major qualities of domestic figuration “that have come to be identified as the early signs of ‘modernity’ in painting.”3 Using wallpaper as a tool to challenge academic modes of painting, modern painters systematically upended the rules of perspective, color and subject matter.

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  1. A few of Maurice Denis’ wallpaper designs were published in L’Art Decoratif 8 (May 1899): 52, 77. Marie Laurencin, Sonia Delaunay, and the artists of the Omega Group also designed wallpaper in the early 1910s. In the 1920s, both René Magritte and Charles Burchfield designed wallpaper patterns for commercial production. For more on connections between modern artists and wallpaper designs, see Marilyn Oliver Hapgood, Wallpaper and the Artist: From Dürer to Warhol (New York & London: Abbeville, 1992). []
  2. Portions of this paper stem from research conducted for my MA dissertation at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, in 2012. I’m indebted to my thesis adviser, Gavin Parkinson, and my classmates for their advice and assistance. For an up-to-date history of wallpaper production (mainly in France) with excellent full-color images, see Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, Wallpaper: A History of Styles and Trends (Paris: Flammarion, 2009). For a history of American wallpaper production see Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America, from the Seventeenth Century to World War I (New York: The Barra Foundation & W.W. Norton, 1980). []
  3. Susan Sidlauskas, “Psyche and Sympathy: Staging Interiority in the Early Modern Home,” in Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture, ed. Christopher Reed (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 67–68. []