Interior c. 1910
Helen McNicoll, Interior, c. 1910
Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 45.9 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
This small painting situates the viewer alone in a bedroom—an intimate, usually private space. According to Victorian and Edwardian understandings of “separate spheres,” in which the private was associated with the feminine, and the public with the masculine, the painting could easily be read as a feminized space. But Interior can be counted among a number of images by McNicoll that present a more complicated understanding of domesticity and femininity. For all the intimacy the space evokes, we have no indication of the identity of the person who occupies it. There are no clues on the dresser or the mantle, and we cannot see the pictures on the wall. Kristina Huneault has listed the signs of the human body that normally reside in the space: the footprints on the carpet, the pillow tossed aside on the bed, the robe draped on the rocking chair. “The body has absented itself from an environment where all the signs point to its presence,” she writes, “and there is a gap between expectation and its fulfillment.”
In Interior, McNicoll shows her ability to capture the fleeting effects of sunshine and light indoors. The sun filters in through the translucent sheer curtains of the window, diffusing the scene with a light that shimmers across the varied textures of the room: the gold metal of the lamp sconces and fireplace surround, the polished wood of the dresser, the pure white fabrics of the pillows and throws. A diagonal streak of lemon-yellow paint creates a beam of sunlight that cuts across the floor, revealing the artist’s virtuoso ability to capture different kinds of light. These highlights encourage the eye to engage in a playful exploration of the pictorial space. McNicoll used this same strategy in several other works, as did many of her contemporaries. A Fireside, painted by Mary Hiester Reid (1854–1921) in the same year as Interior, takes a similarly intimate approach to the everyday private living space of women.