Finding Beauty in Domestic Spaces

Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony, 1919. Palladium print

Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony, 1919. Palladium print, 21.2 x 16.4 cm. Purchased in 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.  © Joseph Mulholland, Glasgow, Scotland Photo: NGC

Over the past two years, we have spent more time at home than perhaps ever before. This experience gave us a heightened awareness of details in our domestic spaces – the good and the bad. We may have noticed scratches on the wall or spill marks on the floor on the way to our desks in the morning, observations that did not plague us when we were in our office buildings. On the other hand, we may also have become newly aware of the effect of the afternoon light when it streams through the living-room window. With home-decorating shows and videos becoming all the rage, people have been focusing on thoughtful space design and intentional arrangement of objects more than ever before, making efforts to improve their surroundings and create moments of respite and aesthetic pleasure in the home.

Because our lived experiences influence our perspective and interpretation of works of art, it is fascinating now to revisit representations of domestic spaces and objects, well-loved themes throughout art history that speak to an ongoing preoccupation of human existence. Artists have always been adept at finding beauty in the everyday, highlighting the significance of the seemingly mundane and revealing the singularity and allure of simple household objects. Through close observation and the careful capturing of moments in time, artists help us to pause and discover aesthetic pleasure in places we may not have thought to look.

Hamilton-born photographer Margaret Watkins (1884–1969), whose work was the focus of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in 2012, was an artist who explored this theme in depth. Applying her knowledge of modernist composition and design, she pushed the boundaries of the still-life genre, and in her photographs transformed the most ordinary of subject matters. Her photograph Domestic Symphony is an exquisite example of the artist elevating some modest domestic elements – eggs, a sink, a dishtowel and pans – by composing them into a harmonious arrangement, using line, curves, light and shadow. The upper part of the image is dominated by curved lines: the rounded edges of the eggs, the pans behind them and the graceful arc of the shiny white enamel drainboard, which stands out dramatically against a dark shadow. As Curator Lori Pauli has pointed out, it is notable that nearly three-quarters of the picture is filled with shadow, which only serves to emphasize the elegant volumes and smooth textures of the objects. The title itself alludes to the harmoniousness glimpsed in the everyday items and their arrangement – Watkins was always inspired by music and often chose titles with musical connotations.

Margaret Watkins, The Kitchen Sink, c. 1919. Palladium print

Margaret Watkins, The Kitchen Sink, c. 1919. Palladium print, 21.3 x 16.4 cm. Purchased in 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Joseph Mulholland, Glasgow, Scotland Photo: NGC

Watkins shocked viewers in 1919, when she photographed her kitchen sink – it was considered an unseemly motif at the time, compounded by the dishes being dirty. The viewer sees a glass bottle and a ceramic creamer, both filled with dirty water, scum floating on the top. A chipped teacup sits in a bowl, the black handle of a whisk propped at an angle. Watkins has composed the image in such a way, however, that it creates a pleasing sense of balance:  the tall bottle is centred, the curved metal of the tap and kettle spout on either side acting almost as decorative elements. The bottle and the kettle both cast dramatic shadows onto the white enamel of the sink. The artist is at once demonstrating her skill and her unique perspective, making us focus our attention on something mundane that we would normally not pause to consider. And yet we still find beauty, even among dirty dishes.

Mary Pratt, Red Currant Jelly, 1972, Oil on masonite

Mary Pratt, Red Currant Jelly, 1972, Oil on masonite, 45.9 x 45.6 cm. Purchased in 1976. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Mary Pratt (2022) Photo: NGC

Mary Pratt (1935–2018), one of Canada’s foremost painters and a master of domestic imagery, also believed that commonplace objects were “worthy of a close look.” “I think, with my work, even the things that are ordinary are not ordinary, because I don’t believe that anything is ordinary. I think everything is complex and worthy of conjecture, and worthy of a look,” she said in an interview during the Gallery's Mary Pratt: This Little Painting exhibition in 2015.  

Like other women artists, Pratt operated within a set of social constraints and expectations, working in the home and focusing her art on what was around her. In between raising four children and managing a household in rural Newfoundland, she carved out blocks of time for painting. Her images capture the rhythms and work of daily life, often embodied by objects that are given new meaning and monumentality through her consideration and representation of them.

There is a sensuality to her paintings, a palpable delight in the rich colours, the glowing light and the glistening surfaces of the objects she paints. She has described the visceral reaction she would often feel, when – going about her business at home – she would be struck by the beauty of something and feel the need to capture the moment immediately. (In 1969, she began using photography as a tool to capture a scene quickly and then paint it).

Speaking about her painting Red Currant Jelly, which is in the national collection, she recalled: “The sun was coming through the window and it was just so beautiful, and I hadn’t photographed jelly before. But it was just so gorgeous, I just had to photograph it.” She thought about removing the plate with all the “stuff’ that is skimmed off the top of the jelly, but then decided it was important to leave it as an indicator of the process of making jelly. Dirty dishes, after all, signify work, signify living.

Mary Pratt, Hollowed Eggs for Easter, 1983. Oil on canvas

Mary Pratt, Hollowed Eggs for Easter, 1983. Oil on canvas, 76 x 91.4 cm. Collection of Acadia University Art Gallery. © Estate of Mary Pratt (2022) Photo: Courtesy of Acadia University Art Gallery.

Pratt’s Hollowed Eggs for Easter presents the viewer with a gift: a cluster of eggs, half-wrapped in a paper towel that she has painted in the finest texture, laid on a cutting board and pushed forward in the picture plane as if in offering. They are bathed in a soft light that creates varying degrees of blue shadows across the white surface, which stands out against the dark recess of the sink and background egg carton. Like Watkins, Pratt has taken the humble egg and sink and elevated them through her artistic representation.

A pinprick of orange paint indicates that light passes through the hollowed eggs, and we are reminded that someone has blown out the inside of each in order to paint or dye these shells for Easter. As in Red Currant Jelly, and in many other works by Mary Pratt, the still-life object represents part of a process – work, creation – and calls to mind, too, the work of the artist in making the painting. Like the jelly, and like a work of art, the blown-out eggs are a product of labour and time, and the artist reminds us that there is beauty to be found in the daily work of domestic tasks and in the process of making.

Dustin Brons, Balancing Spoon, 2020. Chromogenic print

Dustin Brons, Balancing Spoon, 2020. Chromogenic print. Collection of the Artist © Dustin Brons Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Today, the fascination with domestic imagery continues in art-making in Canada. Vancouver-based photographer Dustin Brons, one of the winners of the 2021 New Generation Photography Award, often focuses his lens on objects in his home. In Balancing Spoon, he photographed the process of making soup in a cooking pot, with a wooden spoon perfectly balanced on its edge, next to a glass bowl for serving. Like Watkins and Pratt, mess is part of the reality – there are splatters visible on the stove's surface.

Despite the ordinariness of the objects, it is the composition of the image that “presents an ordinary moment as extraordinary,” notes the Gallery's Senior Curator of Photographs Andrea Kunard. The soup pot is centred and turned into a focal point, while the improbably balanced spoon creates a horizontal line that connects to the corner of the countertop. Much like Watkins, Brons has used the rounded forms of different objects, including a lid in the left corner and a kettle with a curved spout, to create a sense of weight and stability in the picture.

Dustin Brons, Non-Circulating, 2019, inkjet print.

Dustin Brons, Non-Circulating, 2019. Inkjet print. Collection of the artist. © Dustin Brons Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

In a recent Artists for Water interview, Brons describes his interest in making photographs in the home, emphasizing its ever-changing environment: “You might live in a place for a long time, and it’s always the same place, but it’s always changing and different as well, whether that’s just the way the light interacts with the space, or the way that things are arranged.” In Non-Circulating, he has captured the light reflecting onto two jars filled with glinting copper pennies, set off dramatically against a dark background. Pratt’s luminous mason jars of jam come to mind – the effect of light on glass raising a humble domestic object into a moment of unexpected radiance.

As artists demonstrate – and as our recent history of time at home has hopefully reminded us – there is beauty everywhere, if we know how to look for it.


Mary Pratt's Red Currant Jelly is on view in Room A112a at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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