When Art Imitates Life, and Vice Versa

Devis detail.jpg

It is no secret that one of our favourite artists is Arthur Devis (1712-1787)–the English painter is best known for his conversation pieces, a particular type of portraiture showing individuals posed within a detailed domestic setting.  Devis’s painted interiors served to highlight the sitter’s gentility, elegance, and taste.  Today, we are taking a closer look at one of Devis’s paintings in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art and examining the furniture displayed within the interior setting.


Arthur Devis, Gentleman Seated at a Table, circa 1744-46 Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In this portrait, the unidentified figure sits comfortably at a Georgian armchair with his arm perched on the nearby tripod table.  It is as if Devis has caught the man just for a moment as he has laid the book on the table, thumb holding his space, before he resumes reading.  A further indication of man’s interest in books is seen in the conspicuously open bookcase to the left of the fireplace.  Besides these details, we are given little else to go on in terms of interior trappings–no textiles, paintings, or decorative objects distract us from the simple yet endearing image of a man  reading his book.  In this way, Devis provides just enough indication of a sophisticated interior while keeping the details sparse to create a clean, elegant, and restrained image.

Regarding the furniture itself, Devis turns to the tripod table again and again (and again and again!).  The simplicity of the circular top and tripartite base serves as an ideal piece for the placement of various decorative elements, whether it be books, quills, tea services, or other domestic items.


A George III Mahogany Tripod Table, circa 1760 Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Perhaps it is not surprising that the tripod table survives today as one of the most useful  and elegant examples of antique furniture, particularly ones with fine colour and carving.  Shown above is a George III mahogany card table in our collection with excellent colour and a superbly proportioned turned baluster stem vase with three exaggerated cabriole legs terminating in pad feet.  This piece would fit in seamlessly in an Devis interior.


A George III Chippendale Period Mahogany Armchair, circa 1760 Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Moving onto the chair: Devis chose to have the gentleman sit in a mahogany armchair that  relates closely to the designs of Thomas Chippendale.  The chair pictured above is a George III Chippendale period mahogany armchair in our collection that features a number of similar design elements, including the carved splat back, scrolled arms and hand rests, and square legs joined by a stretcher.

Devis was known to use his own artist’s studio for props, which he could use to fill out a portrait once he had the basic composition completed.  In fact, Devis’s studio contained several wooden dummies, which we would use to create poses for his sitters.  It is likely that he also used furniture, paintings, and decorative objects to create interiors for his sitters, much like the tripod table and chair shown here.

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