Many of us have been stuck working or studying at home for months now. Things are looking up here in Europe, but I suspect we’ll still be in plenty of online meetings in the future. I’ve tried to switch up locations (bedroom, dining table, couch) to spice up the ‘mediocre millennial’ backdrops, but even my flashiest houseplants have become repetitive motifs. I have no doubt you can relate, so I’ve decided the time has finally come to introduce virtual Zoom backgrounds. Sure, I could simply steal a few photos of fancy-looking apartment interiors, but I don’t want to seem like a pandemic poser. Instead, I spent a day scouring the web to collect a few of my favourite artworks that have entered the public domain. Because copyright issues are the last thing we need. Here is my selection of 15 famous paintings that any art lover can use as Zoom backgrounds. They also work on Microsoft Teams!
The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh
Let’s start off with an absolute classic: Vincent van Gogh’s fabled bedroom. Vincent allegedly painted his bedroom right after he moved into the very first home he rented by himself in Arles, France. This feeling of excitement seems so refreshing when we ourselves have been confined to our bedrooms for so long. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent mentioned that he considered it one of his best paintings. I think I have to agree.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is a go-to option if you’re into that retro metropolitan vibe. The palpable ambiance of urban loneliness and placelessness has made this masterpiece one of the most iconic American paintings to this date. Somehow, it fits the pandemic mood just perfectly. Even those uneventful, slightly boring evenings at a bar or diner may now sound like paradise to some.
The White Room by Marius Borgeaud
I couldn’t help but include this painting by Marius Borgeaud, a Swiss Post-Impressionist painter that enjoys moderate fame. His interiors in particular are in a class of their own. These bright and yellowy tones and summery details have an instant uplifting effect whenever I see this painting. The summer hats, white flowers, the pleasures of a simple breakfast, and the promise of a long sunny day spark feelings of joy and contentment.
The Pink Room by Henri Matisse
If you’re not about those muted tones and want to bring a pop of colour to boring meetings, this expressionist painting by Henri Matisse is probably calling your name. This topographic interior exploration of artsy objects and eye-catching decor was based on the artist’s own studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux.
Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight by Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot is a name we don’t hear often enough. She painted this scene of her husband, the infamous Eugène Manet, looking out the window from their honeymoon abode on the Isle of Wight. Morisot and her husband often enjoyed packing up their paint boxes and painting outdoor scenes, but she also enjoyed creating window views like this one. This painting might look simple at first, but you’ll notice its complexity when you pay special attention to the multiple gazes that are present in this work. How many people are looking, and who is looking at whom?
Expectation by Félix Vallotton
Félix Vallotton’s interior paintings seem unassuming at first, but often have an unusual detail that will inevitably spark your curiosity. The Swiss-French painter had a knack for imbuing his work with a slight discomfort, using rooms as a stage for social and psychological themes. Expectation is a perfect example of Vallotton’s curious style. We see a well-dressed man hiding behind the curtains, perhaps spying on someone while looking out the window. Who could it be?
Evening Sun by Anna Ancher
Anna Ancher was a celebrated Danish artist with a fascination for light and colour, specializing in interiors and everyday themes. She was part of an artist colony called Skagen Painters, who typically produced idyllic summer scenes in the north of Denmark. For those who prefer a more minimalist backdrop with a focus on dancing sunset shimmers, this might be the Zoom background for you.
Ballet Rehearsal by Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas had a strong appreciation for the subject of dance. He loved to paint dynamic interior scenes and capture movement. He became fascinated with ballet dancers, focused on their art while swirling around the room. In 1870 and onward, however, Degas consciously decided to stick with the ballet theme because they, well … sold well. His brother’s debts had unfortunately left his family bankrupt.
Vase with Oleanders and Books by Van Gogh
This still life painting of a vase with gorgeous pink flowers was a product of Van Gogh’s time in Arles. The painting is full of appreciation and optimism, evidenced by the symbolic appearance of the yellow book to the left: Émile Zola’s La Joie de Vivre. I think we could all use a little bit of that hopeful energy at a time like this.
Interior with Two Glasses by Marius Borgeaud
Interestingly, Borgeaud never intended to become an artist. He worked at a bank and after his father died, he inherited quite a sum. He started to cultivate an expensive and ‘turbulent’ lifestyle, which eventually imploded and compelled him to recuperate on the shores of Lake Constance (possibly pictured on the right). Influenced by his former schoolmate, Paul Vallotton (yes, Félix’ brother), Borgeaud became infatuated with the art of painting during this fragile time in his life.
Writing by Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers was an American artist with German roots that first garnered attention with his idealized, yet realistic and blissfully mundane paintings of Dutch peasants and churchgoers. He spent years studying the art in Europe, but after his marriage to Corinne Lawton Mackall (pictured) he dipped his toes in the interior genre, presumably inspired by this new ‘domestic’ and stable phase in his life.
New York Movie by Edward Hopper
Another one of my favourite paintings by Edward Hopper is this introspective movie theatre interior. I love the duality of this painting, where a handful of moviegoers are watching a movie on the left side, while a distracted usherette is mulling over her own unknown thoughts on the other side. This painting is a perfect background voor cinephiles, film students and art history lovers alike.
Breakfast Time by Hanna Pauli
After successfully studying painting in Paris and making a name for herself, Breakfast Time became Hanna Pauli’s breakthrough in the Nordic art scene. This inviting, sunny and summery scene with a maid tending the breakfast table reflects the wealthy middle class that Pauli, hailing from Sweden, was born into. This was often the case for painters, since a full-fledged artistic career usually required a privileged upbringing. The painting makes me feel like I can just teleport to the 19th century and enjoy a warm cup of tea.
Interior with a Dog by Matisse
If you’re a fan of Matisse’s Fauvist bold colours AND you love pets, this is the ideal Zoom background for you. I’m always jealous when I see my colleagues’ pets stealing the spotlight during online meetings. It’s not the spotlight that makes me jealous, mind you. I’m envious because I don’t own a dog or cat and I really want a pet.
Lady at the Piano by Félix Vallotton
I’ll end this collection of famous paintings as Zoom backgrounds with a peaceful one: Lady at the Piano, again by Félix Valloton. In contrast to many of his other interiors, this painting has less of an uncanny atmosphere and more of a personal and intimate one. We see a lady in comfortable clothes playing the piano, with the window opening up to a lush garden with sun-clad trees. The wallpaper seems to take elements from both the lady indoors and the flowers outdoors, connecting the two rather than forming a barrier. I wonder what kind of person this lady was, and what her music sounded like.