The Family, Paula Rego – analysis

The Family, Paula Rego, 1988.



Composition, subject matter, colour, symbolism, meaning, feel, etc.

The overall effect of Rego’s peice is one of unease, as even the most obvious content poses many questions.
In the image, we see a man being dressed or undressed by a girl and a woman. Presumably, especially due to the title of ‘The Family’, the woman is his partner and the mother of the children, though this isn’t certain. For instance, her clothes, though obscured by the man, appear to be maid’s clothes. This makes us question if she is the wife, or if she is the maid, and if so, where the children’s mother is and why she isn’t shown. Her expression is one of content happiness, though subtle. She is the only figure facing the viewer and so draws immediate attention, despite being to the side.
The man being dressed or undressed has a severe pale, yellow undertone to his skin despite the otherwise warm, red-based colours used in the image. This makes him look almost ill. His lack of controll over the situation and furrowed brow, combined with the darnkess around his eyes furthers this sense of illness. He could also look drunk in the same way. Either way, the people around him are stood imposingly close and have controll of the situation, conveying a sinsiter feeling. His wife/maid has her arm in front of his faceand a grip on his wrist as though he cannot hold his own arm up. She doesn’t seem to have much care, looking towards the viewer rather than her task. The girl in front of him, presumably his daughter, is leaning right in with her hips and not giving him much space. Dressing or undressing her father seems like a peculiarly mature thing for a young(ish) looking girl to do. Her face looks older than her body, adding to the unease. She has strong eye contact with the man, just visible despite her being turned away from the viewer, which, when coupled with the look of concern on his face, implies that she has some kind of malicious intent. Though the man is in a suit, and looks like he’d have quite a respectable job as such, especially if that is his maid, his clothes are wrinkled, his face is tired and he looks quite vulnerable in this situation.

Overlooking this whole uncomfortable scene is another girl dressed in an outfit that complements (another asumption here) her sister. Despite the uncomfortable nature of the scene, she has her hands together as though with delight, and her posture and dress imply some kind of innocence. The wideness of her eyes, height of her brow and the way her middle is pushed forwards communicates some anticipation, as though she is waiting for something to happen to the man, or knows something we don’t. This sinister feeling is compounded with the shadow she casts on the floor. The shadow itself is innocent enough, as is the girl, but the composition of the peice makes it seem of some importance – it takes up quite a bit of space – and seems as though there is a darker side to her and this whole situation.

As for the rest of the room, the bed is in dissaray, which also seems unresolved compared to if Rego were to simply paint it made – it raises more questions too, why is it this way? Why, if she is a maid, hasn’t she sorted it? When was it last slept in? There is equal evidence this scene takes place in morning and evening – the low, yellow sunlight, the dressing/undressing man, the dissaray of the bed – we do not know.

The room has a generally warm colour scheme, the curtains have pink, the bedcover is pink also, the carpet appears a pinkish cream, the runner on the table is red, etc. This warm and almost cosy atmosphere juxtaposes against the coolness and detatched attitude the figures have towards one another, adding to the unease.

The dresser at the back of the room seems to show a painting covered with curtains. Why? The painting seems to depict a girl standing by while a boy kills a creature (dragon perhaps?) and has an epic kind of atmosphere to it. The level of detail seems strange to be in the background and helps in terms of the eye not being able to settle comfortably. The painting seems symbolic, though the relevance is hard to interperet. There is an engraving on the front of the dresser of a large bird pecking what I think might be a fox? There is a lot of ambiguity in the images at the back due to their scale and the lighting.  In both images, a creature has given in and is helpless, about to be killed and struggling for life.  It could be foreshadowing that the girl stood unnasumingly in the back is going to watch an attack, perhaps the woman on the man in the room, but this painting is so full of ambiguity and atmosphere that it has you second guessing yourself.


Brushstrokes, texture, form, pattern

The peice is smooth, and has little to no texture to it and the brushstrokes aren’t very visible, like they used oil paints and a medium to make them smoother. There are barely any harsh lines and it is only in the leftmost third that there is much strong linework and emphasis through contrast. The wrinkles of the fabrics and the painting of the man himself are the areas that use darkness for most attention – it is the area with the starkest tone. The back of the room and the table at the front are both dark, but seem a little more bland in comparison, there is less contrast and they do not seem as immediate. This may also be as they’re more static compared to the dynamic situation with the three people. Attention is also drawn to this area by means of pattern – the striped tie of the man and the stark check skirt of the girl are the only two black and white elements of the piece.

The palette for the shading of areas is reasonably limited – not many values are used between the lightest and darkest area of each object, but the contrast is enough to give depth. This adds to unease with its unrealistic flattness and shadowy depth conflicting. Despite the lack of realism, depth and definition, there is still dappled shades on the walls and floor, giving the peice a softer appearance. The whole peice does feel quite soft and warm, which conflicts nicely with and brings out the subject matter.

Personally, I quite like this peice as it is multifaceted and intriguing. I find the style interesting and very fitting for the content. I appreciate the techniques used and though this isn’t the sort of art I’d usually like, I wouldn’t mind trying something like this myself.

3 thoughts on “The Family, Paula Rego – analysis

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