A striking image with deep emotional resonance, Red Leather Chair is David Hockney's poignant tribute to Eduardo Chillida. Executed in 2003, swift strokes of watercolour deftly describe two empty chairs, set in an anonymous room. Recalling Vincent van Gogh's Van Gogh's Chair, in the collection of the National Gallery, Red Leather Chair is an evocative record of the absence of someone Hockney admires. In his remarkably reductive and stylized pictorial language, a large, lived-in red leather armchair dominates the picture frame, while a smaller, humbler office chair is just visible to the top right of the painting. Hockney has used a vibrant palette of contrasting colours - rich red for the dominant leather chair, pale blue for the floor, and a subtle green for the smaller chair - and allowed the white of the paper to show through, a combination that gives the painting luminescence. Flattening the picture plane and selecting only the essential details necessary to describe the form, the clarity and precision of the work is demonstrative of Hockney's facility as a draughtsman and his ability to realise his intentions with a vivid immediacy. Rendered in highly gestural, loose brushstrokes that reveal the artist's touch, Red Leather Chair is a deeply human tribute to a departed friend.
The same year that Red Leather Chair was painted, Hockney had an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Five Double Portraits: New Work by David Hockney, which was accompanied by a documentary film. The exhibition was a direct exploration of a long standing interest of Hockney's: how to best convey the presence of two people in a room, and in particular, whether he could capture something of their relationship. Like Red Leather Chair, these were also painted in four conjoined parts and the sitters sat on office chairs similar to the one in this present work. Double portraits are a long-standing tradition within English painting, particularly in 18th century portraits such as Gainsborough's married couple Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1752), in the collection of the National Gallery. It is a subject that has fascinated Hockney since early on in his career, when he painted both imaginary couples and his friends, such as one of his most celebrated works Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71), in the Tate Gallery collection. Red Leather Chair is a double portrait like these, motivated by wanting to emphasise the relationship between one person and another.
There is a powerful implied presence in Red Leather Chair, which intends to evoke the actual presence of the subjects in the real space of the viewer. The empty chair, a familiar motif within Hockney's oeuvre, is a prime example of this, and is a fitting homage to the absence or memory of a person. Portraying domestic interiors have been significant to Hockney - he gives them equal attention in his portraits, realising that they are more than just a stage for human drama, they have great representative potential. In recognition of this, in 1988 the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, commissioned Hockney to make three portraits of chairs to celebrate the centenary of Van Gogh's arrival in the city. Hockney was always greatly moved by the work of Van Gogh; he was inspired by his use of vividly contrasting colour combinations, echoed in the primary red and blue that Hockney has combined in this work, as well as in the motif. As Ulrich Luckhardt has astutely observed, the subject of Hockney's work often 'is not the object or scene represented but something that is linked to the represented object or scene by association, or by a chain of associations. That 'something' need not necessarily be another object or person; it could, for example, be a memory, a desire or a sense of longing. That empty chairs are among his favorite subjects does suggest that Hockney is disposed towards metonymy' (U. Luckhardt, David Hockney:A drawing retrospective, exh.cat., London, 1995, pp. 19-20).