The art exhibition called Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the C19th was held in the Special Exhibition Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, April-July 2011. This exhibition focused on the Romantic motif of the open window as first captured by German, Danish, French and Russian artists around 1810–40.
Even though the exhibition has closed, you can still read the catalogue essay which was written by Sabine Rewald. And the review by Dr Ben Harvey.
You might have thought this was a limited topic for art historians to get exercised about. Especially since many of the rooms were sparsely furnished and very quiet. Most had one figure who was captured reading, writing or painting; some had more than one figure; the rest had no human presence at all. All 60 works in the catalogue had just one thing in common – an open window.
I am very familiar with the lone figure standing in front of an open window in 17th century Dutch art, so I had expected a lot of comparative works by Vermeer, Dou and de Hooch for example. But sadly there is very little mention of what came before 1800. I found just half a page lightly mentioning C15th Northern Renaissance artists, and the Dutch and Flemish interiors like Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window c1659.
So I went to Martha Hollander for an explanation about 17th century Dutch paintings. In her book An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch art, she suggested the view outside C17th Dutch windows positively enriched the primary scene at the centre of the canvas! Even if their open windows invited an analysis of the relationship between public and private life in urban life, Dutch artists never intended to detrimentally compare an unfulfilled life inside the home with a happier one outside.
Perhaps it was for this reason that the Metropolitan brought in paintings for this exhibition from museums in the USA, Denmark, France, Austria, Sweden, Italy and especially Germany, but not from the Netherlands.
Friedrich, View from the Artist’s Studio, c1805, graphite and sepia, 31 x 24cm. Belvedere, Vienna.
I will start with the most influential example of German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). In View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Right, c1805–6, the viewer can see that Friedrich’s studio in Dresden faced the river Elbe. In this small sepia work and its pair, the artist did not seem to be very interested in all the activity out on the Elbe River; rather he focused on achieving a finely tuned balance between the darkened interior and the bright outdoors. I don’t think he quite pulled it off, since the inner walls were too bare and prison-like. But perhaps that was intentional. In this sober presentation of the cut-off point between the inside home and the outside world, Friedrich discovered a Romantic symbol for longing.
Friedrich’s influence was such that his followers settled in Dresden, then a centre of Romanticism. The motif of the open window was not previously known to the Carl Ludwig Kaaz, Johan Christian Dahl and Georg Friedrich Kerstin, but it soon appealed Friedrich’s immediate art circle. Because the younger men copied it and turned it into the classic Romantic subject, View from the Artist’s Studio took on a greater importance that might have been obvious at first.
Kersting, Woman Embroidering, oil, 47 c 37 cm, 1811, Goethe Nationalmuseum Weimar
Georg Kersting (1785–1847) was another German artist who was 11 years younger than Friedrich but they were great friends and professional colleagues. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1806-7, Prussia was occupied by French troops. But by 1812-3, Napoleon retreated and a patriotic spirit revived in Germany. Yet Kersting reflected none of Dresden’s war destruction, plagues, hunger or, later, 300,000 French prisoners of war.
In a small oil, Kersting depicted artist Louise Seidler quietly embroidering in an immaculately clean room. The cool light of a summer morning, pale green walls and pale blue-and-white sky were all very gentle. Only the Empire-style furniture, curtain, musical accoutrements and potted plants on the sill gave a sense of the sitter’s personality.
Was Louise Seidler in mourning? Was she sick? The Rooms With a View catalogue suggests that this painting was not intended as a portrait of Ms Seidler, and clearly it was not a landscape; instead it was a study of contemplation and morning light.
Menzel, Artist's Bedroom in Ritterstrasse, 1847, Oil, 56 x 46 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.
Adolph Menzel (1815–1905) was another German artist, but much younger than Caspar David Friedrich and Georg Kersting. He painted this small oil picture of his bedroom in daylight shortly after moving into a large fourth-floor apartment on Ritterstrasse, a lovely new district of Berlin. Menzel too was interested in the effects of light in a very ordinary bedroom. But Menzel turned expectations exactly upside down: he painted the person and furniture inside with room with broad brushstrokes but used exacting details in depicting the view of the distance city outside the window.
How is that possible? Every first year Perception student knows that the human eye can see details up close, but the further away an object gets, the blurrier it becomes. Clearly Menzel used the room interior only as a context for what he was most interested in: the rapidly expanding, and very exciting city outside.
The images in Rooms With A View were well painted, thoughtfully curated and beautifully printed in the catalogue. The question the viewer at the exhibition and the reader of this book has to answer is: “what theme held these 60 early-19th century works together”?
The German Romantics loved untamed nature invested with emotion. They valued their belief in the primacy of feeling, even in natural phenomena. So Rewald’s answer needs to be examined from that Romantic perspective. "The Romantics found a potent symbol for the experience of standing on the threshold between an interior and the outside world. The juxtaposition of the close familiarity of a room and the uncertain, often idealised vision of what lay beyond was immediately recognised as a metaphor for unfilled longing”. Tahlib added that the “luminous windows were a yearning for something distant and ineffable, a metaphor for spiritual longing”.
In Constant Moyaux’s View of Rome from the Artist’s Room at the Villa Medici 1863, Rewald’s thesis seems perfectly sound. In Georg Kersting’s Young Woman Sewing by Lamplight 1823, no outside world is visible. Was the young woman longing silently and secretly? Even the best art historian could not answer that question.
The book, front cover (Friedrich, Woman at the Window, 1822)
Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century was written by Sabine Rewald for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London in 2011 and supplied by H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem and Inbooks. Many thanks.
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst – painter of mesmeric beauty.
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