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The ultimate symbol for our times

The ultimate symbol for our times

For centuries, the window has been used by artists to help make sense of the world – and it’s a potent symbol that resonates ever more strongly today, writes Sally Grant.

In View from the Artist’s Window (1978), the US painter Alice Neel captured an image familiar to New Yorkers (and other city-dwellers): that of the apartment building across from their own. For Neel, who is the subject of a retrospective currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, such scenes of New York City life drove her art. As she said of the space that was both her home and her studio, “I really live out my front room windows, which face up Broadway from 107th Street. It’s like having a street in your living room”. With this comment, and this painting, Neel highlighted a motif that has long captivated artists – the view through a window to the outside world.

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Both the formal properties of a window and its mediating role between inside and out have lent this everyday architectural element an arresting power in art. At times, a composition might include a window and the light it allows in, but not its view. Such is the case in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c 1657-59), which, after a revealing restoration, is the centrepiece of an exhibition opening in Dresden later this year. The window has also been represented from the outside looking in, and in various mediums. Relatively recent examples include Faith Ringgold’s textile and paint Street Story Quilt (1985), depicting an apartment building in Harlem, and Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photograph Avenue of the Americas (2001).

Over the past year, windows and their views have also been features of our homes that many of us have had more time to consider. The desire to see other outlooks during this period has even led to projects like WindowSwap, a website that virtually transports you to see through someone else’s window in another part of the world. So, while there are multiple ways the window is represented in art, in the spirit of reopening, here are some of art history’s most famous paintings that feature windows looking out.

Windows on the world

The idea that a painting was like a window revolutionised Western art. The Italian artist/architect Filippo Brunelleschi is credited with being the first to make this connection in the early years of the Renaissance, and it was later codified by Leon Battista Alberti in his seminal 1435 treatise De Pictura (On Painting). Alberti writes: “First of all about where I draw. I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint”. From here, Brunelleschi’s mathematical method of linear perspective – where parallel lines at right angles to the picture plane appear to eventually converge in a vanishing point – provides the illusion of depth. People and objects depicted along these (hidden) orthogonal lines become smaller as they recede into the distance, as though we’re truly seeing them through the circumscribed space of a window.

The Romantics found a potent symbol for the experience of standing on the threshold between an interior and the outside world – Sabine Rewald

For the next five centuries, Western art adhered to the concept that a picture functions like a window onto the world. The painting’s frame replicates a window frame; the flat picture plane becomes an illusion of a real scene. And works that include representations of windows within their constructed realities allow for even further play upon this illusionism. In Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1433-34), for instance, the artist’s skilful articulation of space helps to persuade the viewer that Rolin’s audience with the Virgin and Child could actually have taken place. The room and the figures look real. This realism is furthered by the vista through the arched windows, which reveals an adjoining garden and far-reaching, exquisitely detailed landscape. Aside from its symbolic meaning (and the painting is suffused with Christian symbolism), the triple aperture allows light and air to fill the room. It also draws the viewer’s eye, aided by the two observers on the balcony, to the bucolic surroundings.

While the window appears in paintings throughout the early-modern period, it was at the beginning of the 19th Century that it took on a more self-standing role and new meaning. As Sabine Rewald writes in the catalogue Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century, published to accompany a 2011 exhibition at The Met, in the open window motif, “the Romantics found a potent symbol for the experience of standing on the threshold between an interior and the outside world”. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was Germany’s most renowned Romantic painter and the first to capitalise on the motif’s poetic potential. This power of suggestion is embodied in his Woman at a Window of 1822.

The painting depicts a figure looking out of an open casement onto a river, which, aside from a brief strip of blue, is indicated by the masts and rigging of two boats. Art historians have identified the room as Friedrich’s home studio on the River Elbe in Dresden, and the model as his wife, Caroline. Situated with her back to us, the woman’s slight figure and the softness and sheen of her dress emphasise the stark vastness of the architecture, just as the interior’s dark hues are balanced by the light and vitality of the natural landscape. Though even in this instance, the small strip of bright-green foliage and row of poplar trees, visible through the casement’s modest opening, are contrasted with the expanse of blue sky seen through the large glass panes above.

These pictorial contrasts, combined with the enigmatic image of a figure with her back turned to us, have meant that the work has elicited multiple interpretations, from connoting religious passage, to expressing confinement and longing. Certainly, the not-unpleasant yearning for another place or time was characteristic of Romanticism, as was the belief in individual expression and subjective emotion. The mastery of Friedrich’s work is that it allows for all these readings. Perhaps most relevant for our current times is that, in its representation of a woman looking through a window to the outside world, this image of pensive quietude also evokes a profound sense of possibility.

Painters of modern life

This feeling of possibility is even more acute in Gustave Caillebotte’s Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann. Painted in 1880, the view depicted is from the artist’s apartment in Paris, and is representative of the Impressionists’ impulse to portray scenes of contemporary life. Man on a Balcony records the new, modern metropolis following Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of the old city at the request of Napoleon III. Characteristic of the Haussmann style are the stately, cream-coloured apartment buildings, with their mansard roofs and balconies, which line the boulevard named in honour of the urban planner. The scene’s incredible vibrancy is, in part, achieved by the contrast between these grand facades and the trees’ sparkling greenery. And even though there are no people visible on the street, the work captures the thrill of city life on a beautiful spring day. It recalls, in pictorial form, part of the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925):

“And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.”

But Caillebotte’s work doesn’t transport us to Mrs Dalloway’s London, or to her family’s country home in Bourton. Instead, it takes us to the Impressionists’ Paris. Our interlocutor to the city is an urban onlooker, a flâneur, as described by Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life (1863). This solitary spectator revels in the bustle of the crowd but remains apart. As does the viewer of Caillebotte’s painting. The open window is our mediator between these private and public spaces, just as the balcony unites its occupant with the wider, modern world.

Alongside the Impressionists’ concern in rendering daily life and the fleeting effects of light came a new focus on the formal qualities of painting. In Man on a Balcony, for example, any illusion of depth created by the receding trees dissolves in the passage of green between the man’s back and the window. For the following generations of European avant-garde artists the expressive effects of colour, brushwork, and compositional pattern gained even more precedence over naturalistic representation. Throughout these aesthetic investigations the window motif maintained its power, as demonstrated by expressionist works like Vincent van Gogh’s View of a Butcher’s Shop (1888), and Henri Matisse’s Open Window, Collioure (1905). The latter, a pivotal painting in modern art, transforms the view through the open window from an illusionistic representation of a lived-in scene to an exuberant declaration of the visual pleasure of paint on canvas.

The best things in museums are the windows – Pierre Bonnard

Open Window, Collioure was one of Matisse’s earliest renditions of a window view, but it was a subject he returned to throughout his career. As Shirley Neilsen Blum writes in the 2010 book Henri Matisse: Rooms with a View, “windows are fixed to Matisse’s place in the modern canon”. The same could be said for his good friend, and fellow colourist, Pierre Bonnard who, on a visit to the Louvre, is reported to have said “the best things in museums are the windows”. Like Matisse, Bonnard was drawn to the window’s formal and evocative possibilities, and he painted the subject numerous times. And Bonnard’s work – also like Matisse – was greatly influenced by the light of the Mediterranean coast.

In 1926 Bonnard and his wife, Marthe de Méligny, bought a small house, which they called Le Bosquet (The Grove), in Le Cannet in the south of France. Situated above Cannes, in an idyllic natural landscape, the property’s seclusion suited Bonnard’s concentrated working practice and de Méligny’s reclusive personality. The couple opened up Le Bosquet to the garden, installing French windows on both levels and an upper-floor balcony, and Bonnard painted numerous scenes from inside the house looking out (though he didn’t generally work from life). The Studio with Mimosa (1939-46), which depicts the view through his studio window, is a striking example of the artist’s brilliant colouring. In fact, so distracting is the glorious flash of yellow mimosa flowers that it’s easy to overlook the figure in the lower-left corner.

Such ghostly presences are not uncommon in Bonnard’s compositions, but here the figure may have added import. Bonnard worked on the painting throughout World War Two, and in 1942 de Méligny died. Just as the window is a threshold between inside and out, in The Studio it marks a liminal space, where the spirits of the past accompany the living in the luminous colours of nature. Such symbolism continues to inform contemporary images of the window, as can be seen in the work of the Canadian artist Zachari Logan (b 1980). In his chalk pastel drawing Window No 1, Wave Hill (2019), which is part of an exhibition at Wave Hill garden in the Bronx, a view through a window is partly obscured by ivy that encircles its panes. Like Bonnard’s window-landscape construction, the drawing meditates on the passing of time. It is, as Logan tells BBC Culture, “ultimately… a memento mori”.

An American view

The expressive possibilities of paint explored by Matisse and Bonnard were furthered by the Abstract Expressionists. But for artists like Jackson Pollock, painting no longer aligned with the Renaissance idea of being like a window onto the world. Instead, the focus was on painting’s physical act. And so in much of modern art the representation of real-life objects, including windows, began to disappear. But alongside Abstract Expressionism, which was centred in New York, were a number of American realist artists, including Edward Hopper (1882-1967). And any account of windows in painting is incomplete without discussing Hopper. Windows are pervasive in his oeuvre. He was fascinated by architecture, and he depicted buildings, and their rows of apertures, as self-standing subjects. He also painted close-up window views, from both the outside looking in, and the inside looking out. Of the former category, Nighthawks (1942) is perhaps the most famous example. Of the latter, Morning Sun of 1952 exemplifies the artist’s love of light and of the city, most particularly New York.

As a young man, Hopper made several formative trips to Paris and his paintings transpose the Impressionists’ sunlight-dappled city, and its isolated urban onlooker, to mid-20th-Century Manhattan. In Morning Sun a woman dressed in a pink slip sits contemplatively on a bed, bathed in the early light streaming through the window (as was usual for Hopper’s depictions of female figures, his wife Jo was the model). The curtailed view of the row of apartment buildings, including a ubiquitous rooftop water tower, takes the viewer to New York City as much as any photo of its famous landmarks ever could. In its quiet stillness, the painting has an allusive power, and in July 2020 Katie White wrote in Artnet of its aptness during lockdown. But perhaps it’s now, more than ever, that Morning Sun is an image of our time.

Hopper valued solitude, and his works frequently depict individuals lost in their own thoughts. But he also relished urban life. Describing what he liked to do in New York, where he was a long-time resident, Hopper said: “I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.” Morning Sun captures that solitary moment at home before we ready our public persona and head out into society. It was an experience that most of us used to experience on a daily basis. As we come out of isolation, it’s one we’ll need to get used to all over again. It’s unclear how the woman in Hopper’s Morning Sun regards this moment: possibly with resignation, perhaps with trepidation, but also, one hopes, with fortitude and yearning. After all, the morning is a time of renewal. And through the window, the world is waiting.

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