Am I intruding?

Peter Campbell

  • Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century by Sabine Rewald
    Yale, 190 pp, £20.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 300 16977 5

The motif of the open window in Romantic painting was ‘inaugurated’, according to Sabine Rewald, by two sepia drawings of his studio windows with the River Elbe beyond by Caspar David Friedrich. The drawings are exact in their rendering of casements, panes and the gradation of light on bare walls, and careful in their delineation of the distant riverbank. The frugal medium and the impersonal quality of the draughtsmanship give you the facts: a plain room, an open window, bare walls, a distant view. There is no colour, no person, no furniture, no painterly business. At one level they are plain, dull, brown pictures. But the room, the window and the river, disposed in that way, work on you. It isn’t the painting itself but the stage it offers the imagination that is effective. Not all the pictures in the book – it is also the catalogue of an exhibition shown earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – have this quality. They differ in other ways too: few are monochrome, many are inhabited and not all have open windows, let alone views, but there are enough that share Friedrich’s cool insistence that you enter his anonymous space and find its unspecified meaning for yourself to make you realise that his work had given a new emotional edge to room painting.

The exercise Friedrich’s window pictures offer the imagination comes more often with poetry. Most obviously, in the last lines of Larkin’s ‘High Windows’. What Larkin describes there is more or less what you see in Carl Gustav Carus’s painting Studio Window (1823-24). It isn’t exactly a high window, but a canvas is propped up to block the bottom half of the casement. Through the top half you see only sky, a puff of white cloud and the endless blue. The window and its recess apart, only a bit of the easel, arranged to take the light, says anything about the room. It isn’t a particularly good picture, but like Larkin’s poem it leads you to think about things that aren’t shown or spoken of. The juxtaposition of an enclosed empty space and a distant view doesn’t draw you into Carus’s studio so much as put you in mind of all sorts of shady interiors with windows giving onto the bright outdoors.

There are only a few very fine pictures in the book of that imagination-nudging kind, but when you make a list of great paintings of rooms – Van Gogh’s Bedroom, Matisse’s Red Studio, Bonnard’s many pictures of windows, Vuillard’s crowded, pattern-rich drawing-rooms – you find that they don’t lead you to imagine other spaces. The physical individuality of these pictures holds you, the specifics of means and materials, the details of the room itself take hold.

Carus’s picture doesn’t have any figures. In several others people are seen from behind or in profile – once again you are denied full information – bringing to mind the scene in The Woman in White in which Walter Hartright first sees Marian Halcombe:

I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat … I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window – and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps – and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer – and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

Wilkie Collins uses the withheld information of a back view to preface a revelation. A painter can’t do that. In pictures the effect is more often to make you wonder, not how a person looks, but what they think about the view that you and they share. Friedrich painted more backs than fronts: a woman who looks at the setting sun, groups who look out to sea, a man on a rock who looks out over mist-shrouded crags. In these pictures you see what they see – views suitable to feelings described in Romantic poetry. The painted figures amplify the effect of the scene they share with you. To your own response you add theirs, which must be more intense – they, after all, have the landscape, you only have a picture of it. Friedrich’s landscapes are literary in that they suggest stories (just why has that party gone to the seashore so late?) but also because the description of a place is intensified by the response of an intermediary.

But in what is perhaps the most telling of Friedrich’s back views, it isn’t feelings about the Romantic landscape you share, but feelings about being alone in a bare room. Woman at the Window (1822) shows Friedrich’s wife, Caroline, standing in what is, so far as you can see, a very plain room. Her back and a pair of shutters cover most of the bottom half of the window. In the upper half you see blue sky, clouds and the top of a mast. In the narrow slice of the bottom half that isn’t shuttered or obscured by Caroline’s head and shoulders you glimpse poplars, seen across water, and a little of the rigging of a boat moored close by. If she was looking at a sunset, you would guess that the sunset was what held her there. As it is, thoughts that take little notice of the view make a better story.

In this picture, as in many of the more satisfactory paintings in the book, the outside world is only glimpsed. Sometimes it is not seen at all. In Adolph Menzel’s famous Balcony Room (1845), a vivid oil sketch of an empty room, lit from a French window, billowing net curtains hide whatever lies outside. In this case the view rather than the face is to be guessed at. Leafing through the images, you begin to sense that there is a rule: the less you see of what is outside the window and the less you know about the face of anyone sharing the space with you, the more telling the picture.

Framed by a window a view takes on a new character. Johan Christian Dahl’s View of Pillnitz Castle, in which the window is merely a border round the distant landscape, or Karl Gottfried Travgott Faber’s view of Dresden, in which the window itself and slim strips of wall are all you are given, are utterly changed if the windows are cropped and we lose the sense that we are inside looking out. Little bits of wall and frame are all you need to put a room around you. The effect is quite different from that of the trompe-l’oeil window frame or pulled-back curtain which painters use to give depth to the space a sitter occupies. The heavy sill in Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window in Dulwich gives her something to lean on. The space it adds in front of her penetrates the space you stand in, but doesn’t envelop you.

Even when they are not by 19th-century Central or Northern European painters, the most effective pictures in Rooms with a View are touched by a spirit of frugality, both in what they show and how they are made. The brushwork is neat, almost timid (Menzel is an exception). The rooms in the earlier paintings, before the tight upholstered curves of Biedermeier furniture begin to show themselves, are often rather bare, their furnishings meagre. That this parsimony was not always an accident of poverty is proved by Georg Kersting’s painting of Friedrich at work. He sits in profile in front of yet another half-shuttered window, the top panes of which throw light into the room over his left shoulder. Apart from the painter’s chair and easel, a T-square and set square on the wall and a table with a paintbox and bottles, the room is empty. The table itself should not really be there: Friedrich, who believed that even the tools of the trade could distract the artist, kept them in an adjoining room. The pretty, low room in Wilhelm Bendz’s Interior from Amaliegade with the Artist’s Brothers (c.1829), shown here, is less spartan, but the figures seem as oblivious of the artist’s presence as Caroline Friedrich is of her husband’s.

Wilhelm Bendz, ‘Interior from Amaliegade with the Artist’s Brothers’ (c. 1829)

The pictures that draw you into a frugal room, as Friedrich’s sepia drawings do, are only one of the kinds of interior illustrated. In two paintings by Kersting, Woman Embroidering and Man at His Desk (both 1811), the windows on the wall to your right are merely sources of light; the woman turns away from you (although her face is dimly reflected in a mirror at the edge of the picture), the man has his back to you. Unlike Friedrich’s wife, both are busy and both rooms have furniture. The poetry is not that of solitude but of quiet domesticity. When, a few years later, Kersting paints Couple Standing at the Window (1817) only the woman has her back to us, the young man leaning on the windowsill is in profile. The room is still very plain but the atmosphere has changed: you intrude now on a conversation not solitary work. When the figures for whatever reason become more animated (a young woman tracing a flower at a window is distracted by a pet squirrel); when a family group occupies centre stage; when guitars, bunches of flowers, pottery and sculpture fill the room; when elaborate roofscapes and landscapes fill the window, then anecdotes – some sentimental – take the place of Friedrichian poetics. Detail thickens. The stage designer Carl Wilhelm Gropius painted his small drawing-room as though it was a theatre set: the window at the back looks out on bits of buildings identifiable as old and new Berlin, the floor is bare, the Biedermeier furniture glossy. Historians of interior decoration and stage designers lap up the detail that interiors like this offer – the way canapé and chairs are backed up against the wall, for example.

The poetic impulse (as in Friedrich) doesn’t survive when the romance of foreign places or pride in local topography gives what is seen out of the window a leading role. In 1824 Franz Ludwig Catel painted the architect Schinkel sitting beside open French windows that look out over the Bay of Naples to Capri. In the same year he painted an unpeopled room with a similar window offering a view of Naples, made livelier by the dog on the balcony looking down at the road. That one is less stilted than the portrait, but the bright, picture-postcard precision of the views in both gives them the character of mementos of a journey. Carl Ludwig Kaaz’s View from Grassi’s Villa towards the Planenscha Grund near Dresden (1807) is straightforwardly framed by the window, but focuses on the Romantic landscape of crags, a distant bridge and trees, gilded by low sunlight. The open window, a telescope and an open book on the sill don’t quite persuade you that the painter wouldn’t have been better off outside.

The difference between light levels inside and outside is much greater than it seems. A photograph that is exposed to register an interior will usually leave what is outside the window a white blur. Paintings that show room and view nearly always tend to narrow the real-world light range. Maybe that is why pictures which give something like equal attention to both often don’t ring true, and why in many of the best pictures in Rooms with a View the window is just a light source (as windows often are in Vermeer’s paintings). That is what it is in an amusing Paris interior, an anonymous canvas from around 1817. It is dominated by the blue, white and red uniform coat arranged on a chair and the accoutrements – musket (or is it an early rifle?), sword and plumed hat – of a member of Napoleon’s light infantry. There are a number of small still lifes on the wall of fruit, fish and game. It is a painter’s room: there is a Paris townscape on an easel and brushes and paints on a table. No human figure calls for your attention but a character – a soldier and extremely competent amateur painter who also keeps a canary – asks to be identified.