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Exhibitions/ Rooms with a View

Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century

April 5–July 4, 2011

Exhibition Overview

Everything at a distance turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events: all become Romantic.

—Novalis, 1798

This exhibition focuses on a subject treasured by the Romantics: the view through an open window. German, French, Danish, and Russian artists first took up the theme in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Juxtaposing near and far, the window is a metaphor for unfulfilled longing. Painters distilled this feeling in pictures of hushed, spare rooms with contemplative figures; studios with artists at work; and open windows as the sole motif. As the exhibition reveals, these pictures may shift markedly in tone, yet they share a distinct absence of the anecdote and narrative that characterized earlier genre painting.

Presented in four galleries, Rooms with a View features the works of about forty artists, most from Northern Europe. The first exhibition of its kind, it ranges from the initial appearance of the motif in two sepia drawings of about 1805–6 by Caspar David Friedrich to paintings featuring luminous empty rooms of the late 1840s by Adolph Menzel. Many of the artists are little known on these shores, their works unseen until now.

The exhibition is made possible by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation and The Isaacson-Draper Foundation.

The catalogue is made possible by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

The vogue for pictures of bare rooms that reflect their sitters' frugal lifestyles coincides with the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15 and their aftermath, when daily life in both Germany and Denmark had turned grim. Ironically, this period coincided with the "golden age" of Danish painting, characterized by visual poetry in the works of Wilhelm Bendz and Emil BÊrentzen, who celebrated modest family life and gatherings. Similarly, none of the upheaval of the time is reflected in the works of the German artist Georg Friedrich Kersting, who countered outward chaos with calmly ordered interiors. The moods in these paintings vary from early Romantic severity to Biedermeier coziness to poetic Realism. Sober attention to detail marks these nineteenth-century interiors, in which silence and light become the main subjects. Figures are seen from the back or in lost profile as they sit at a window to read, write, sew, or, as in Friedrich's iconic image, gaze through it.

The Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich needed the monkish austerity of his studio in Dresden, where he was portrayed by Georg Friedrich Kersting, his admiring younger colleague. Kersting also depicted the now-forgotten German painter Friedrich Matthäi amid his academic clutter. In France, unidentified female artists worked in elegant drawing rooms overlooking picturesque Parisian views. Their male colleagues could compete for the prestigious Prix de Rome, which allowed them to spend five years as pensionnaires at the Académie de France in the Villa Medici in Rome. It was during their residence at that distinguished place that the French painters Jean Alaux and Léon Cogniet commemorated their stay by painting vistas of the city's famous panorama or by capturing glimpses of the villa's sunlit garden.

Caspar David Friedrich's two sepia drawings of the river Elbe of 1805–6 (View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Right and View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Left) inaugurated the Romantic motif of the open window. Unlike the stark balance between the darkened interior and the pale landscape rendered in these views, the artists who followed Friedrich created gentler versions of the motif. Their windows open onto flat plains in Sweden, parks in German spas, or rooftops in Copenhagen. Artists' studios overlook houses in Dresden or Turin, bucolic Vienna suburbs, or Roman cityscapes saturated with light. In several sitting rooms offering urban views of Berlin, the interiors evoke stage sets to satisfy the artist's delightful mania with perspective and reflections.

When one of Caspar David Friedrich's window views was first shown in Dresden in 1806, it was widely admired, hailed by critics, and emulated by his followers. For artists, the enduring attraction of the subject lies in its purely visual appeal: echoing the rectangular or square shape of the canvas, the window view turns into a "picture within a picture." Even a barren landscape, when framed in a window, can be transformed into an enthralling scene. Some artists recorded actual sites—Copenhagen's harbor, the river Elbe near Dresden, the Bay of Naples—while others invented, or even largely blocked, the views from their studios or painted them in the chill of moonlight.

Between 1845 and 1851 the German Realist Adolph Menzel created a series of pictures devoted to the effects of light in mostly empty rooms. He painted his bedroom in daylight with a view of expanding Berlin outside the window, his sitting room with closed shutters at twilight, and the building's staircase at night. Menzel never exhibited these small works during his lifetime, regarding them as mere experiments. They were discovered only after his death.