Feature

Exhibit of the week: Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has brought together 50 paintings and drawings that show 19th-century artists’ fascination with depicting the window.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThrough July 4

Exhibitions as “purely enchanting” as Rooms With a View are few and far between, said Jed Perl in The New Republic. The Met really nailed this one, taking a simple theme—19th-century artists’ fascination with depicting the window—and bringing together 50 paintings and drawings that collectively generate “the hallucinatory power of an echo chamber.” From the start, a viewer is “plunged into an early-19th-century European world that is both intimate and expansive.” The “tranquil beauty of the interiors” in these smallish works creates the sense of intimacy. The sense of expansiveness comes from the windows—windows that might be “opening onto a busy river or a harbor, or a cubified fragment of urban roofscape, or a panorama of Roman monuments, or a sliver of blue sky.” The artists are generally not well-known, but the way these works juxtapose interiority against “the enormity of the world” outside might make you feel you’re witnessing the birth of modern consciousness.

It was a big, scary world out those windows, said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. The German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich “more or less invented” the motif in 1805, as the Napoleonic Wars roiled the continent. Two masterful sepia drawings of the view from his Dresden studio had a wide influence on other artists; for perhaps the first time, an artist had treated a window as subject and metaphor—“a symbol of the veil between private and public life, culture and nature, domesticity and wilderness.” The world outside still held allure, but a window could “intimate adventure without risk.” At least as important to Friedrich and his fellow spirits were the simple pleasures of quiet domestic life. In an uncertain time, artists were less interested in imagining heroic scenes from ancient Greece and Rome than in treasuring “humble interiors dappled with sunlight.”

There’s something “passively subversive” to that inward turn, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. The works here “determinedly say no” to established ideas of what art was supposed to be about. Indeed, they demonstrate a new interest in formal elements such as light, color, and line. Some of the best works here relegate the human figure to incidental status and instead “become the occasion for ricocheting reflections of form and space caught in mirrors.” An argument could be made that all painting is ultimately “about little more than the communication of some quality of light and space.” When the subject is a window, such communication is “marvelously direct.”

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