Catalog of the exhibition by Sabine Rewald
Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 190 pp., $30.00
At some point in 1805 or 1806, the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich made two sepia ink drawings of the windows in his studio, looking out onto the Elbe River, in Dresden—drawings done with extraordinary exactitude of a subject that, conceivably, no artist had ever handled this way before. Then in his early thirties, Friedrich had so far made mostly landscapes, and it is as a landscapist, showing mountains, meadows, seacoasts, and forests in moments when mist—or sunrise, or snowy, leaden skies, or moonlight—casts over them a kind of hushed, revelatory mood, that he would become known as probably his country’s greatest nineteenth-century painter. (He died in 1840, at sixty-five.) His studio interior drawings, currently part of a show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, entitled “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” certainly have his distinctive expectant if uncertain mood.
Yet the drawings, which are about a foot high and move in tone from dark brown through a range of luminous gray tans to the white of the sky, have a clinical crispness of form and atmosphere that is unusual for the artist. They show the world of 1805 with an unexpected modern starkness and tension. While the bit of Dresden we can see, with its boating activity, is inviting—the casements at the bottom of the window are wide open—the room itself, with its shadowy walls and looming drapeless windows, is austere and forbidding. The pictures seem to be as much about imprisonment as release.
Friedrich’s drawings and a related small painting of his from 1822 of a woman, her back to us, looking out a window, are the most powerful works in the Met’s show. They give a manifesto-like spine to a group of generally small pictures that includes at least two masterworks (by Wilhelm Bendz and Georg Friedrich Kersting) and many lovely, and some merely mildly charming, paintings and works on paper. Organized by Sabine Rewald, who wrote its first-rate accompanying catalog, the exhibition traces the history of a motif that had currency in European painting in the first half of the nineteenth century: the open window seen from inside a room.
It seemingly began with Friedrich’s sepia drawings. They were much remarked upon at the time, and they clearly influenced some of the artist’s painter friends in Dresden, including Carl Gustav Carus and Johan Christian Dahl, whose own versions of Friedrich’s conception, done some years later, are in the show. During these same decades other artists, working on many parts of the continent, and unaware of Friedrich’s drawings, picked up the theme for their own purposes. The Met’s superbly installed exhibition includes paintings and drawings by German, Scandinavian, Austrian, Italian, and French artists (and would have numbered Russian artists except that …