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 loans from Russian museums, including a significant Friedrich drawing, fell through).
“Rooms with a View,” which brings together this material for the first time anywhere, is in some way an experiment. Rewald is in effect seeing how an idea looks once it has been illustrated. She is fleshing out the findings in what she calls a “now-classic” 1955 article, “The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism,” by the late Lorenz Eitner, which for its part represented the first time these pictures had been analyzed by an art historian. Eitner, to whom Rewald has dedicated her catalog (and who, besides being an authority on Théodore Géricault, almost single-handedly revitalized and modernized the art museum at Stanford, where he taught), doesn’t leave us with a clear fix on the issue, and this ambiguity seems to have been what he was after. He wasn’t writing only about the art of a certain historical moment. His essay in the largest sense was one of the earliest reactions against the tendency among art writers in the twentieth century to assume that artworks of any era could be explained primarily in formal terms, with the “poetic imagination,” as he called it, left out.
In looking at the many images in early-nineteenth-century art of the open window (and, in the second part of his essay, of the storm-tossed boat), Eitner’s goal was to bring “subject matter” back into the discussion. He wanted to show how a visual art could mirror a given culture’s need—even an inchoate or barely conscious need—for literary and symbolical meanings. So we see how having a prominent window in an interior, or even a suggestion of one, appealed all of a sudden to a variety of artists. To more outright Romantic painters and writers like Friedrich, the point seemed to be a spiritual and poetic one: distance and the unknown were being brought into everyday life. At the same time the era witnessed a revival of genre painting, and artists intent on showing characteristic, and unheroic and uneventful, moments in middle-class lives often made windows part of their scenes. And artists, increasingly intent on showing themselves or their colleagues in studio settings, would naturally include the source of light needed for their work.
Reading Eitner’s suggestive and deliberately speculative (and felicitously written) essay, one can wonder in addition whether the theme of the open window didn’t have political and aesthetic overtones during the early nineteenth century, a turbulent time when age-old autocratic social orders were being questioned or dismantled. Images of families, solitary artists, or courting couples in modest living rooms or studios with a window open to city or even leafy views outside perhaps say that private, apolitical persons are now poised to have more of a stake in what happens in the world beyond them. The image also announces that daylight (or in some cases moonlight) is now being acknowledged as a force in itself, and this certainly was borne out in the following decades by the artists. Realism and, later, Impressionism were in good measure about the way natural light can enhance and transform (and obliterate) what it falls on.
Except in the case of Caspar David Friedrich, though, whose window views at the Met form a kind of show on their own, the literary, symbolical, and social meanings of the open window aren’t felt very forcibly in “Rooms with a View.” How important the theme of the open window was for Adolph Menzel (1815–1905), for instance, is no longer very apparent. Yet his presence, in a handful of small realist interiors, is welcome since, arguably nineteenth-century Germany’s greatest painter after Friedrich, he is little seen or known outside his homeland. The Menzels on view, moreover—brushy, speedy-looking oils showing various corners of Berlin apartments—have the cachet of being part of a group of works that, done in his early thirties, in a more impetuous manner than the precisely detailed way he carried out the grand and crowded scenes of Berlin public life he became known for, were never exhibited or even known about during his lifetime.
Windows seem to have meant most to Menzel simply as sources of light, and he expertly catches the way it can make a room’s atmosphere bleary or twinkling. Looking at apartment life from unusually cramped and casual angles, he suggests an incipient uneasy drama; but these particular Menzels, at least, need more of a human dimension. They are merely vignettes. Most of the genre paintings in the show, which are a little earlier in date than Menzel, are similarly quiescent. It is certainly fun to see how, in the work of Martin Drolling or of his daughter Louise-Adéone Drolling, Paris apartments, with views, looked in the Napoleonic era and just after it. It is amusing to take in the spaces, with their dwarfingly high ceilings and merely huge windows, that young French artists occupied in the Villa Medici, in Rome. We look at the living rooms and studios in Dresden as painted by Georg Friedrich Kersting and wonder if they were really so bare. But with most of the genre paintings there isn’t a lot more to think about than the appearance of the rooms. Our eyes and minds slide off scenes where the figures in them, drawn without some bodily or facial inner life, are little more than period mannequins.
When Kersting truly holds our attention, which happens in the beautifully engineered 1823 Young Woman Sewing by Lamplight, it is because, in a darkened setting whose window is not apparent, he has done something magical with the way shadows from a lamp interact with the light and the room itself. The emptiness of the young woman’s face doesn’t matter because she is a necessary cog in a witty drama about pattern and shape. Kersting’s picture upends Lorenz Eitner’s quest. It is extraordinary because its formal properties, not its connection with literary subject matter, are so alive.
Wilhelm Bendz’s picture from around 1829 of his brothers in their Copenhagen apartment holds us for the same reason. This painting of a room where one brother stands dreamily at a high writing desk and the other is slumped in a sofa is an unforgettable gem because of a number of essentially formal decisions that the artist has made. The picture is like a mechanical toy ready to start moving. While the green and white background walls are boxy and upright, the brothers and the faces in the pictures on the walls all face left, like a rhyme scheme set on its own course—and the zooming floor and ceiling (which are “brothers” of a sort themselves) sandwich everything in place.
The pictures without people in the Met’s show have an even more purely formal presence. In Dahl’s suave 1823 oil of a view of Pillnitz Castle, outside Dresden, or in Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s exquisite 1845 pencil drawing of a view from Charlottenborg Palace, in Copenhagen, the artists are clearly playing with the possibilities when the window frame or doorway is thought about as a surrogate for the canvas or sheet of paper. In their thinking, these early-nineteenth-century artists hardly seem to be very different from twentieth-century modernists. Looking at their elegant artworks alongside Friedrich’s window views, however, is to see the limits of elegance. Next to Friedrich, they are a little vacant.
“Rooms with a View” is the fourth time since 1981, by my reckoning, that the Met has brought together significant pictures by Friedrich with work by his contemporaries. (He was seen entirely on his own in “The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich,” a 1991 show of paintings and drawings of his in Russian collections.) None of these earlier group exhibitions, however, made his difference from the artists of his time so clear. No other artist in Rewald’s show suggests, as Friedrich does in his sepia drawings, that there might be something risky or unnerving or momentous in confronting a window. About no other work in the show would it even occur to a viewer to use the word “confronting.” Working simply with adjustments in scale, angle of vision, and degrees of dark tones and light, he creates a genuinely literary mood, where we can’t help but see the window, whether in a spirit of anticipation or apprehension, as representing the new, the different, and the future.
The drawings may have startled the artist as much as they do us. Caspar David Friedrich: Das gesamte graphische Werk, a nearly eight-hundred-page compendium of his work on paper, shows that, before he made these sepia drawings, windows had never been a subject for him. He had rarely used his materials with the same particularly controlled density of application, or been so photographically precise in his rendering of a subject. Essentially a landscapist with a moralistic and religious bent, and a classicist in his affinity for design and balance, Friedrich seems never to have taken immediate, contemporary existence as a subject before, either, and except for one more window drawing done decades later, and the little 1822 painting in the Met’s show of a woman before another waterside window, he apparently didn’t touch the subject again. (He made less than a handful of paintings of interiors, with or without windows, all told.) Like his very few, and amazing, self-portrait drawings, which can have a similar high-focused intensity, the theme was one that he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go further with. Indirectly, though, I think he did.
Sabine Rewald writes that the open window, as Friedrich and some of her other artists saw it, is about “yearning” and “unfulfilled longing,” and surely this is right. But on another level the subject, for Friedrich, may have been about a need to extend and deepen his work. Along with his close contemporaries Constable and Turner, Friedrich gave to landscape painting a power and sense of self-sufficiency that European art had not seen since Jacob van Ruisdael, in the 1600s. But where Constable and Turner embrace the natural world so fully in their different ways as to wind up with pictures that are like structureless inundations of wetness and wind, Friedrich—besides always painting and drawing terrains and atmospheres with a greater daintiness and compositional lucidity—was essentially a more psychological artist.
As his window drawings make clear, Friedrich’s deepest subject was not the force and pageant of nature but our response to it—how we literally approach the world outside ourselves—and it took him years to find a way to express this most fully. He did so in his use of figures with their backs to us, looking into the scene that we viewers see over their shoulders. He wasn’t, of course, the first artist to show the figure this way, but few made it seem so inherently right. He began doing it with some consistency and real inventiveness roughly from 1818, when he was in his mid-forties and, much to the amazement of his friends, who saw him as a lifelong solitary, finally got married. His wife, Caroline Bommer, is very possibly the woman with her hair up who we see so often in these later pictures, and when she is with a man the figure is probably Friedrich himself.
His paintings with onlookers, which are a blend of landscape and figure painting, are not great in number, and they are not always necessarily finer than his straight landscapes. Yet it is in his pictures with people looking out to sea, or toward a harbor, or on nighttime walks, that Friedrich fully dramatized his sense of the natural world. The clothes his people wear, it has been noted, are slightly out of date, but to our eyes his high-collared women and floppy-hatted men are stylish enough, and their urban, day-tripper presence makes Friedrich’s art into more than a private meditation. With his travelers, he seems to be following through on the promise of his sepia window drawings, the only other works in which he captured the texture and appearance of his own actual Dresden life.
There is thus a special appropriateness in Friedrich’s returning to this motif in his 1822 painting of a woman, who we know is Caroline, before a window. It is as if the artist were acknowledging the link between the sepia drawings he had made almost twenty years earlier and his new pictures with onlookers, which seem to owe much to Caroline. The painting, where her body shifts delicately to one side, is a sweet-spirited masterpiece. It may not set off in us as many feelings as his early window drawings do, but then few artworks of any era do.