I recently set about painting a window, a newish painting subject for me although I have tackled it once before, many years ago, and frequently in my sketches. I’d decided on the subject long before I’d pinpointed the exact window I wanted to take on and then set about trawling through my photographs, although I already had in mind some particularly atmospheric shots I’d taken at Santa Croce in Florence two visits ago, when the amber radiance pouring through a row of windows along a corridor leading to one of the chapels had set the dust motes spinning and dancing in shafts of light.
The very fact of tackling a window-theme set me to thinking about the use of Windows in Art and so I purchased an excellent book of the same title by Christopher Masters. The image on the front cover grabbed me even before the title: a painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) entitled “Dust motes Dancing in Sunbeams”, this painting tripped me into thinking it was far more contemporary than it turned out to be and, I think, the reason for this is the strong clean lines and a light that makes this uncluttered interior appear modern, fresh, almost photographic. Intrigued enough to want to find out more about Hammershøi, I discovered in this artist a longstanding tendency to depict interiors that were utterly devoid of clutter or evidence of life and compositions which (even when peopled) conjured up an atmosphere of stillness and solitude to the point that the Royal Academy’s 2008 exhibition of his work was labelled “The Poetry of Silence”. Many feature doors – another favourite subject of mine – but it is the window above that really captures my imagination because it does that thing that windows do best of all in art – and does it so well.
So what is it that windows do in art? As the book by Christopher Masters touches upon, windows quite often supply the sub-plot to something else that is going on, for instance (and I can’t help but think of the Dutch tradition when I think of windows in art) the paintings of Jan Vermeer often feature a window and always for a reason. The coat of arms on the open window tilted towards the viewer in “The Glass of Wine” (right) is obviously there to make a point, the motif of Temperance on the glass contrasting with the domestic scene that is taking shape in the room as the woman is pressed upon to take a drink by the man in the hat!
All sorts of other walk-on parts have been fulfilled by windows in art over the years, the most obvious being as a portal that leads the eye from the foreground to another world beyond. Thus you have everything from Edward Hopper‘s voyeuristic “Night Windows” looking into a bedroom window to Augustus Leopold Egg‘s “Travelling Companions” with its view of the rolling scenery beyond the billowing skirts in the railway carriage and, of course, Raoul Dufy‘s many window views of the promenade in Nice.
However, the ones that work for me are where there is no actual view through the window; just the suggestion of contrasting light conditions so that a gloomy interior lets in a shaft of radiance like a welcome guest. For me, with a pursuit of the light as my main obsession, this device is a gift and one that I intend to use again, now that my first attempt at window painting is complete. What I also enjoy is the use of the window in such a way as to invite the viewer to imagine their own “other side” of this portal from one world into another; and to the whole of the generation that grew up being invited by Playschool to guess what was on the other side of the square window, the round window or the arched window, the sense of all things being possible that this reminds us of should prove irresistible as a theme.