Sunday, February 1, 2009

Rooms with a View

This is an often-reproduced picture of Goethe, made by Tischbein in 1787, in the quarters Goethe shared with the artist on the Corso in Rome. Nicholas Boyle, in his biography of Goethe, writes that it was one of the few streets in the city that was regularly swept. A mile long, carriages passed regularly on its raised pavements. The scene in Tischbein's drawing seems a daytime one. It was a simple room that Goethe occupied, "small and bare," according to Boyle, "with plain wood-block floors, wooden shutters on the big windows, a bed, a table for the oil lamp and some hard chairs." From his posture, Goethe would seem to be a young man, but he was already 38. It is an intimate scene, with the viewer having the impression of having caught Goethe unawares.

There are some paintings, by other German painters in the 19th century, that likewise offer similarly intimate domestic settings, usually occupied by women. Here are a couple of my favorites. The one on the left, Caroline at the Window (1822), is by Caspar David Friedrich. Though separated from it by only 20 years, the one on the right, by Adolph von Menzel, is very modern in its feeling compared to Friedrich's painting: The Balcony Room (1845). The woman seems to be here by implication. One I really like, however, is below these two, Before the Mirror, by Georg Friedrich Kersting. It was painted in 1827, which means it probably reflects domestic arrangements in the last decade of Goethe's life. Kersting was from northern Germany and, like Friedrich, he also studied painting in Denmark.

And speaking of Denmark, the longevity of this window motif can be seen in the work of a later artist, from Copenhagen, Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916).

While Goethe is alone, he does not seem as solitary as the women in the later paintings. Still, he is separate from the life on the street, which he seems to be observing, rather than participating in. This separation from the life of contemporary Rome actually characterized Goethe's behavior. He spent most of his time while in Rome with other Germans, for instance. His major literary efforts while there concerned the completion of works he had begun before coming to Rome. As Boyle writes, Rome was "no rebirth for his poetry," as he produced no lyrical poetry of note, "or indeed any substantial new literary work at all." Nevertheless, Goethe underwent a significant personal change in Rome. The distant posture in the Tischbein drawing perhaps presages the later distant, "Olympian" Goethe.

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