Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rooms with a View

There is a lovely, small exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, "Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," curated by Sabine Rewald. According to Rewald's essay in the catalogue, it was two sepia drawings from about 1805 by Caspar David Friedrich that inaugurated the motif of paintings and drawings of open windows, a "potent symbol" for Romantic-period artists. (The other "potent" motif was that of the moon, which fascinated many writers and philosophers as well.)

One of the paintings in the exhibit (above), by Georg Friedrich Kersting, portrays a woman embroidering. Since the appearance of her memoir in 1873, we know that the sitter here was the painter Louise Seidler (1786-1866), daughter of an equerry at the university in Jena. Her memoir, according to Rewald, "offers a fascinating account of the artistic life in Jena, Dresden, Weimar, Munich, and Rome between 1786 and 1823." I have not read this memoir, but would certainly like to do so. Rewald calls this painting "a study of contemplation and morning light."

Louise Seidler seems not to have been a particularly great artist, excelling in portraits of young women and girls, e.g., Minna Herzlieb (at the left; see my post on Minna), endowing them with "ein liebliches Dasein" (a charming presence or existence), according to Goethes Weimar. Though Goethe himself liked her pastel of him (below), from 1811, Goethes Weimar is not impressed with it, calling it "weichlich-verblassen" (effeminate-pale).

Rewald makes a strange claim, asserting that Kersting portrayed Louise Seidler pursuing a feminine activity, embroidering, instead of painting, "most likely because the image of a woman pursuing a man's profession would have raised more than one eyebrow in Germany at the time." That claim, however, goes against the facts on the ground. Goethe was a friend of Seidler's -- he had known her since she was a child and a playmate of his own son August -- and, since she was otherwise without means, later promoted her career, which included having Duke Carl August award her funds to train in Munich and then in Rome, Naples, and Florence between 1817 and 1823.

She seems to have had a charming personality -- Goethes Weimar speaks of her "Liebensw├╝rdigkeit" -- which opened many doors to her, especially in the Romantic circles of Jena. She was a frequent, welcome visitor at Goethe's house am Frauenplan. When she returned from her studies, Goethe arranged free lodging for her, with atelier, and then obtained a position for her, with a yearly salary of 100 talers, teaching drawing to the duke's daughters and managing the collections of the "free drawing academy" (founded by the duke in 1776). It doesn't seem to me that anyone would have been affronted (or "raised an eyebrow") by a portrait of a woman painting.

By the way, Rewald mentions in her catalogue essay "a curious and riveting precedent" to Friedrich's painting of Woman at the Window: the water color of 1787 by Tischbein of Goethe at his window on the via del Corso in Rome. (See also my post on this water color.) According to Rewald, Friedrich did not know of Tischbein's drawing, despite the similarities in the two works: "the emptiness of their settings and the near symmetry of their compositions." Both, according to Rewald, may have as their precedent a work of 1654 by Jacobus Vrel, a painting of a servant woman (above left) at a window, though this "plump model" is unlike the "large, erect, centered figures" in Tischbein's and Friedrich's works.

Dutch painters seem to have made a specialty of women at windows. Think, for instance, of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, which, according to Rewald, was on view in the painting galleries of the Dresden museum when Kersting painted his images of "hushed rooms."

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