The motif of the open window in Romantic painting was ‘inaugurated’, according to Sabine Rewald, by two sepia drawings of his studio windows with the River Elbe beyond by Caspar David Friedrich. The drawings are exact in their rendering of casements, panes and the gradation of light on bare walls, and careful in their delineation of the distant riverbank. The frugal medium and the impersonal quality of the draughtsmanship give you the facts: a plain room, an open window, bare walls, a distant view. There is no colour, no person, no furniture, no painterly business. At one level they are plain, dull, brown pictures. But the room, the window and the river, disposed in that way, work on you. It isn’t the painting itself but the stage it offers the imagination that is effective. Not all the pictures in the book – it is also the catalogue of an exhibition shown earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – have this quality. They differ in other ways too: few are monochrome, many are inhabited and not all have open windows, let alone views, but there are enough that share Friedrich’s cool insistence that you enter his anonymous space and find its unspecified meaning for yourself to make you realise that his work had given a new emotional edge to room painting.
LRB 3 November 2011 | PDF Download