Themed exhibitions pegged to particular pictures in museum collections tend to be more interesting to the museum’s curators than to the general public. But with Reframed: The Woman in the Window Dulwich Picture Gallery is on to a winner, as not only is the particular picture a showstopper, but the theme opens up a whole can of feminist worms.
Whether it’s her pensive pose, her idle fiddling with her necklace or the shy look in her shadowed eyes, Rembrandt’s ‘Girl at a Window’ (1645) is impossible to walk past. Scholars continue to bicker about her status. Serving wench? Kitchen maid? Prostitute? Rembrandt’s lover? Whoever she was, hers was the face that launched a thousand paintings of w-in-ws after Rembrandt’s pupil Gerrit Dou took up the motif and Dou’s pupil Gabriel Metsu followed suit. But the theme goes back a long way before Rembrandt. The earliest windows to appear in art in a fresco at Mycenae dating from the 15th century BC have women at them, and the earliest window in this show is a 9th century BC ivory panel from Nimrud with the head of a woman – possibly one of the ‘sacred prostitutes’ Herodotus writes about – framed in it.
The connection of windows with the sale of sexual services is as old as the oldest profession. On a 4th century BC bell krater from Paestum, a hetaira pops her head out of an upstairs window to be bunched with apples by a priapic old man up a ladder. Before the development of the shop front, a large part of day-to-day business was conducted through windows, and to avoid confusion women whose bodies were not for sale were expected to keep them out of sight. But when the window offered her indoors the only pre-screen form of visual entertainment, the temptation to lean out of it was strong. Islam solved the problem with the perforated screen; Christianity urged self-restraint, with less success. The 15th-century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino denounced the woman who ‘when she hears a horse does straightaway run to the window’, but who could blame her?
An exception was made in art for the Virgin Mary, who appears at a window in the guise of ‘fenestra coeli’ in a charming painting by Dirk Bouts. And during carnival, apparently, anything went. The frontispiece to a carnival songbook by Lorenzo de’ Medici shows a bevy of Florentine beauties hanging out of windows being serenaded by male window-shoppers below. Florentine rules for women were unusually strict, but that didn’t stop Botticelli posing the ‘Lady Known as Smeralda Bandinelli’ (c.1470-80) at her casement in a diaphanous robe looking suspiciously like a negligee. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who acquired the picture in 1869, painted Jane Morris as ‘La Donna della Finestra’ two years later.
Protestants were less concerned about window gazing than gazing at Catholic devotional pictures like Bouts’s. Luther advised praying with eyes fixed on the sky – presumably through windows – while expressing disapproval of female ‘windowpeepers’; a woman, he thought, should be ‘like a nail driven into the wall’ where she could better ‘look after the affairs of the household’. Women posed in windows were presumed to be no better than they should be well into the 19th century. ‘The Woman at a Window’ (1871-2) in a Degas painting owned by Sickert was modelled by ‘une sorte de cocotte’ who was so hungry during the siege of Paris that, the artist told Sickert, he paid her in meat ‘which she fell upon and devoured raw’. Sickert reused its contre jour effect in his own ‘Woman Seated at a Window’ (c.1908-9), while making her profession obvious by stripping her down to her embonpoint.
The implication of availability persisted into the modern era. True, Picasso’s weepy ‘Femme à la Fenêtre’ (1952) is not exactly inviting, pressed up against the pane like a trapped bird; it was year nine of his abusive relationship with Françoise Gilot, who was on the point of flying the coop. But it’s only when women artists take up the theme that the meaning shifts. The woman in Isabel Codrington’s ‘The Kitchen’ (1927) stares out of a wintry window with a loaf, an unplucked chicken and a two-thirds empty bottle of Kirsch on the table behind her: she might as well be a nail driven into the wall for all the pleasure she’s getting from window-peeping; the prospect has driven her to raid the liquor cabinet. In Catherine Engelhart’s businesslike self-portrait, ‘The Artist in her Studio’ (1894), the window’s only purpose is to light her work. She has her back to it.
Male artists, though, still need re-educating. Of the two women in Jeff Wall’s staged photograph, ‘A View from an Apartment’ (2004-5), one is leafing through a glossy magazine while the other is ironing napkins. Ironing napkins! Even Gerrit Dou had a more liberated view of women. Screw the ironing board; bring back the clavichord.
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