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The window as a symbol in art

Portal to other worlds

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Light or dark, open or closed — the window opening as an architectural element in the paintings of artists serves not only as the background or accent of the composition, but also as a metaphor for hope, change, and step into the unknown. Let’s look at the painters' windows and find out what symbols they reveal!

From a Small Window to a Big Window

The window, a familiar element of the interior, as well as the exterior, didn’t "realize" its significance in human life right away. The first windows were small, dull, barely let in light and looked more like stained glass blanks which was successfully used in sacral architecture. The light pouring into the temple from heaven was perceived as the equivalent of the Divine presence, and three windows in the church in the XV—XVI centuries respectively represented the Holy Trinity.
Lorenzo Costa. Holy family
Holy family
1490, 82×62 cm

Size matters

Italian glass blowers were the first in Europe who started to produce relatively large and transparent glass. This technological breakthrough, as well as large tripartite (so-called "Venetian") window’s popularity in architecture, played a decisive role in the growing eminence of the window during the intellectual revolution of Renaissance. The frame started drawing attention to the landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
which appeared as a completed picture intended for contemplation. The priority of the "spiritual" vision of the artistic world (and the windows are known to be the "eyes of the soul"), established by religion and the church and reigning in the Middle Ages, changed. At that time people united with the material world through a window. That’s how Leon Battista Alberti, one of the leading theorists of Renaissance art, viewed painting — as the open window to the other world indicated by the borders of the frame.
Albrecht Durer. Portrait Of Elsbeth Tucher
Albrecht Durer. Portrait of St Sebastian with an arrow
Portraits with a window at the background became very popular: a sense of space appeared on the canvas, man and nature became one, and it was one of the crucial moments in the art of the Renaissance.
And, of course, the window not only united people and nature, but also offered plot development.

"A country house… a windowsill… Where she sits waiting… waiting still!"

The alliance of the window and the picture had been and remained very strong, although in most cases this architectural detail served as a source of light in the pictures. Quite often the window opening would become the centre of events. It was there that the amorous peripeteia occurred: waiting for a glance, silent dialogue, demonstration of appearance… At the window dates were being appointed, serenades sung and it was through the window how people ran to their beloved ones in the novels. And in the window, as a rule, you could see a woman, a girl, in general — a female person of any age.
Franz van Miris the Elder. A boy blows soap bubbles

And only lazy teens blew soap bubbles, wasting time!



*Learn more about symbols of time in the special Arthive piece

Harbour of the captives of hearth

The luminous element of the interior became a key point for romantic artists, and the person, peering into the unknown distance outside the window — a favorite character. Such a plot contained contradictory symbolism: on the one hand, there was a call to break away from the dull everyday life, leave the boundaries of the house, petty bourgeois existence and rush into the distance, and on the other hand — the obvious impossibility to escape from the reality of banal life. In these stories, the leading role was given to a woman who was a captive of hearth. It was the romantic artists who sowed the seeds of emancipation.
Caspar David Friedrich. View from the artist's studio








The window in the picture of Caspar David Friedrich is an important intermediary between the inner and outer world. The artist is looking at the colorful world, contrasting with the dull brown interior. The window is the harbor from which ships sail away into unknown expanses, into the open sea of passion, towards unpredictable encounters and experiences.

The Inn of the Dawn Horse (Self-Portrait) by Leonora Carrington paints the possibility for a woman to gain freedom and independence. Despite the pessimistic plot, characteristic of all surrealists, a white horse, soaring behind the open window, gives hope. Somewhere very close by there is (there definitely is!) the desired lightness of being, the fulfillment of desires and the attainment of happiness…
Leonora Carrington. Self-portrait
Self-portrait
1938, 65×81.3 cm

A note for the mistress


Landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
artists keep it simple with depicting windows. They tend to convey the beauty "just the way it is" instead of thinking about the symbols and deep sense of images. And for the adepts of the realistic direction, the window is the authenticity element of the "scene from home life".
Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior on the Strandgued with the artist's wife at the table and the sun on the floor
Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior. Stranddheed, 30
Famous Ukrainian artist Tetyana Yablonska also couldn’t ignore the window as a means to focus the eye and concentrate attention. Being an elderly person, having no physical ability to go out, she continued to communicate with nature through the window, and, as a true artist, she always found herself new plots.

The multidimensionality of space and time

The Symbolists and Fauves Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse saw the metaphor of the world’s versatility in the window. The idea was also shared by Marc Chagall.
Marc Chagall. Window
1959, 150×119.8 cm
Marc Chagall. Lovers in the window
1935, 31×23.7 cm
Marc Chagall. Window. Vitebsk
1908, 67×58 cm
Marc Chagall. Bella and Ida by the window
Marc Chagall. Evening at the window
Marc Chagall. Paris through the window
Paris through the window
1913, 135.8×141.4 cm
The motif of the window was one of Henry Matisse's favorites. For the first time this image appeared in Matisse’s pictures during the artist’s service in the office of a sworn attorney, and since then it had been frequently used. Though life indoors is limited by the walls, it is enough to open a window, look at the world from above, and a wonderful in all senses perspective will open before a person ("The View from the Window").
Henri Matisse. Open window
Open window
1905, 102×83 cm

In his picture "Open Window at Collioure" Matisse combined the landscape and the interior, ignoring the laws of perspective. "…The atmosphere of the landscape and my room are one and the same," said the artist. The viewer sees what is in the distance, and, at the same time, realizes himself in a particular place — in such a way the artist created a peculiar artistic opportunity to unite personal and surrounding space.

Henri Matisse. Interior with a violin
The passage from the inside of the room to the outside world through the window also symbolizes the process of the artist’s vision ("The Window"). The room is what "happens" in the artist’s head, and the nature behind the window is what he discovers with his eyes.
In many of Matisse’s canvases the view from the window is a self-sufficient picture in the interior, a living picturesque masterpiece.

The view to nowhere


Marcel Duchamp was preoccupied by the themes of vision and perception. He wrote: "I used the idea of the window to take a point of departure, as… I used a brush, or I used a form, a specific form of expression… I could have made 20 windows with a different idea in each one…" In 1920, the artist introduced the work called "Fresh Widow", a small version of the double doors commonly called a French window. By changing a few letters, Duchamp transformed "French window" - which the work resembles in form — into "Fresh Widow," a reference to the recent abundance of widows of World War I fighters. It is useless to look at that window: a view through windowpanes is thwarted by opaque black leather, which Duchamp insisted "be shined everyday like shoes" during the exhibition. Thus Duchamp, who was associated with Dadaism, refused to look at the world outside the window and proclaimed total unknowability of Being, giving place to a new pictorial reality.
Marcel Duchamp. Fresh widow
Fresh widow
1920, 789×532×99 cm
Surrealists also productively worked on the author’s metaphorical language. René Magritte, for whom art was an adventure into an unknown and undiscovered world, was the complete opposite of Alberti. Instead of showing that the picture looks like a window, he suggests to think whether the window looks like a painting and whether our perception of the world is objective. His windows are dazzling and broken … The imitation of reality lies in the splinters of glass, while the original — the landscape — remains untouched. There is only one real landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
, and the work of art is only an image, but not the object itself. The illusion created by art makes us believe in the reality hidden behind the canvas. But there is nothing behind it — this is the reality itself.
René Magritte. The key to the fields
René Magritte. Evening
1964, 162×130 cm
René Magritte. The Domain of Arnheim
René Magritte. Human condition
1933, 100×81 cm
Ivan Chuikov, a conceptualist, explored the scope of traditional painting. His series "Windows" involved painting with elements of assemblage. Chuikov took closed window frames, covered the glass with white paint, and then painted an outside landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
on top of the white. So the picture is not a ‘window to the world', but the screen onto which something is projected.
Roy Lichtenstein depicted the substitution of true values with catchy wrappers of the world of consumer abundance.
Roy Liechtenstein. Picture window
Roy Liechtenstein. Still life with windmill

Loneliness is boredom


In the twentieth century, the new construction technology freed the wall from the support function and made it possible to turn it into a "solid window". Continuous transparency creates a feeling of complete openness, lack of boundaries, and unity of space inside and outside the walls. Thus, the window began to function not only as an architectural decoration, but also as a boundary separating space and worlds, human souls, people.
Edward Hopper. Nighthawks
Nighthawks
1942, 84.1×152.4 cm
In Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" the glass protects the brightly lit bar from the darkness. On the one hand, it seems that we can see everything that is happening, but on the other hand, the characters are separated from the outside world by the transparent wall. Though it doesn’t seem that remarkable, anyone who looks at the picture of the American artist, almost physically feels a transcendent, aching feeling of loneliness in a big city.
Edward Hopper. Hotel window
Hotel window
1955, 101.6×139.7 cm
Edward Hopper. New York office
Edward Hopper. The morning sun
Surrealists also productively worked on the author’s metaphorical language. René Magritte, for whom art was an adventure into an unknown and undiscovered world, was the complete opposite of Alberti. Instead of showing that the picture looks like a window, he suggests to think whether the window looks like a painting and whether our perception of the world is objective. His windows are dazzling and broken … The imitation of reality lies in the splinters of glass, while the original — the landscape — remains untouched. There is only one real landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
, and the work of art is only an image, but not the object itself. The illusion created by art makes us believe in the reality hidden behind the canvas. But there is nothing behind it — this is the reality itself.
Andrew Wyeth not only painted realistic landscapes, but also created a feeling of isolation, silence, abandonment… and at the same time — expectations. His windows allow air flows in which the characters seem to "dissolve" but the viewers still feel their presence.
Andrew Wyeth. The wind from the sea
Andrew Wyeth. Portrait Of Henrietta
1967, 57.2×72.4 cm
Andrew Wyeth. Lovers
Andrew Wyeth. Tomorrow
XX century, 96.5×55.9 cm
Andrew Wyeth. Overflow
1978, 58.4×73.7 cm
Andrew Wyeth. Renfield
Andrew Wyeth. Bow
1979, 79.4×57.1 cm

Symbol of the structured society


Andreas Gursky prefers to take pictures of repeating fragments which form abstract patterns, and windows of block buildings completely satisfy his ideas. With the help of his camera, the German photo artist saw the postindustrial society as a huge well-organized structure, a single organism working in an ideal rhythm.
  • Andreas Gursky. Paris, Montparnasse (1993)
  • Avenue of the Americas, 2001
Andreas Gursky. Parliament (1998)
Let’s finish the topic by decorating the windowsill with an exquisite bouquet!
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Cover illustration: Andrew Wyeth. Love in the Afternoon, 1992
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