A lot of melancholy Danes and Germans appear in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s charmingly off-beat show, “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.”
The best known is Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), who painted brooding pictures of ruined churches, shipwrecks and solitary people contemplating the moon.
A portrait of the somber artist, who would die a poor recluse, shows him staring at his easel in a bare studio in Dresden. In this room he painted the catalogue’s cover picture: his slim wife, her back to us, looking through a window over the Elbe.
A sense of longing and unspecified regret fills many pictures.
I spoke with curator Sabine Rewald as we walked through the exhibition.
Hoelterhoff: These folks are so quiet and well-behaved, unlike the whores and bankers in your last show on the Weimar Republic.
Rewald: No drug addicts! The sitters are seen from the back or profile. They read, write, or think in rooms filled with light and silence.
Hoelterhoff: Unsurprisingly, the rooms feature a window. Tell me about the window theme.
Near and Far
Rewald: The open window was a motif treasured by the Romantics. The juxtaposition of near and far provided a fine metaphor for unfulfilled longing.
Hoelterhoff: Everything in the distance becomes desirable. Who created the vogue for these pictures?
Rewald: Friedrich inaugurated the motif with two famous sepia drawings showing the views of the Elbe from his studio.
They were widely hailed and admired by critics.
Hoelterhoff: Friedrich studied in Copenhagen like so many including Georg Friedrich Kersting, who painted the portrait of Friedrich with his formidable sideburns and comfy slippers. One forgets the importance of the academy there and also that these were difficult times, thanks to Napoleon.
Rewald: The Napoleonic Wars didn’t end until 1815 and caused great misery. Copenhagen, for example, was bombarded by the English, though that sense of upheaval isn’t reflected in these pictures.
Look at this domestic scene by Emilius Baerentzen. It’s a typically modest get-together at a time when entertainment opportunities were few. Father reads, mother embroiders.
Hoelterhoff: Some of the prettiest views, though, are of Rome as seen from the Villa Medici, where lucky artists got to stay and study.
Or Naples, especially this striking little picture by Franz Ludwig Catel. That’s a nice dog looking down from the balcony.
Rewald: I really hate that dog and would like to paint him out.
Hoelterhoff: I also like this picture of Louise Seidler. Wasn’t she a painter and a friend of Goethe? Why is she shown embroidering, not painting?
Rewald: French artists show women drawing. But in a small city like Dresden that was against the conventions of the time.
Hoelterhoff: What happened to the Russian pictures you have in the catalog?
Rewald: They’re not here. I had to cut an entire room. Russia since January has canceled all loans to the U.S. because of a World War II-related lawsuit.
Hoelterhoff: At least there are some gorgeous interiors by Adolph Menzel, much adored by Hitler.
Rewald: Please! Maybe he liked the big history pictures of Frederick the Great playing the flute. Not these.
A Nice Plaque
Hoelterhoff: Did you check how many of his views still exist?
Rewald: Very few. Menzel’s Ritterstrasse exists in Berlin, but where his house once stood there is a modern building complex in yellow orange brick with a supermarket and fast food shops.
Someone put up a plaque, however.
“Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century” runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 4. 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and leisure section. Any opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)