Famous Windows from Art History

Jessica Backus
Oct 2, 2013 12:54PM

In honor of the Getty's newly opened exhibition, “At the Window: The Photographer’s View,” we explore nine iconic images of windows in the history of art. From the soft light of Vermeer to Robert Frank’s complex statement on American life, the charged symbolism of windows has inspired artists throughout the ages. Here, then, in no particular order, are some windows worth knowing:

Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600 
Widely regarded as one of Caravaggio’s most important works, this work depicts the moment the tax collector Matthew becomes a follower of Christ. Divine light streams in through the window, hitting Matthew like an epiphany and creating a dramatic moment. This effect of chiaroscuro would be Caravaggio’s lasting legacy. In fact the term “Caragaguesque” now is sometimes used to refer to a style of painting characterized by a strong emphasis on light and shadow, rendered in a highly realistic manner.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Milliner’s Window, before 1844
Created a mere five years after the invention of photography, this work is one of the earliest instance of staged photography — the “window” was in fact a series of shelves placed outdoors and styled to look like a shop: an early fashion shoot of sorts, with photographer acting as creative director, prop stylist, and crew all at once.  

Robert Frank, Parade - Hoboken New Jersey, 1955
This disquieting image stems from Frank’s seminal 1959 book The Americans, a visual diary of a nation of contradictions, for which the artist hit the road, travelling from coast to coast and back again. Frank’s images immediately struck a nerve. They were, in his words, pictures of things “anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” From cowboys to waitresses, from Chattanooga to Charleston to Arizona, Frank captured these “anywhere and everywhere” slices of Americana. This work, the American flag obscuring the face of a figure in the window while another looks out tentatively, encapsulates the tensions revealed by the documentary project at large: optimistic post-war patriotism with a lingering undercurrent of uncertainty.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658
Vermeer’s women — and he did paint mostly women — are as luminous as they are enigmatic. The Dutch master’s meticulous attention to light was well served by the carefully placed window, creating a new genre in painting — the genre interior — and vexing art historians for centuries to come with his ideally beautiful, unidentified sitters. Vermeer never depicted the same woman twice, and none of them has been identified.  

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles, 1733-4
This genre painter specialized in scenes of children playing. Yet the boy leaning through the window is not necessarily as innocent as one might think. Soap bubbles at this time often symbolized the transience of things. This painting, with its delicate features yet ambiguous scene, has spawned many interpretations over the years.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an old man and a young boy, 1490
“I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint.” When these instructions in linear perspective first appeared, in 1435, they were groundbreaking. They come from one of the most influential treatises on painting in the history of art, Leon Battista Alberti’s “On Painting.” The idea that painting should be a window on to the world was radical. Windows appear frequently in Renaissance art, often as a framing device for an infinitely receding landscape in the background, offering artists a chance to indulge their mastery of perspective. This composition of a portrait within an interior, set against a landscape seen through the window, was quite common in Italian Renaissance painting. What sets this one apart is its intimacy. As art historian Bernard Berenson wrote, “There is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento [15th century] painting, whether in or out of Italy”

Workshop of Robert Campin, The Merode Altarpiece, 1425-1428
Divine intervention may come when you least expect it, even in a Flemish household, amidst accoutrements of everyday life -- a kettle, table, books, a vase of lillies, a moustrap, and a candle. All these objects taken together are an instance of what is called “disguised symbolism” -- the flowers, for example, are associated with the chastity of the virgin. Though the objects jostle each other in space and could fly away from the floor at any moment, they are rendered with painstaking detail, and the way the light from the window falls gently over them is a unique accomplishment. Not only was this work a milestone for its detailed attention to the nature of individual objects, it is the earliest annunciation in panel painting that occurs in a fully equipped domestic interior.

Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Game Bird, Fruit and Vegetables, 1602
This master of Spanish still life abandoned the trade to live in a Carthusian monastery. Lucky for history, he had already created a number of works that indulge the eye. His signature compositions actually depict a cantarrero, not exactly a window, but rather a shelf installed above a doorway to keep fresh food cool.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498
It would be false advertising to give the window in this most iconic depiction of the last supper first billing. That said, its central placement behind the figure of Jesus is important. This work is perhaps the strongest classic statement of the ideals of High Renaissance painting, including the emphasis on linear perspective. The central vanishing point of the work is located behind Christ’s head, exactly in the middle of the painting. If you follow it back it will lead you to the lush Italian landscape in the window behind. What a backdrop for Christ’s gesture of submission to divine will, perhaps one of the most widely recognized images of this religious figure in his final days.

See more windows through the ages

Jessica Backus