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Friedrich, Woman at a Window

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at a Window, 1822, oil on canvas, 44 x 73 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). In the Google Art Project: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/alte-nationalgalerie/artwork/woman-at-a-window-caspar-david-friedrich/328396/. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively music) Beth: We're looking at a lovely little Friedrich in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin called Woman at a Window. Like so many of Friedrich's paintings, we see a single figure from behind. Steven: This is his wife and his studio in Dresden. We see her back, but we don't stay there. Instead, somehow we begin to imagine what she sees as she looks out this window. Beth: We imagine her life in what seems like a rather constricted environment and this really rather small view of the outside world. What we do see appears to be a port, with some ships; we see water and a small coastline; and some trees; and the vast blue sky above. Steven: That blue sky, of course, is framed by a window that does not open, that's just above her, with the thinnest wood framing. That creates a cross, and she's directly below it. You do have the sense of the way in which spirituality must enview her, but she does seem as if her world is inside this room and that her only access outside is through this window. You mentioned the harbor, but there is a second kind of symbolism here that I think is important, and that is the mast on the right that's close seems to be moving. You do get the sense that the ship is passing slowly, and it becomes such a perfect metaphor for her life, as she watches life pass before her. Beth: And the ships that she looks at will move on, and she will remain where she is, within this domestic environment. We wonder if she's feeling a sense of yearning for more, or that perhaps she's expressing a more generalized sense of yearning and desire for meaning that we see in so many other paintings by Friedrich. Steven: There's clearly that sense of the quiet and the contemplative in this painting. All the things that we're saying are borne out in this painting through the subtlest means. The sense of restriction that we're talking about is not because the room in which she is placed is small. It's in fact a very large space, it seems, with a very high ceiling, and of course these large windows that must let lots of light in. It's not that. It's the strictness of the geometry with which the painting is rendered. Friedrich grew up in Greifswald, which was then part of Sweden, and was schooled on Copenhagen, initially, before he went to Dusseldorf to finish his education. That Northern tradition of the strictness of the geometric is really felt here. The woman, in contrast, though, is curvilinear, and so she doesn't fit easily into this geometry, into the rectilinear in which she's placed. The ship that seems to be passing also breaks with the purely rectilinear. That mast is tilting ever so slightly to the right, as if it's moving forward. And so, all of this feels in contrast to the perfect verticals and the perfect horizontals. Beth: As that mast moves slightly to the right, her body lists slightly to the left, breaking that rigid geometry. And, like so many other paintings by Friedrich, there's a real sense of symmetry and order, so that we immediately feel that the artist is saying something more in these scenes that otherwise we could classify as genre scenes or landscapes. Friedrich is trying to imbue them with greater meaning. Steve: Friedrich's technique here is just spectacular. I mean, you've got this very soft rendering of the poplars beyond, and the beautiful sky that seems so translucent, is if it really does go on forever. It makes the longing of the woman seem even more potent. There's this wonderful linear quality. Look at the foreshortening of the shutter that has been opened, the way in which light plays against it, and its framing and its construction seems so clearly rendered. Then there's these wonderful other little elements. The woman's dress, for example, the way it picks up a kind of interior light. We see that also with the liquids that are in bottles to the right, on the sill of the window, that seems so warm and so softly lit. So much of the art in Germany and England, for example, at this time, of the 19th Century, is so full of literary narrative. That is, there's lots of symbolism, there's lots of people, there's a very complex story. Friedrich is stripping all of that away and giving us the barest invitation to feel those things in ourselves. It is a poetic invitation for us to enter into this space, to enter into this woman's mind. The image itself is as contemplative as her mood, and we're being offered to enter into her mood, not simply her activity, in a way that is very much interested in the interior, and her interior experience. We look at her posture, we look at this room, and we can immediately inhabit her experience in a way that feels very genuine. (lively music)