On ViewDulwich Picture Gallery
Reframed: The Woman in the Window
May 4–September 4, 2022
In Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter (ca. 1663), now in the Rijksmuseum, the blue-clad female figure stands quietly in the light of an unseen window, reading a note that she holds close to her chest. The painting has long prompted speculation about its subject: What does the map behind her tell us? Is she pregnant (most likely not)? Given that she wears a blue mantle and basks in light from an invisible source, as well as Vermeer’s Catholicism, is she the Virgin Mary? Or, as my thesis adviser once provocatively suggested, is she Danaë, the princess impregnated by Zeus in the form of a beam of light? These last two queries center on the subject/object binary of a woman depicted at a window, for the Virgin affirmatively accepted her role in the birth of Christ, whereas Danaë was not afforded a choice. Throughout the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s wide-ranging Reframed: The Woman in the Window, thoughtfully curated by Jennifer Sliwka, we are reminded of that binary—who has agency and who may not?—and the roles that we then assume as viewers of the women represented.
The Dulwich owns two important paintings that served as prompts around which to build the exhibition, Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (1645) and Gerrit Dou’s A Woman Playing a Clavichord (ca. 1665). Dou’s woman, seated at a table placed in a window, looks up from her instrument toward the viewer, a colorful tapestry drawn to the side to reveal her surprise; her setting and activity remind us of Vermeer’s better-known paintings of women at virginals (the catalogue notes that Vermeer’s pictures may have been inspired by Dou and in turn, Tom Hunter’s Woman Reading a Possession Order , installed in the gallery next to the Dou, recalls Vermeer). Rembrandt’s girl is frank and engaging; she rests on her elbows, making blushing eye contact with us. Whereas Dou’s woman must be one of the ladies of the house, Rembrandt’s is most likely not: she reveals her suntanned forearms, indicating work outdoors, and even her proactive lean out of the window frame would undoubtedly not have been acceptable for higher-born women. Hung nearby, Woman in a Red Dress (c.1660–69), attributed to Gabriel Metsu, depicts a Black woman posing in a window, a rare period representation of a woman of color and a mysterious figure we can only know through context clues: the woman’s refusal to make eye contact with us, her sumptuous red dress, a pearl earring, and the carved wall that protects (or perhaps imprisons) her.
One of the striking things about the exhibition’s installation, which is thematic and roughly chronological, is how pervasive the “woman in a window” motif is and has always been. The first room includes some of the show’s earliest objects, including a forthright, tiny ivory carving of a Phoenician woman, perhaps a cult figure or priestess, behind the ornamented façade of a temple window (900-700 BCE). She gazes at us frontally with tight lips and raised eyebrows, her alertness calling to mind votive statues from Tell Asmar, made thousands of years before she was. She serves as a foil to a startling object in the next gallery, a stone carving in high relief of a nearly life-sized woman held captive behind a barred window, Saint Avia (The Jailed Woman) (ca. 1450–1500). In contrast to the Phoenician figure’s uprightness, this woman swoons in a gothic curve, informing us of the sacrifice she makes of herself: Saint Avia swore her virginity to God and was jailed when she refused to marry, only to be sustained by receiving communion miraculously proffered by the Virgin Mary. Sliwka writes that the carving is believed to have been set into the outside wall of a house of worship, permitting the saint to serve as an interlocutor, perhaps to other faithful or troubled women.
The gallery that houses Saint Avia also displays examples drawn from traditions outside Western Europe, including Japan and India. A miniature from Jaipur featuring two noblewomen at a window (ca. 1800) hangs near to a Mughal jali screen from the seventeenth century. Such screens permitted breezes and diffused light but also shielded inhabitants from sight. The miniature thus places us somehow between the screen and the women, offering us an intimate compression of space and a privileged view that would typically have been forbidden. This notion of the window as a screen—something that prevents seeing but that counterintuitively encourages imaginative projection—is echoed in the large photograph that serves as a hinge in the center of the gallery, Jeff Wall’s A view from an apartment (2004–05). It also includes two young women, these in the midst of reading and chores. Images within the image include views through their windows to an industrial port and that same vista reflected in the blackened screen of a television set.
Throughout, women reach out to pull back curtains or to touch the window frames or panes, gestures that seem so poignant and rich with meaning, whether it is the fatigue of a woman gazing out onto a winter lawn in Isabel Codrington’s The Kitchen (1927) or longing, in François Gilot’s palms in Pablo Picasso’s La Femme à la fenêtre (Woman at the Window) (1952) echoed by those of Smokin Jo, window (1995) by Wolfgang Tillmans. In the final gallery those hands become, in Rachel Lowe’s video A Letter to an Unknown Person, No.3 (1998), the artist’s own as she records herself attempting to capture onto the window of a moving car the scenery she passes. No longer the woman shuttered from the outside world and framed for viewing, Lowe instead moves through it, assuming the gaze and marking her way.