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Imaging Transcendence: Domestic Interiors and the Sacred

November 29, 2010

As Frances Borzello observes in her wonderful book At Home: The Domestic Interior in Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), domestic interiors only became a subject worthy of a painter’s full attention in the modern era.  The production of domestic interior painting was driven by a new art market that included middle class patronage.  As a new subject, the domestic interior offered painters novel and interesting ways to comment on society, religion, politics, etc.  One particularly fruitful feature of domestic interiors is the demarcation of space: the walls that separate inside from outside, one space from another.

For some, the separation of space afforded by domestic interiors suggested a way of imagining the relationship between the transcendent world of the spiritual, and the commonplace world of the mundane.  Using domestic interiors, painters could present a vision of ordinary life that exists closely alongside the sacred.  In this post, I want to briefly explore three different paintings of domestic interiors that image the religious desire for transcendence.

The painting below is by the great German painter Caspar David Friedrich, and it is titled Woman at a Window (1822):

Here we see a woman turned way from us gazing out across a harbor and into the blue sky.  As a viewer, our gaze is drawn in by the intricate and subtle attention given by the painter to the woman’s dress, then it is drawn upward by the masts of the ships, and ultimately it is held by the stark contrast between the window’s cross bars and the bright blue of the sky.  In this way, the woman acts as a surrogate by leading our gaze to follow hers.  She is the image of the human desire for transcendence: to leave the mundane for a world of unknown and expansive possibilities.

Our second painting is by the Dutch painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, and is titled Bedroom (1890)

The connection with Friedrich’s painting is unmistakeable.  But what is interesting is the way that Hammershoi’s paintings is different.  Unlike Woman at a Window, this painting is far less interested in what lies beyond the window.  There is a minor attempt at some trees, but what captivates the viewer is the mysterious and atmospheric quality of the interior itself.  Transcendence has moved in.  This is not an image of the desire for transcendence as much as it is a recognition of spiritual immanence that pervades everyday life.

The third and final painting is by Joel Sheesley (one of our Featured Artists), and it is titled Interior with No Autonomy (2001):

While “No Autonomy” is actually the title of the painting hanging above the bed, it seems that this woman is also experiencing a lack of autonomy.  By contrast to the other two paintings this window is much smaller, and the woman can just see out.  Sheesley offers us a version of the same motif through the lens of feminist social critique.  Is the woman trapped in her own home?  Is the woman another “domesticated animal” like the dog who lies asleep on the floor?

Sheesley also plays with the the idea of a window by juxtaposing the ‘real’ window with other paintings in the room.  Since the Renaissance, it has been commonplace to conceive of a painting as ‘like a window’ that opens the viewer toward another world.  While windows obviously suggest discontinuity between two different spaces, they also suggest the possibility of passage between them.  Are these paintings like windows, or are they more like the walls that confine the woman?

In relation to the paintings by Friedrich and Hammershoi, Sheesley’s painting is much more complex.  With the woman, we are drawn to look through the window to the neighborhood beyond, but at the same time there is much inside the room that competes for our attention.  What interests me about Sheesley’s painting is the way the outside light invades interior space.  The sweeping, slanted light on the far wall suggests a permeability between the outside and inside spaces.  Perhaps in this painting, transcendence is imaged not only as a space beyond ordinary life, but also as the entrance and permeation of the ‘outside’ within the ‘inside’.  Is the human desire for transcendence a longing to reach beyond our commonplace circumstances, or is it the longing to discover something extraordinary within our ordinary lives?  Or both?

Image Credits: lib-art.com, wikigallery.org, joelsheesley.com

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 3:30 am

    How very interesting this is in relation to a series of domestic interiors paintings I am working on at the moment. I have always loved the work of Hammershoi and indeed the contemplative exterior and interiors of Hopper. Some time ago, after 6 years creating a series of paintings on the nature of the utilitarian and its use to humanity in a series of paintings of mining machinery and then agricultural machines, I came across a plastic laundry basket sitting on a patch of sunlight in the middle of our wooden floor and became fascinated by it’s intrinsic beauty and purity and decided that I would make a painting of it for a Religious Art competition that I was entering. When it was finished I titled it, ‘The humble and resilient vessel’ and though it didn’t get shortlisted in the competition, I myself am quite convinced of its merit. To focus with such intensity and resolution on such a disposable unregarded object seemed to me a metaphor for the lives of quiet ordinary-ness that is the experience of nine tenths of human beings. Indeed, in a Post -Modernist context, the very creation of the piece is almost a performance art role for the actual craft of painting so laboriously, making the effort to consider every brush stroke is about the role that work and endeavour plays in our lives.

    I have since moved on to create another 4 painting s on the same theme, despite my paintings of landscapes being infinitely more saleable. They are not on my website but I would love to know what others thought of them, so if there was some way I could upload them to your site for comment.

    • Jim permalink*
      February 11, 2011 9:08 am

      Anne, thanks for your comments. I have just emailed you regarding the paintings you have described, so look out for that. I like the way you have described “a disposable unregarded object” becoming a metaphor “for the lives of quiet ordinary-ness that is the experience of nine tenths of human beings.” I think this statement captures much of what intrigues me about domestic interior painting. These ordinary scenes can become charged and saturated with meaning, mystery and signficance. Though I did not show them in this post, I am especially drawn to the interiors that one finds in the work of Dutch genre painter such as Vermeer, Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu and others. Hopper would have also been an interesting addition to this post as his works certainly emphasize interior/exterior barriers, and I find that he is able to permeate his spaces with a unique stillness and melancholy. Thanks for your comments, and it was a joy visiting your website!

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