Gazing out a window may, at first, feel like a lonely act—especially now, as many of us are spending most of our time at home, away from loved ones and our daily routines. But a window can also help open up our worlds, framing the life that still goes on outside. Taking a moment to acknowledge the quiet beauty of trees rustling in the breeze, children playing catch, and neighbors rushing home with shopping bags reminds us that an infinite number of stories are unfolding every day, right outside.
Artistic inspiration, too, can be found simply by gazing out (or in) a window. The view from an artist’s window may reveal how they interpret the world outside or illuminate the story unfolding inside. (In 2014, there was a Getty exhibition on the topic.)
Take a look at the paintings and photographs below to discover a few ways artists have featured windows in their work. While many of us are spending more time looking out our windows than ever before, these works demonstrate the power and beauty that can be found in this quiet act.
This staged photo, in which a nightgown-clad woman gazes out her living room window as night falls, exudes a mysterious, almost surreal sense of foreboding. The primary light source is the lamp in the corner, which throws ominous shadows around the room. The window frames a suburban street – usually the ultimate representation of order and predictability, but here it looks haunting in the fading light.
Crewdson’s work often plays with themes of suburbia, nature, mystery, and the supernatural. He typically shoots staged photos, in which he assembles models, sets, and props to create a narrative, and has said that a major point of inspiration for his work is the 1977 sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The Rue Mosnier With Flags
At first glance, this painting simply depicts a street celebration in Paris, as seen from artist Édouard Manet’s second-floor window. The day was June 30, 1878, a national holiday called Fete de la Paix (Celebration of Peace). It coincided with the recent Exposition Universelle, and commemorated France’s recovery from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the ensuing trauma of the Commune, a short-lived revolutionary government in Paris that was brutally suppressed by French troops.
Patriotic red, white, and blue flags wave and well-dressed Parisians traverse the streets in horse-drawn carriages. However, a closer look reveals a less-rosy view of modern society: a man on crutches who is missing one leg, a worker behind him carrying a ladder, and a construction site. While upper classes celebrate progress, growth, and peace, harsher realities of life are also on view.
Manet frequently turned his attention to everyday people, depicting rich and poor alike—in this case, taking inspiration from the disparities visible on the street outside his window.
The Cat at the Window
In this drawing, a black cat with glowing eyes wiggles through a window, as a man peeks out from his bed curtains. While cats are notorious for their love of looking (and jumping) out windows, this drawing also has a lesson to teach. It illustrates the 17th-century fable “The Cat Who Became a Woman” by French writer Jean de la Fontaine, in which a man becomes obsessed with his cat and convinces Destiny to turn her into a woman. However, on their first night together, she jumps out of bed to chase a mouse. The moral of the story is that the truth about one’s self will eventually come out, even if your outward appearance has changed.
Women At Their WindowsYou might relate to these women if you’ve found yourself peering out your window, keeping tabs on the goings-on in your neighborhood. The brick building and fur caps of members of the royal guard are drawn in brown ink, while the three women in the upper window and the lone woman glancing out the lower window are made of cut-out photographs. The trio on the second-floor stands, heads together, with a conspiratorial air. Perhaps these ladies are gossiping about whatever is across the street that has captured their attention. Nosy? Yes. Timeless? Also yes.
Sometimes, a window may frame a subject placed in front of it, as is the case with this Polaroid photo by Andy Warhol. The man standing in front of the open window is interior designer Jed Johnson, Warhol’s lover of 12 years. Johnson’s modern (at the time) shag haircut and blue jacket are juxtaposed against the ornate 19th-century building across the street. The camera appears to be several feet away from its subject, who has focused his gaze out the window rather than the photographer. There’s a feeling that we’re taking a surreptitious look at Johnson—perhaps capturing him in a candid moment.
Warhol and Johnson’s relationship ended in 1976. Johnson died in the TWA Flight 800 explosion in 1996.
In this photograph, the window itself tells a story. It’s part of John Divola’s Zuma series, a photographic record of an abandoned building overlooking Malibu’s Zuma beach from 1977 to 1978. Divola chronicled the house’s decay, which was caused by natural elements as well as human intervention such as fire and vandalism. The torn curtains, broken windows and rotting wood frame the ocean view, highlighting how the forces of humans and nature combine to affect the physical world.
Rows upon rows of windows give this apartment building an imposing first impression. With no roof, door, or even sidewalk visible, the windows appear to be part of a repeating pattern. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that no two windows are exactly alike. The shades are drawn at different heights, some blinds are open partway and some none at all—a reminder that behind each window is a unique world, with its own story.
Thanks for your commitment in helping us to stay these days at home.
What an illuminating perspective. I never would have thought of the connection between these disparate works and artists, but the theme of the view from the window is one many can relate to right now.
Loved this. Looking out windows and the stories that went with each picture was just wonderful and beautifully written. Thank you for making my day. Erin Migdol’s article made everything so much more appreciated. Like everyone else BRAVO!
Erin Migdol’s article really brings to life the work of these artists in a way that is worthy of their poetic sensibilities. Bravo!
Thank you for these photos and the brief explication. What a lovely gift to receive in my inbox!
interesting choice of pictures. Why mainly photographs? and why not at least mention Vermeer and Matisse who made many series of paintings looking through windows contrasting with or isolating from their interior settings.
Thank you so much for your question, Bernice! Yes, there are so many other wonderful paintings featuring windows. We were focusing on images in Getty’s collection. But appreciate your feedback!
One of my most favorite paintings is Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea. The lift of the curtains and the monochromatic surrealism of the colors juxtaposition brings a mood of past and present. One feels nostalgic and yet feels the wind from the sea.
The first print you introduced in the article has reminded me of Simon Stalenhag’s work of foreboding. You want to look but not look at what is out there, what is to come.
Windows are a means to get out or to view or to peek through. A way to stay put and still feel connected.
Thank you for bringing the world of art to a world of refuge. The possibilities are endless. And the world awaits us just outside through the window.
The world is still there, w
How will it change and how will we change as result of this crisis? I hope we evolve as a society to really see the disparity in our country and just how vulnerable everyone is. How protected the wealthy remain and dependent on the most vulnerable.
Thanks for this great artistic perspective especially in this moment of isolation for so many.
Loved this. Looking out windows and the stories that went with each picture was just wonderful and beautifully written. Thank you for making my day.
Ooooo- I’m thinking of many interesting “new” assignments for my B&W Photo students
Photo of Manet that always reminded me of the cost of war never occurred to me that it could be a view from a window. All the windows of the apartment building at first sight look alike but when I took a closer view I saw that every occupant had a different treatment of his or her view.
Thank you so much for the moment of art in this COVID 19 world we currently exist in.
I found The Warhol photograph of his lover particularly haunting. It expresses to me the fleeting nature of human existence.
Both Johnson and Warhol are gone while the view out the window has probably remained relatively unchanged.
awesome. thank you for keeping our minds engaged.