Tag Archives: henri matisse

Windows to the World: Windows in Art

Having lived only in urban cities such as Singapore and London, I find myself fascinated by windows. They come in varied sizes and styles and are ubiquitous aspects of every building that makes up our cities and everyday life. They allow us to engage visually with the world from the comforts of our homes while protecting us from the elements. More than just architectural decoration, they determine the way light enters and fills personal sanctuaries such as homes and churches, playing a significant role in determining the atmosphere of a place. The contrast between their everyday, ordinary status and the versatility they possess as artistic subjects and motifs translates to my intrigue with them when they emerge in works of art.

Windows have lent themselves to artistic expression in multiple ways. Artists have used windows as a framing device to direct our gaze to a particular scene or subject, letting us understand the beauty they saw in a particular scene, or as a way to introduce light to an interior. The former can be exemplified by Pierre Bonnard’s House in the Courtyard (1895-96), while the latter can be easily observed in Adolph Menzel’s The Balcony Room (1845).

House in the Courtyard (1895-96) by Pierre Bonnard (Left) Click for larger image
The Balcony Room (1845) by Adolph Menzel (Right) Copyright – fair use

Other times, the window becomes a motif with symbolic associations of illumination and hope, or, conversely, a symbol of urban decay and destruction, as seen in the works of Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan. In short, this ubiquitous motif of our everyday lives has been used in art to frame the most beautiful sceneries, illuminate otherwise dark interiors, and as a poignant symbol of urban life, as we shall see in the following examples.

Starting from the place closest to us, the interiors of our homes have served as a great source of inspiration for many artists, and windows have functioned as the focal point on many occasions. One of my favorites would have to be Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900).

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900)
oil on canvas, 70 x 59cm
Copyright – fair use

At first glance, our attention is drawn to the brightest, and perhaps only, source of light in the empty, unfurnished room — the window. Yet, the limited view outside tells us very little about the surroundings of this mysterious room we have entered. The entire view consists of a small portion of a tiled roof and a gray expanse of concrete of a neighboring building. The proximity of the window to the neighboring building makes it appear near impossible for the door on the right, whose knob and keyhole is almost invisible, to open up to another space. The windows, bare without curtains, allow sunlight to filter through in clear rays,which make visible the dust motes dancing in the air. We follow the sunbeams diagonally with our gaze, ending at the silhouette of the window frame on the ground. Otherwise, the floor is unblemished and smooth to the point of abstraction, with no indication of texture. The room as a whole seems like a vacuum, enclosed and inscrutable, rousing our curiosity at what lies beyond. The beauty of this painting, for me, lies in how the window illuminates the muted interior without disturbing its tranquility, while providing us with steady reassurance of the presence of the greater world beyond the room.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Henri Matisse’s vividly colored interiors, which have incorporated windows on numerous occasions. Some of these works were made during his time at Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, a place which soothed his depression with its vitality and vivid colors. Here, windows take on a metaphorical symbolism as windows to the soul, reflecting the emotional intensity with which the artist responded to the landscape before him.

Open Window, Collioure (1905)
oil on canvas, 55.3 x 46cm
Click for larger image

Open Window, Collioure is one such example which promises an escape from the banality of our everyday life. With the casements of the balcony thrown wide open, Matisse beckons us towards the window which looks out onto the idyllic scene of a small fishing port. All four sides of the window are present, presenting the window as an entity in the composition. In contrast with the implied rapidity of the textured brushstrokes, the composition is actually highly orchestrated. We may observe several pairs of complementary colors, such as the warm orange and reds of the flowers, pots and walls alongside the cool blues of the wall and harbor, and the swaths of green and fuchsia opposite each other on the wall nearest to us, echoed in the window panes of the casements. These strategically placed colors guide our eyes across the canvas in a zigzag motion from the walls to the window. While the thick brushstrokes and bright colors appear energetic and convey excitement, the repetition of geometric frames within the painting emphasizes their verticality and gives the painting a sense of structure. These contrasting elements – along with the depiction of an unobstructed view and his bold color palette, come together to form a psychological mirror, which reflects the liberation and contentment Matisse felt while staying on the Mediterranean coast, which the window was a portal to.

Moving forward to the present, windows have become a symbol synonymous with our built environment and have been used by artists to comment on urban decay. Fragments (2012) by Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan comprises a triptych of three window panes sealed shut, frosted and broken, with the paintwork of its wooden frame peeling.

Fragments 《碎片》(2012) oil on canvas, 132 x 150c,

Click for larger image – refer to pg 105/123

The patchwork of different textures and patterns of the window panes suggests human intervention before we, together with the artist, stumbled upon this particular window. Inspired by his time at Guizhou province, the window resembles the stained glass of churches — the result of dwellers filling the panes with scrap material to keep the rain out. As much as these windows protect the dwellers from the elements, they also prevent us from viewing the interior, imbuing the painting with a sense of secrecy. The clumsy attempts to mend the broken window also bring to mind the process of ageing that accompanies the passing of time, further emphasized by the life-sized windows which allows us to observe microscopic details of every element, as if we were peering through an actual window. While the window panes may be a patchwork of varied colors, on looking closer, they reveal mosaic-like patterns which reflect the concept of ‘repetition’ — a frequent occurrence in Yuan’s work.

A close-up of the work reveals Yuan’s skillful depiction of mosaic-like patterns on the glass panels

This concept of repetition is particularly pertinent, as Yuan believes it to be synonymous with the general principle of modern society, “a principle that consumes us and assimilates our living space”. The monotony and bleakness of our urban lives is thus manifest in this simple structure of a window that bears residual traces of human activity and histories despite the painting being devoid of man.

In its repeated appearances in art, this ubiquitous everyday element has come to be a poignant symbol used by artists in a variety of ways. Windows allow for illumination, but can also be sources of mystery by leaving us curious about what lies beyond them. Their transparency supports our attempts to engage with the world beyond our four walls, visually and emotionally, sometimes acting as a mirror to an artist’s emotional state. With the versatility of their appearances in works of art, it would not be an overstatement to say that the windows in art are windows to the world.

Next: for more works that draw on windows as a motif or theme, see the works of

  1. Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) 1912
  2. Agnes Martin‘s Window 1957 (also check out this blog post on Agnes Martin by Hannah Kettles, a fellow Student Ambassador)
  3. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Loverboy) 1989
  4. Banksy’s Window on the West Bank (2005)

I’m Constance Koh, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post.

La joie de vivre: The Top 10 List

The notion of joy in life has inspired philosophers, artists, and other thinkers since antiquity.

According to the nineteenth century French historian Jules Michelet la joie de vivre is a harmonious state, a peaceful existence within nature. In English, “the joy of living” is associated with all those things that make life worthwhile. Here are the best of those joyous depictions:

Joie de Vivre (Antipolis), Pablo Picasso, 1946.

In the year the Cubist Pablo Picasso painted this work, there was not much joy in postwar Europe. The artist himself was holed up in a tiny house on the French Riviera, but his time spent in the nearby museum-turned-studio Chateau Grimaldi spurred his creativity, resulting in a proliferation of works, including his “Joie de Vivre (Antipolis).”

Because his own reality was rather dreary, Picasso used his art to recall the mythical past, painting his lover Francoise Gilot in a dance with the fauns and satyrs, the half-horse, half-men of ancient Greek mythology.

Bonheur de Vivre, Henri Matisse, 1906.

Considered a cornerstone of early modernism, Henri Matisse’s “Bonheur de Vivre” celebrates life the Fauvist way: through brilliant color. The shifting scale of the nude subjects’ pastoral scene begs a closer look and reveals a radical experiment, in which the figures are painted as viewed by each other.

The painting was shocking to the art community for its style and to the general public for its content. Each figure is enjoying its life: nude, in nature, and wildly sensually. In 1908, Matisse said this depiction of hedonistic joy represented his dream for “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter” – a sentiment that was mocked by Picasso for its bourgeois attitude.

Joie de Vivre, Max Ernst, 1936.

Evoking the Northern Renaissance heritage of detailed foliage imagery, deep shadows, and woodcut-like forms, Max Ernst’s 1936 painting “Joie de Vivre” is titled ironically. A tangle of supersized vegetation dwarfs a statue and a fantastical animal, forming an eerie jungle rather than the expected pleasant and harmonious depiction of nature .

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La Joie de Vivre, Paul Delvaux, 1937.

One of the most provocative Surrealists of his time, who was even ousted by his Belgian contemporaries for painting too dreamily, Paul Delvaux creates a spirit in this work that in not particularly joyful. His uncanny scene is rooted in real images, though the relationship between figures is not easily defined, but obviously complex. The painting evokes a more psychological reflection on life’s joys.

Rythme, Joie de vivre, Robert Delaunay, 1930.

He may not have a household name, but Robert Delaunay is a star of modern art. His work celebrates both form and color, highlighting his dual influences from Cubism and Fauvism. His works were such a singular achievement that they were given their own art historical style, Orphism, and admired by many, including Paul Klee, August Macke, and Franz Marc of Der Blaue Reiter. His vibrant abstract works like this “Rythme, Joie de Vivre” from 1930 show a mix of cool and warm colors in a dynamic geometric arrangement.

Au Temps d’Harmonie (La Joie de Vivre – Dimanche au Bord de la Mer), Paul Signac, 1895-96.

This idyllic image by one of the founders of Pointillism (another is Georges Seurat) is an unironic depiction of scenes of the good life by the sea. Signac describes the work in a 1893 letter to fellow Neo-Impressionist Henri-Edmound Cross:

“Great news! On your advice, I’m going to try a large canvas!… In the foreground, a group at rest… man, woman, child… under a large pine an old man tells stories to the young kids… on a hillside… the harvest: the machines smoke, work, lessen the drudgery: and around the haystacks… a farandole of harvesters… in the center, a young couple: free love!”

Joie de Vivre, Mark di Suervo, 1998.

Mark di Suervo’s New York City sculpture from 1998 proves that the original concept of the joy of living still inspires in the contemporary era. The 70-foot-tall work is made of two interlocking, red L-beams, which both reach up to the sky and down to the ground. In 2011, the sculpture was famously adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement as a symbol of the proletariat protests in the plaza where it stands.

Joie de Vivre, Kees van Dongen, 1922.

Kees van Dongen depicts life at its fullest during the happening scenes of a social gathering. Using Fauvist color to denote sensual details – the green of a woman’s eyes and cleavage, the blush of a couple getting close – the Dutch-French painter was no stranger to the controversy his paintings caused. He along with Henri Matisse and others, exhibited at the provocative 1905 Salon d’Automne, which was a counter-exhibit to the official Paris Salon.

Joie de Vivre, Jacques Lipchitz, 1927.

A Cubist sculptor who ran in the same circle as Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz created his “Joie de Vivre” as a pivotal point in his artistic career. The bronze work from 1927 is looser, more curvaceous that the typical tight angles of Cubism and marks a changing style in its exploration of joy through more organic forms.

Oleanders, Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Oleanders” is little more than a brightly colored floral still life at first glace. But a surprise is hidden in plain sight. On the table the artist has painted Émile Zola’s novel La joie de vivre (1883). The novel is ironically titled as its bleak story revolves around a child who has lost her parents. For van Gogh, oleander flowers with their hearty nature and plentiful blooms were the physical juxtaposition of Zola’s idea of life – a joyless entity driven by undeserved fate.

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