After a couple of years where we spent much of our time indoors staring through windows at the world outside, there’s an exhibition all based on an iconic motif of the art world – the woman looking out of a window.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Gallery goes beyond simply collecting a load of paintings, but explains why paintings of a woman looking out of a window are so popular, what they mean — and destroys a myth that it’s all because of the Dutch.

The “woman in the window” is an artistic motif that shows a woman enclosed within a window, often suggesting idealisation, protection, or confinement. Often the women sitters are anonymous and their meaning ambiguous. The style is widely said to have been created by Dutch artists, particularly Rembrandt, but this exhibition opens with a carved ivory panel from Nimrod, in modern-day Iraq, dating from around 900-700 BCE.

There’s also a limestone sculpture of Saint Avia looking out from a barred window – she was imprisoned for her Christian beliefs and sustained by the Virgin Mary who brought her bread kneaded by angels.

The none too subtle message is that the woman in the window has been around since antiquity.

Part of the reason why so many people think the style was invented by the Dutch is that it fell out of favour, with a strong aversion to gazing at people — Saint Augustine warned against the “lust of the eyes” as it could lead to sinful thoughts. Only the Virgin Mary was so far above sin as to be seen in a window. Probably one of the most famous women in the window is Rapunzel, who let out her long hair for a gallant knight to climb up, but in the German story, she is simply hair hanging out of the window, and the woman remains unseen.

The exhibition, therefore, is mainly 15th-century onwards, with a wide exploration of the theme, from maidens to crones all pictured in close proximity to that iconic window. Historically, most paintings of a woman at a window were by men, for men, but in recent years the style has been taken apart by women artists and reimagined.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the genre, and not always appealingly, such as Tom Hunter’s photograph of a young mother at a window using the light to read her eviction notice.

As an exhibition, it’s a fascinating look at a genre of art that you may have seen many times without realising it’s a specific style, or seen many times but not known about its antique origins. It’s well laid out, with the explanatory cards being written in understandable English, a rarity in some art galleries, and leaves you with a better understanding of the style and the meanings in the paintings.

The exhibition, Reframed: The Woman in the Window is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4th September.

Advance book is advised – with tickets available from here.


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