The Open Door 2: paintings from 1890

Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), The Operations Room (1942), graphite and watercolour on paper, 50.3 x 55.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles looking at paintings which show views of the world outside through open doors and similar, I showed works from Jan van Eyck in 1435 to Gustave Caillebotte and Émile Claus in the 1880s. Since then, this theme has grown in popularity.

In her earlier work, the Norwegian artist Harriet Backer developed interior scenes lit by sunlight streaming in through windows. In 1887, she painted a similar interior with an open door, in her Farm Interior, Skotta in Bærum. Five years later, she painted the canonical example which was to influence others, Christening in Tanum Church (1892).

Harriet Backer (1845–1932), Barnedåp i Tanum Kirke (Christening in Tanum Church) (1892), oil on canvas, 109 x 142 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Backer places the viewer inside the church, looking both outward and inward. The left of the canvas takes the eye deep, through the heavy church door to the outside world, where the mother is bringing her child in for their baptism. The rich green light of that outside world colours the door and its wood panelling, and the floorboards and perspective projection draw the baptismal party in.

At the right, two women are sat in an enclosed stall waiting for the arrival of the party. One has turned and partly opened the door to their stall in her effort to look out and see them enter church. Backer controls the level of detail and looseness to brilliant effect, ensuring that we always see just what she wants us to, enough to bring the image to life, but never so much that the eye is lost in the irrelevant.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852–1909), At the Doorway (1898), oil on panel, 45.7 × 22.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Although now even more forgotten than her husband Lawrence, Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema painted some fine domestic interiors. At the Doorway (1898) is an unusually static scene, in which there is odd ambivalence in the image seen behind the standing woman: it appears to be the reflection on dark, glazed tiles of the garden outside, rather than any image formed by the tiles themselves.

The woman leans against a solid and heavy wooden door which opens into what must be a porch, with the reflection on the tiles showing an eerie image of the world beyond. Is she about to walk into the porch, pulling the door closed behind her?

Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928), By the Open Door (before 1911), oil on canvas, 87 x 110 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Another Norwegian artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is Nikolai Astrup, who today is assumed to have ‘naturalist naïvist’ style. By the Open Door (before 1911) is an unusual painting for Astrup, and reveals his considerable technical skill acquired from training in Oslo, Paris and Berlin. Around the turn of the century, Astrup had been a student at Harriet Backer’s painting school in Oslo. This painting frames a landscape painting within an interior, and features two figures and some tricky reflections on the glass of the door. I’m sure his former teacher was most impressed.

Its two women look away from the interior, staring into the green countryside beyond the doorway, as if waiting for someone to arrive.

Bemberg Fondation - La Table de la mer, Villefranche-sur-Mer 1920 - Henri Le sidaner  61.4x50.2
Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939), Table of the Sea, Villefranche-sur-Mer (1920), oil on canvas, 61.4 x 50.2 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like several other artists in the early twentieth century, Henri Le Sidaner visited the Mediterranean coast of France. When there in 1920, he took the opportunity to paint this view of Table of the Sea, Villefranche-sur-Mer, one of his many works showing deserted laid-up tables. This table is laid for one, and beyond its balcony is a small bay. His marks are coarse, some consisting of quite thick daubs of paint, suggesting that this was more of a sketch than most of his other tables.

Of all the artists I’ve shown in these two articles, the one who must have painted more windows than all the rest put together is Pierre Bonnard. Here are two examples where he turned to doors instead.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The French Windows with Dog (1927), oil on canvas, 107.3 x 63.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The ‘French window’ doors leading out onto the balcony of Bonnard’s villa in Le Cannet form an excellent frame for The French Windows with Dog (1927), with its fragmented glimpses of the town below.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Open Door (c 1937), media not known, 126.1 x 71.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

A decade later, The Open Door (c 1937) looks out through the frame of French windows to a table which has escaped into the landscape, and dazzles against the brilliant blossom beyond. Could this be a glimpse of eternity?

My final examples come from a British illustrator and painter whose life was tragically cut short by the Second World War, Eric Ravilious. He developed some unusual themes, painting a whole series of small, unoccupied bedrooms, for instance, and often incorporated landscape views through windows. Among his best-known works is a view of chalk downs through the windows and (closed) door of a railway carriage.

Eric Ravilious, Interior at Furlongs (1939), watercolour and pencil on paper, 45.8 x 54.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), Interior at Furlongs (1939), watercolour and pencil on paper, 45.8 x 54.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Ravilious’s watercolour Interior at Furlongs (1939) has the appearance, and many of the traits of, a print, and combines its interior view of a largely empty room in a cottage, with two embedded landscapes, one through the open door, the other through a closed window. The landscape shown is that of the South Downs in East Sussex, Furlongs being a cottage owned by the artist’s friend Peggy Angus. The fragmented view shows woods, a distant hut or cottage, and golden fields of grain crops, so would have been painted in the late summer, at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ravilious’s landscape (and cottage) is empty, the only sign of life being a coat hung on a hook on the back of the door. In its way, it is as eerie and foreboding as the more overtly visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer, which were also painted in Kent.

Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), The Operations Room (1942), graphite and watercolour on paper, 50.3 x 55.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

As an official War Artist, Ravilious later painted enigmatic interiors in military sites. Among those is The Operations Room (1942), showing an air station in the south of England. This hut was the centre for direction of flying operations in the air station, and normally bustling with staff and visiting aircrew, yet for Ravilious it’s as deserted as the Mary Celeste.

Through the open door, bleached in sunlight, is one of the station’s aircraft. Soon after he had painted this, Ravilious flew to Iceland, where he chose to join the crew of one of three aircraft sent to search for a missing plane. His aircraft also went missing, and failed to return.

Early depictions of open doors used them primarily as a device for incorporating a landscape in a religious or allegorical painting. From the early nineteenth century their intrinsic meaning grew to reach a peak in Harriet Backer’s Christening in Tanum Church. Since then, views looking through open doors have remained sophisticated, and merit careful reading.

They’re also a good example of the compression of dynamic range of brightness. Try taking a photo of a similar scene, and you’ll see how artists have lightened the interior and darkened the exterior so that their values remain within the range they can paint. Even Ravilious’s bleached Operations Room understates the contrast seen in real life and light.