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Picturing a World

Inside Looking Out

I had never seen a reproduction of Kitty Kielland’s Paris Interior until I read the catalogue for Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900. Now I can hardly wait to see it, first and foremost because it represents the life of a young woman artist, the life explored in Where the Light Falls. Second because I love pictures of views out windows (in fact, I love real views framed by real windows). And third because of the samovar.

My mother inherited the real Jeanette’s brass samovar, and we treasured it for its exotic sophistication.

All of these elements could be explored in an essay way too long to hold your interest, but let me touch on a few, especially as they relate to Caillebotte’s Young Man at the Window. Kielland invites us to dwell on the beautifully laden table, which speaks of the comfort of a sufficiently ample, bourgeois, domestic life. We catch a glimpse of golden-toned Paris and the modest balcony that allows the young woman to step out while staying safely within the domestic orbit; but they don’t imply a longing for escape, perhaps instead satisfaction.

Caillebotte takes our eyes out past the more imposing balustrade to the white-lit street in modern Paris. More wealth is implied by the balustrade, the carpet, the chair; but the man’s spread legs and hands in pockets imply no interest in what is behind him, only in what he sees. Caillebotte has us look squarely at his back and through him to an almost alienated scene. If either figure is dissatisfied, he’s the one.

Note how the woman, who is only a secondary presence in Kielland’s painting, is reading a book. Now follow the angle of gaze of Caillbotte’s figure: he is looking at that small female figure on the street. There is a muted tension, perhaps even an implied story in his painting. These two quiet pictures, so superficially similar in motif, bring up possibilities for all kinds of narratives—not to be ascribed to the artists, necessarily, but well within the realm of inspiration for a writer.

For another Caillebotte, one with a woman at a window beside a man seated in a chair, click here.

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