Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, where we are least alone.

(Lord Byron)

She is on her own. She may be reading (a book, or a letter), or sewing, or she may be gazing at the outside world. A portrait of loneliness, longing, or solitude. Oneness. Completeness.

Painters love windows: the light floods into a room, ripples on a wall, diffused by a muslin curtain, partially blocked by a thick velvet drapery, changing the dynamic of the composition. And artists always liked to paint women; the symbolism of the window is reinforced by the young woman standing there, her dress, her pose, her relationship with the interior she inhabits and to the outside world, in which she does not belong. The theme of the woman by the window offers not just another perspective, but a multitude of visual interpretations.

On the canvas, the window provides a geometric structure to include into the painting, or to contrast with the asymmetrical, soft curves of a woman’s body and garments. We often see the woman leaning on the window sill, gazing at us from the safety of its frame, while we look back at her from outside. But I prefer the painting where I am in the room with the woman, and the painter, looking together through the window towards a larger world.

A world of interiors

Like many Vermeer paintings during this time, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-59) depicts a corner of a large room, illuminated by a window on the left-hand side of the composition. There is nothing on the other side of the open window, except daylight, generously thrown into the room. In the girl’s elaborate styled hair sparkling beads of light like so many little stars, a shower of tiny jewels. Her delicate profile is bent towards the letter she is holding, which absorbs her attention entirely. We are in no doubt the letter is from a lover, and the viewer is invited to feel the melancholy of his absence. The pane window, opening inward, throws a pale shadow onto the bare wall and reflects the face of the girl, giving us another viewpoint to her fine features. Like in many Vermeer (and other contemporary Dutch) paintings, a large drapery on the right foreground guides the gaze into the composition. The green of the drapery echoes the colour of the girl’s sleeve, so that the eye follows it to the hand and the letter she is reading. Although invited in by the repoussoir, we are excluded. The small figure in the lower centre of the canvas is, and wishes to remain, alone.

Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich is no stranger to solitude. His best-known painting Wandered Above Sea Fog speaks of self-absorption, melancholy, meditation. His Woman at a Window (1822) lives in a constricted environment, she became part of this interior – the green walls, the green shutters, her green dress, borrowing the colours. The painting is symmetrical, the gaze is directed towards the woman’s back in the centre, and to the sky beyond. There is nothing else in the room, except the walls and the window. The interior is stark, like a prison cell. Life is on the other side of this window. The trees slightly shivering in the breeze, the blue sky, the boats on the Elbe slowly passing by, like her own life passing her by.

If the Romantic painting suggested confinement, the Pre-Raphaelite Evelyn de Morgan likes to link it to the imprisonment of the soul inside the body. Her 1907 Prisoner is a young woman, beautifully dressed and impeccably coiffed. The window she sits by is barred, and her wrists are shackled. The chain of the shackle is linked to a gold bracelet. The woman looks yearningly towards the landscape and the blue skies that can be glanced through the window. Is that a golden cage? Her blue dress seems quite luxurious (featuring a peacock plume as a symbol of eternity) and the prison cell is adorned with a scarlet decorated drapery. But the woman looks yearningly towards the landscape and the blue skies that can be glanced through the window.

The freedom beyond

Edvard Munch’s Girl by the Window (1893) finds herself in a different kind of interior: deep shadows, walls and floor slanting at unexpected angles create an atmosphere of disquiet and anxiety. It is night-time, the contours are blurred, the shades of blue and lavender swim into each other. Through the window, street light throws two squares of light onto the red/brown floor, on which the girl is standing barefoot, wearing a nightdress. A sense of mystery floats in the room, coupled with an unsettling feeling of anticipation.

By contrast, Munch’s compatriot Hans Heyerdahl has painted a young woman At the Window in a peaceful and serene pose. Having allowed the book she was reading to fall on her lap, the girl opted instead to observe dreamily the landscape beyond the open window. The blue dress is simple enough, but the C-line of the girl’s body encased in the dress direct the gaze towards the elaborate iron railing on which the girl’s elbow rests.

The women in Jozef Israëls paintings carry on with their daily tasks – they saw, they spin, they peel apples, they nurse their baby – by the window. But at times they allow themselves a moment of rest, setting aside their work and letting their mind wander in a dream of life beyond this window.

The woman’s reality of enclosure, confinement in the room often contrasts with the endless possibilities of the outside world, of which she can only dream.

The view towards the sea is soothing and full of visual emotional potential. The girls in Matisse’s paintings are an excuse to look out towards the beach in Nice; Dali’s sister Ana Maria is seen from behind in front of a window at Cadaques. The body of the 1925 painting Young Woman at Window appears to be naked under the soft fabric of her pale blue dress. The window frame and pulled curtain are also blue, as is the sea and sky beyond – yet there are so many colours in this apparently simple painting. The girl’s relaxed pose, her wavy hair echoing the wave of the sea is observed with warmth and affection.

For many of the young women portrayed, the view beyond the window represents a wide, wild world they yearn to experience. Although alone, they are not sad or lonely. They find freedom in their solitude. In the words of Hannah Arendt “solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company”. Where oneness is completeness.