Two paintings with latent symbolism
Holsøe and Gérôme
Works of art are multivalent; once they are made public, their meaning, significance, and interpretation are out of the artist’s control. I don’t know if the artists who made these two pictures would agree with my interpretations, but this is what I see in them.
Interior With a Woman Reading (Carl Holsøe, 1909)
Carl Holsøe was a minor Danish painter who worked in the decades surrounding the end of the nineteenth century. His paintings are almost entirely of interiors, although he did create some landscapes and still lifes. Sometimes his interiors seem like still lifes zoomed out. His paintings frequently reference the stable placidity of Vermeer’s domestic scenes; they also foreshadow the quiet tension of Edward Hopper, and venture into the daringly evocative territory mined with frequency by Andrew Wyeth some generations later.1
I don’t know if Holsøe ever indicated any programmatic or symbolic meaning to his paintings, but it is not hard to attribute meanings to his carefully selected dioramas of domesticity. In the above painting, my attention is drawn to how the young woman is deliberately turned away from the piano and the large painting on the wall to facilitate her reading by the light of the window. What does this mean? There is a candlestick on the table, but no candle; she would rather read by natural, not artificial, light.
I first saw this painting on Twitter with the caption “Literature is the cure for your soul.” If this painting is about the curing of souls, is it significant that the young woman has rejected music and the visual arts as she seeks that cure? Music cannot speak propositionally. Neither can pictures. It is profoundly significant that the Bible is a work of literature, not a collection of paintings or a sound recording; certainly these arts have something to say to religion but only as a reflection of what has already been written down. And when the woman in Holsøe’s painting rejects artificial illumination and instead uses the light streaming in from her window—at once the light of nature, and the given light of God—she is turning to the original source of her literature’s curative powers. Like the plants in the window, she needs The Light. Don’t we all?
The Carpet Merchant of Cairo (Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1887)
This painting has been one of my favorites since I first saw it in the Spring 2009 issue of Cabinet illustrating an article about the art of haggling. Gérôme was one of the most respected of the French academicians, and a great enemy of impressionism. His pictures have been accused of lacking coherence or a sense of composition,2 but I don’t agree.
There is a whole philosophy of family relations, stewardship, and succession inherent in this painting of an average day at the rug market. A group of customers is intently discussing the merchandise, while the merchant waits expectantly for their verdict. Several other rugs, strewn on the floor, have already been viewed and discarded; this shopping trip has been going on for a while. The merchant’s employees are waiting in the balcony to haul up the next potential item of sale. The customers—most likely, a patriarch of a wealthy family and his sons—are deep in serious discussion. The patriarch’s grandson stands well in front of the group, overawed by the merchandise; this is probably his first time going out on one of these shopping trips.
What does this painting say about intergenerational relationships and stewardship? Obviously, for these people, buying a new rug is no small matter. They are people of means and can afford to buy the best for their house. Why has the patriarch brought such a retinue with him to the market? Because he values the opinion of his sons, who will most likely inherit this rug—it will take on the status of a family heirloom, a valuable investment.3 Why is he so obviously concerned about their opinion? Because he considers his wealth to be, not his to dispose of as he wills, but belonging to his family—as much his sons’ wealth as his own. His obligation to steward that wealth with care is an obligation, not only to his sons, but to his ancestors as well. I can imagine that this family has carefully built up their wealth through prudent investment and concern for the past as well as the future.
Gérôme captures the mood of the central group with his typical mastery; even though we can't see the eyes of anyone, we can read their thoughts and attitudes from their body language. The patriarch is taking this responsibility with great seriousness—his facial expression, and the gestures of his hands, indicate that he is very emotionally invested in this particular discussion; the sons listen deferentially to their father while also examining the carpet in question. I have no doubt that whichever carpet this family finally takes home will be treated with the respect, love, and care that such a work of art requires.
In Art, Style, and History by Jon D. Longaker.