de Witte, Emanuel: Interior with a Woman at the Clavichord (c.1665)

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About the artist

An image never alters; it goes on the same forever. In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn", John Keats makes much of this. He contemplates a classical marble pot. Carved on it are scenes of trees in springtime and music and dancing and sexual pursuit. But because this world is depicted in an unchanging image, Keats imagines it as in a permanently unchanging state - which could be a blessed state, compared to mortal human life:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! More happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,

For ever panting, and for ever young...

The fixed image fixes life eternally; that's the general idea. Notice a couple of points, though. The figures on the pot are, of course, static. But the unchanging world that Keats imagines isn't precisely stationary. He doesn't describe it as frozen, stopped in its tracks. It is an animated world. Music is being played. A man is chasing a woman. Things and people are going on. It's just that they're going on and on in the same way forever - not on hold, but as if on an endless loop.

And when Keats conjures up this scene that goes on forever, he chooses its human contents and actions carefully. Pipe-playing and running are activities that can - in principle - just go on indefinitely and unchangingly. But contrast the next verse, where, in another part of the pot, we meet a priest leading a sacri-ficial heifer to the altar. Keats doesn't stress that this episode too will go on forever (although presumably it's caught in the same time-warp as the rest of the pot world).

It has the wrong kind of action. Piping and running are continuous processes, but animal sacrifice is an event with a before and an after. Put it on a loop, and the beast must die (and return to life and die) again and again and again. That wouldn't convey an idea of eternal unchangingness. It would be an endless, infernal repeat.

Some of the things we do are events. They involve a turning point. If they were all we ever did, they would happen over and over again. Other things we do are ongoing activities. They can be sustained for as long as you like (or can manage). If they were all we did, they would just go on and on. When he's emphasising "for ever", it's these continuous sorts of activity that Keats dwells on. And pictures may do likewise.

Emanuel de Witte's painting Interior with a Woman at the Clavichord could hardly be further from Keats's urn. Instead of an outdoor, Mediterranean, mythological world, it's a bourgeois Dutch household we're looking into. A cool northern light streams through the tall windows to stripe the tiled floor. Room leads into room. Doorway frames doorway. But the emphasis again is on continuousness, on things that go on unchangingly, just as the picture itself goes on.

However, the scene isn't quite static. Music is being played. In the nearest room, a woman sits at a clavichord. Music is a classic case of steady, sustainable human activity. But the player has her back turned to us, and we can't see her fingers. Her movement is implied rather than shown. So what you see is not just ongoing activity but imperceptible motion. It's the kind of motion that would look much the same in a still or in a moving image. It allows you to feel that the still image is actually in motion - that the music goes on as the picture goes on.

There's another thing about this musician. She sits in shadow. And when you first look at the picture, you quite possibly don't notice her. Your attention is drawn by the dramatic perspectival corridor of light-fall. Then, after a while, you do notice the clavichord and its player, and you get an extra feeling of ongoingness. You see that the musician has been there, playing, all along. All the time that you were looking at the picture without being aware of it, she was there accompanying your looking.

Or turn back to the lighting. If you think about it, the picture does in fact show something rather momentary. If you lived in this house, you would be aware that there was only a brief time in the day when the bars of window-light lined up exactly parallel to the layout of the floor tiles. (A time that changed, with the changing seasons.) This event is what the picture shows.

But, looking at the picture, you don't see it in that eventful kind of way. The parallel bars of light have the opposite effect. They make you conscious of the steady flow of the light as it pours in through window after window, and of the steadily receding procession of rooms into which the light falls.

Maybe there's also a subliminal simile between the row of bright oblongs on the black-and-white squared floor and the keyboard of the clavichord, or the notes that are being played. Certainly, when you notice the clavichord, you see the rooms as a succession of echo-chambers, through which the music sounds - sound and light, both passing steadily through space.

And in the distance, there's a counterpoint, a further accompaniment, in the labour of the housemaid with her broom. It's another continuous and rhythmical activity. She is sweeping the floor, the floor on which the light falls, and sweeping in a direction that's parallel with the light, and sweeping perhaps in some sort of time to the music.

The light, the music, the rooms, the playing, the sweeping, and the picture itself as it hangs on the wall - all going on and on.

About the artist

Emanuel de Witte (1615-91) is another of those clear-sighted Dutchmen, a contemporary of Vermeer and de Hooch, but unlike them he didn't stick in the home. (The picture above is quite atypical.) He was a generalist artist, doing portraits, history paintings, marine scenes and, chiefly, the interiors of churches.

These are usually quite imaginary churches, exercises in mood as much as architecture, complex overlays of arches and pillars and organ pipes, darkened with atmospheric gulfs of shadow. He also did markets, with hearty traders and slimy fish. He was often in debt, and his longish life appears to have been ended by suicide.

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