Windows on the past: Watercolors of long-vanished houses and gardens

It is true that Praz’s idiosyncratic and personal approach can make his book frustrating as a reference work (just try to find a succinct definition of terms such as lit à la Polonaise or boiseries), but there is no denying that he blazed trails. Later scholars may have become more empirical in their use of these images as evidence, but they all pay homage to the territory Praz first mapped.12 He was the first to see these paintings as primary documents of the taste and mores of previous generations, not just as beautiful objects, but as epistles dispatched more or less directly from the past. Praz was not interested in simply tracing the evolution of painting styles or of various furniture types, though he does do both, and he didn’t just use them as visual inventories of great houses. Instead, he wanted to get at the root of what would become the bourgeois domestic mood, or Stimmung, to use his word, of the nineteenth century.

We can all get lost in the contemplation of these pictures. In Praz’s imagination, these “crystalline” rooms seem “to be waiting for human inhabitants.”13 The viewer can almost hear the instruments about to be played,14 or the receding echo of a footstep far down a hallway glimpsed through an open door.15 Of another painting that captures sunlight beaming through the windows, he wrote that “you cannot help gazing at this shaft of sunlight as though it were bound to change its position, little by little, on the wall in company with the gradual movement of the hands of the clock as it chimes beneath its glass bell on the dressing-table.”16 Praz always emphasized the experiential and emotional ellipses in these pictures—the sounds, smells, textures, and partial views that inspire viewers to imagine themselves in these spaces, so, it seems only fitting to give him the last word:

if one could stretch out a hand into the strip of light that falls on the floor, one could feel its warmth. These watercolors so accurately preserve the taste of that age that you would almost say the doors and windows depicted in them have never been opened since then, and that we breathe the spirit still enclosed there like—the comparison is perhaps overworked, but it is certainly appropriate here—the scent of perfume that lingers in an ancient phial.17

1 Quoted in Kimberly Stevens, “Picture, Picture on the Wall…,” New York Times, February 21, 2008.
2 Mario Praz, The House of Life, trans. Angus Davidson (Oxford University Press, New York, 1964), p. 287.
3 On the Frick Collection exhibition, see Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth Century Interiors: An Album of Watercolors (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992).
4 For the most complete profile of Thaw’s work and donations, see the series of interviews by Steven M. L. Aronson published in several issues of Architectural Digest (April, May, September, and December 2006; April and June 2007; and January, March, June, and August 2008).
5 Charles Plante Fine Arts is at 50 Gloucester Street, London;
6 Mario Praz, An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau, trans. William Weaver (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1982), p. 38 [first published in English as An Illustrated History of Furnishing, from the Renaissance to the 20th Century, trans. William Weaver (George Braziller, New York, 1964)].
7 John Richardson, “Commentary: The Obsessions of Mario Praz” House and Garden (January 1983).
8 Michael Levey, “Spoils,” New York Review of Books, vol. 3, no. 9 (December 17, 1964).
9 Edmund Wilson, “The Genie of the Via Giulia,” New Yorker, February 20, 1965, p. 152.
10 Hugh Honour, “From the House of Life,” New York Review of Books, vol. 30, no. 3 (March 3, 1983).
11 David Watkin, “The Psychology of the Interior View,” in Inside Out: Historic Watercolour Drawings, Oil Sketches, and Paintings of Interiors and Exteriors, 1770–1870 (Charles Plante Fine Arts and Stair and Company, London, 2000), p. 4.
12 See, for example, Peter Thornton, Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620–1920 (Viking, New York, 1984); Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth-Century Decoration: The Art of the Interior (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1989); and Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance, ed. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant (V&A Publications, London, 2006).
13 Praz, The House of Life, p. 259.
14 Mario Praz, “Genre Painting and the Novel,” introduction to The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, trans. Angus Davidson (Oxford University Press, London and New York, 1969), p. 4.
15 Ibid, p. 5.
16 Praz, The House of Life, p. 290.
17 Praz, An Illustrated History, p. 38; also The House of Life, p. 288.

SHAX RIEGLER is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York City, specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century decorative arts.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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