Two Women at a Window tells a story within a natural frame. It’s the tale of two specific women. But the story also speaks of the two sides all women have. The window itself provides a deep, dark background for Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s story. He includes the shutter as an apt symbol as well. It represents the borders and traps these two, and all women, must face. Notice how the nanny holds the shutter with one hand. That’s because she accepts life’s limitations – embraces them even. No matter the boundaries, this woman laughs. She still sees joy around her, despite life’s limits.
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Her charge, the young girl at the heart of the painting, represents the opposite. She’s got an ironic detachment from the darkness at her back. Her facial expression registers complete freedom from care. She’s engrossed in what she sees. After all, the governess at her side handles all other matters. She’s cared for. The smile she shares seems unaffected, lost in the moment. This young woman still wears bows; one in her hair and another decorates her dress. Although young and naive, she’s also the emotional center of the portrait.
Her nanny’s eyes twinkle with a knowing giggle. This mirth’s a bit sardonic. But she’s not mocking the young woman. We can see the warmth between them. She cares for her charge. That caring includes the wisdom of foresight. So, this nanny represents the wise side of all women. She’s the part of us that sees what’s coming. While the younger woman reveals a sense of wonder and awe. It’s the thrill of excitement at what may be possible that we see in the young woman’s face. The Two Women at a Window are each beautiful and real in their own way. But it’s the relationship between them that makes this painting a masterpiece.
Lighting the Knowing & the Naive
This painting’s charm comes from its natural vibe and sense of familiarity. We’ve all looked out at the world with the expression of this young woman in bows. Her naiveté registers to us without judgement. She’s sweet without guile. A shine dances atop her hair as if she’s lit with innocence. Her shoulders also glow with the bright sunshine from outside. The world before her emanates hope and potential. Meanwhile her face shows mere contentment. The painting’s true laughter actually comes from behind her, where darkness also looms.
We see the young woman in bows first. That’s because she graces Two Women at a Window‘s sunny foreground. But most of the painting is quite dark; at least color-wise. In fact, this masterpiece shows a fine balance between color and emotion. Its background sets a deep pitch backdrop behind the seemingly spotlit young woman. We see her with such clarity thanks to Murillo’s careful lighting. He highlights the wide-eyed youth with a sunbeam. She’s the centerpiece of the painting’s story.
But hedged in the shutter’s shadow, her duenna also plays an important role. Duenna were family nannies in Spain. This job often shifted into a chaperone role as their charges grew up in those days. Two Women at a Window’s dated circa 1655-60. Many young women had a duenna until marriage as a protective measure. We see this painting’s duenna protecting her charge. She covers her laughter in case the sunlit young woman might turn around and see her.
This is one of the ways we know the older woman cares for the younger. It’s clear she’s laughing thanks to her crinkled eyes and rounded cheeks. But she protects her charge from certain knowledge of this. The darkness where the chaperone stands represents the past. That’s when she learned about the world. It looms behind both of them, like a dark wisdom dropcloth. This deep color also contrasts with the young woman, glistening in today’s sunlight.
So, Spanish Painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo uses light for more than painterly purposes here. He’s telling a deeper story. That’s why Two Women at a Window works so well. It’s not only about light and shadow or young versus old. We can see the connection between these women. They’re not at opposite ends of a spectrum. This is a close, loving connection. Their arms, clad in similar cloth, meet – nanny’s elbow to her charge’s shoulder.
These two share the moment together. Though they experience it from different points of view. In fact, the window frame around them shows they’re boxed in as a tight pair. The duanna knows what’s up for her young charge because it parallels her own experience. It’s a warm and caring piece; we see joy in their connection. The older woman knows not only what the young one doesn’t in her naiveté. She’s also confident that her charge will be OK. It’s her job to make sure of that. Thus, she laughs.
Two Women at a Window – FAQs
Where can I see Two Women at a Window in person?
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. houses this masterpiece as of this writing in 2020. As warm and wonderful as this painting seems here, it’s ten times that in person. The painting’s about four feet tall and feels like looking into a real window at these two life-size lovely women. Unfortunately, it’s not on view at present. But the National Gallery of Art’s still well worth a visit. Check it out online for many masterpiece reasons why.
What was Spanish Painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo known for?
Murillo was a famous painter in Seville, Spain during his lifetime. That was from 1617 until 1682. Religious subjects were his career bread and butter, especially early on. Two Women at a Window sits right at the middle of his life’s work. It was at this career point when Murillo started his characteristic sfumato style. He thus became quite a popular painter. Many of his clients were among the Dutch and Flemish Sevillian merchants. They had quite high artistic standards.
What is the sfumato manner of painting?
In English the Italian word sfumato means “fume” or “smoke”. It refers to subtle shading techniques in painting. We see some of this method of non-linear gradation in paintings like Two Women at a Window. It’s especially useful for painters in transitions between light and dark areas. Many wondrous illusions in paint are thanks to this technique. But it’s also been handy for realism and atmosphere through centuries of fine art.
What is surprising about the painting Two Women at a Window by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo?
This masterpiece was cleaned and stabilized more than 300 years after its creation. The restorers found a hidden surprise within its layers of paint. The bottom window ledge is painted on a separate piece of fabric from the canvas. Turns out Murillo added a 9cm layer using a different type of fabric. With this he created the ridge where the younger girl rests her arm and elbow. It’s often noted that Two Women at a Window‘s painted frame mimics an actual one. Now we know Murillo helped create this illusion with a fabric layer.