So much depends upon sunlight and vines on a white wall

This painting by Denmark’s Martinus Rorbye captures an extended moment of Zen-like stillness

Such a simple, sober, sunlit painting! It’s in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and it’s by Martinus Rorbye, a well-traveled but relatively short-lived (1803-1848) 19th century painter from Denmark. It shows the wall of a Danish inn, half-covered in vines. The leaves cast shadows against the white wall. There’s an iron ring where a horse could be tethered. Off to the right, curiously cropped, is a bench with a footrest. In the foreground, besides some scattered dead leaves, are two pairs of tidily aligned shoes.

The overall impression is of a neatness that, in characteristic Scandinavian fashion, falls on just the right side of obsessiveness. That goes for the way the paint is worked, too. We know that homes that are neurotically tidy can feel unwelcoming; Rorbye’s brushwork, though wonderfully deft, is never too fastidious. His touch is subtly musical. He lets chance variations in thickness, direction and transparency convey the uneven textures of the wall; the life in the fibrous, twisting leaves; the delicate play of shadow and light.

Rorbye was for six years a student of Christoffer Eckersberg (1783-1853), a painter whose poetic realism spawned a generation subsequently hailed as begetters of a Danish Golden Age (1814-1848). Eckersberg revolutionized training in the academy, persuading his students to pursue direct observation of everyday settings and a disinterested, almost scientific fidelity to natural light. Rorbye then traveled to Paris and Rome, Athens and Constantinople.

Photography was a recent invention in 1844 when Rorbye painted this inn (in oils on paper laid on canvas), but there’s something almost photographic about it — an evenness of attention, a clarity of light and shadow and a sense of cool observation released from any rhetorical function that all call to mind the 20th century photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Robert Adams. The seemingly out-of-focus strips on the left, like the chance effect of a lens, reinforce the impression.

You could dwell on the sunlit exterior forever. But it’s not just an exterior scene, is it? The door with its arched and weathered wooden frame opens onto a dark interior, and — through a far window — a second exterior.

What’s curious, to my eyes, is the shape covering part of the far window. At first glance, it could be a figure, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s views showing people looking out windows, seen from behind. Scores of European painters, inspired by Friedrich, were painting “rooms with views” during this period. Rorbye himself had painted a view of Copenhagen’s harbor through the window of his parents’ home two decades earlier.

But closer inspection suggests that it’s probably not a figure. It’s a hanging coat, disembodied, or maybe even some kind of blanket or curtain. It’s echoed on the left by another dark coat and a reddish-brown scarf hanging behind the open door. Signs of humans, both. But the entire painting is otherwise unpopulated, and Rorbye’s rendering is so unprejudiced, so tenderly disinterested, that it feels unviolated by the raging, maudlin mess that is human subjectivity.

“So much depends,” wrote William Carlos Williams in his great paean to humble beauty, “upon/ a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens.”

This painting sends a similar sense of the sacred everyday straight to my bloodstream. When I see it surrounded by trumpeting, gilt-framed masterpieces, I breathe differently. My pulse slows. And I feel briefly like a cat — like a creature who knows (and who doesn’t need to be told) how to sit on its own shadow under a radiant sun.

Entrance to an Inn in the Praestegarden at Hillested, 1844
Martinus Rorbye (b. 1803). At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.