…continued from Structural Analysis (1).

Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:

  • Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so

3. FORMAL  – Women reading possession order, Tom Hunter, 1997

Hunter’s image is described on the Saatchi Gallery website as giving his outsiders a “visible presence and quiet nobility.” (2016) The image also prompts viewers to question assumptions about our relationship with the notion of ownership. In order to deconstruct it, it is necessary to look closely at the painting the photograph is based on.

  • Formal portrait with direct reference to Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, approximately 1957/59.


  • Woman standing reading letter by an open window
  • Title tells us the window being open is important
  • The title also says exactly what is happening in the picture so perhaps can be described as tautological
  • Wikipedia suggests x-rays show a cupid in the top right hand corner (although the fruit perhaps makes such a signifier overkill, hence its removal)
  • Plentiful bowl of fruit on the bed
  • Window open
  • Green bed curtain to the right creating formal rules of thirds dimensions –
  • Also, curtain is open, revealing what was hidden,
  • The viewer is being invited in, this is a private moment being made public Performative perhaps
  • Red curtain flicked over the open window
  • Woman reflected in the window
  • Light from outside lighting woman in painterly style of the time, pre-camera use
  • However, it is reported that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura (Wikipedia)*
  • Bedroom – dutch houses, like in most of Europe, were only just beginning to have specific rooms and according to one source Dutch houses were generally quite cluttered unlike the room in the painting (Jansen, 2001-2016) The room appears tidy and ordered and would have been painted with upper and upper-middle class taste in mind to appeal to  buyers in a competitive market (Jansen, 2001-2016)
  • Turkish carpet and oriental bowl on the bed

The painting is a collection of signs which collectively come together tell a story about a women yearning to break away from social conventions, directly in the form of a love affair, and indirectly from the structures that house or ‘imprison’ her depending on your view.  She reads a letter by an open window. The open window is suggestive of her yearning to leave the space she inhabits, and of the possibility she might do so, also of the fact that something from outside may enter in.  According to Wikipedia there was a cupid in the top right hand corner evident in x-rays (Wikipedia), however, the bowl of fruit on the bed is enough to be suggestive of some form of eroticism.  Apples have long been signifiers of temptation, we use the word ‘fruity’ to imply sexual naughtiness.  The bowl is abundantly filled and on the bed.  It is not normal for a bowl of fruit to be on a bed so to question its presence and position seems the right thing to do. Being on the bed makes it quite a big statement. The green curtain in the foreground is apparently a trope used elsewhere by Vermeer (Jansen 2001-2016) and while it may be tempting to think of it as like a theatrical curtain, that was a convention that didn’t really start being the norm until a century or so later when scene changes were covered up to contribute to the illusion. However, the curtain being pulled back in that way is certainly suggestive of a ‘reveal’ or tricking the eye into thinking you might be able to really close the curtain.  In fact such curtains were employed in real life to cover up nudes; rich people would buy nudes to hang in their houses and then cover them up. This is described as ‘tromp l’oeil’ (tricks the eye) and signifies there is something akin to a nude that might be covered up. Painting illusory curtains in this way was not uncommon at the time and a visual ‘colloquialism’  amongst Vermeer’s colleagues. The reading of a love letter is a private moment but in this picture it is visible from several directions, suggesting this women’s love life is on show.  What is also on show is a Turkish carpet and the aforementioned bowl which is oriental – both suggestive of something exotic and alien or foreign.  Whilst such objects were purchased and shown off by rich homeowners to signify their wealth, and so adding to the overall picture of a modern, wealthy home to potential buyers of art, the erotic signification is clear too. “The exotic and erotic are often intertwined in  Western conceptualisation of the Other” (Dubisch, 1995;33) It adds to the suggestion of highly charged sexuality, but perhaps a darker more dangerous form of eroticism which might have been challenging or perhaps seen as a little ‘risky’ for the middle class Dutch homeowners, in a similar way to how the idea of racially different sexual coupling is explored in E. M. Foster’s Passage to India; non-Empire sanctioned sexuality is registered as dangerous and uncontrollable, something to be curtailed. If one were to accept that as a possible interpretation it becomes a very modern painting that deals with a comprehension of inner psychological issues in conflict with external social constraints, as well as questions surrounding empire building, rather than simply relating to a love affair. It is probably helpful to also consider that the Dutch were at the time sailing around the world, appropriating land and people, whilst building its own empire, much like Britain was. Dutch legacy is still seen today in Africa, America, India etc. So the idea of foreign, exotic Others, who potentially offer tempting but also ‘frightening’ experiences would also have been in the collective consciousness of the public.

The reflection of the woman might be suggestive of an early reflexive comment on the introspection of Western art buyers at the time, wishing to see something of themselves reflected in the paintings they value, and so artists needed to pander to that. Or a comment on the practise of painting which is  a refection of the world, even when stylised and rendered heightened versions of reality.

This is a formal portrait, of an imaginary woman (possibly modelled on Vermeer’s wife) perhaps trapped in a marriage whilst in the throws of an erotic  love affair with an(O)ther, an intruder, who is unable to escape the confines of her marriage. Which in turns leads to a greater story about an internal opposing conflict between civility (marriage, middle class-ness, money, things, ownership) and the natural, base and potentially dangerous forces that exist within, and which can be triggered by alien intruders – outsiders invited in through the process of Empire building.

And so to Tom Hunters image:


  • Formal, conventional but starkly rendered dimensions  – lines, angles, rules of thirds
  • Woman reading a document
  • By a closed window
  • Sunlight streaming in
  • Bed
  • Baby on a blanket on bed
  • No middle class decorative accoutrements, not made to appeal to middle class taste
  • Empty shelves apart from what look like speakers for listening to music
  • Some form of decorative wall art, but it is cropped so we only see a small part of it – the frame is not contained
  • Painted walls different colours, not smooth, the opposite of the middle class expectations in the original, or when transposed to modern middle class expectations
  • Baby looks towards its mother
  • Mother focused on possession order
  • Title suggests the woman is a squatter, and reading the history behind the picture confirms this, at which point text and context become crucial to the image
  • The image is a direct reference to the Dutch painting by Vermeer, not only is the image influenced by the original, it appropriates the painting, along with the title.
  • The image is a photograph – indexical, a trace of the formal scene but also of the original painting it is copied from
  • Women dressed in darkly coloured, long skirt and green, long-sleeved shirt which emulate historical styles, although the dress is modern
  • Her hair is scraped up in a loose pony tail so informal, despite being in a formal highly constructed portrait.

This portrait is formal, but it is not a simple portrait and doesn’t show a formal situation, rather a formal representation of an informal, albeit formally staged, private moment. This is a women in front of a closed window, and the relationship of the painting to the picture suggests that the state of the window is highly relevant, as does the fact that in the title Hunter doesn’t reference the window at all. If the woman in the original is hoping to escape the confines of her marriage, here is a woman who has little or no chance of escape from her situation. She, unlike the original, wants to stay in the house which she is being evicted from. The whole relationship is inverted. This photograph rejects the idea of ownership, whereas the painting supports it, not only in terms of things, but also of women and foreign lands, along with their people.

Although this is an appropriated image it is difficult to believe this is the appropriation of zero meaning, even though I can see that some of the signifiers play subtle jokes with our perception of what makes up the ‘reality’ (see feedback for A2). With reference to the outfit the woman wears, here perhaps is a postmodern references to the way in which signifiers are potentially meaningless – the outfit the woman wears links her further to the historical painting, but is also a sign that makes fun of the viewers potential reception of a visual cue.  The woman’s outfit creates a pastiche, a quiet demure, old-fashioned outfit worn by a female quietly reading  – the letter she reads relates us to the commonly held view that ownership of property is a right, and that living in a property one doesn’t own without paying rent is a wrong, and that therefore she should face the consequences of squatting; although in reality, that is unlikely to be the view of the artist since he has placed the child so prominently in the foreground, nor does it appear to be the overall discourse contained within the image.  Does that mean the signification of the outfit might be described as having zero meaning, or is it in fact simply a visual inversion designed to make us question our assumptions? The viewer sees a quiet, perhaps benign although dignified, still, female person dressed in a certain way, and using body language, both of which  we recognise from historical representations of ‘ladies who were painted’, when in fact the image is about the opposite of that position. Whereas the Dutch were busy appropriating lands and people, here the woman has appropriated a home. Is Hunter asking us to consider, which form of appropriation is acceptable, which is not? And why? And are the moral implications based on some of Barthes’ myths? In other words, should we accept the social norms as just, or as something to buy into without question? The woman in the Dutch painting was in all likelihood painted in such a way as to suggest she was having a torrid affair with someone outside of the marriage/home; the woman in the photograph has gone beyond that and has a child, representative of the future. Future looks to its mother and there is an expectation conjured up in that relationship. Since the window is closed, what is being signified is that the woman and her child are trapped, inside an economic system that embraces ownership for some and under certain conditions, and within historical relationships, but not for all. Which implies that Hunter is suggesting we should question historical socio-economic norms since what the Dutch and British, and many other countries did in the past isn’t really different from what the woman has been doing. Or if it is different, perhaps her reasons are more urgent.  Although in her case she is up against the law in the form of a ‘possession order’, whereas Empire building and all the countries associated with it had law on its side at the time. Additionally, there is no tromp l’oeil here, with any suggestively placed curtains.  The photograph is barefaced and unashamed, unadorned. A clearer less theatrical straightforward rhetoric. More Brechtian in its subject matter. The placing of the infant (the infant which makes the photograph hark back to so many Madonna & Child portraits) might have been a sentimental ploy but somehow the photo bypasses that trap, perhaps because the child is placed on the bed where the fruit would have been – which establishes the fact that this goes beyond love affairs and yearning but relates instead to fundamental issues such as life and death. The modern version seems to be focused on a specific historical relationship we have with ownership whereas the original painting seems to trigger broader questions about sexuality, female positioning, social and cultural structures, and historical, political events. Although Hunter employs a recognisable iconic version of female idenity he does so without rendering her an object – perhaps it becomes abundantly clear he is utlising long held visual tropes in an affect of alienation or distancing to overturn the assumptions that fed into thier originators.

The fact that this is a photograph rather than a painting contributes in several ways to the way in which the image will be read. “…in the common sense attitude of everyday life we routinely treat high modality signifiers…()…as ‘a window on the world’ and we assume ‘the camera never lies'”. (Chandler, 2002;22%) Even though we know this is a photograph and we know it is constructed and based on a painting, it is still a photograph and so tricks a human mind into believing it is reality. Despite all that has been written about why this might be, there are still plenty of questions about why photographs are so powerful as asked by photographer and author, Stuart Franklin, in an interview with Guernica magazine. “We don’t understand what photography is doing. We don’t understand the power of its rhetoric.” (2016) The painting clearly resonates with us as it has stayed in the public imagination, even after an incredibly difficult history having been lost and attributed to other artists. But there is something very powerful about the photograph which seems to out run the power of the painting. Not only perhaps the fact it is a photograph, but also that is an inverted version of its predecessor, prompting us to ask questions about common held assumptions relating to ownership and value.

*Quote from wikipedia: “This use of light may support speculation among art historians that Vermeer used a mechanical optical device, such as a double concave lens mounted in a camera obscura, to help him achieve realistic light patterns in his paintings.[3]” (Wikipedia)


http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/artpages/tom_hunter_woman.htm accessed 9/7/1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_Reading_a_Letter_at_an_Open_Window accessed 9/7/16

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_reading_a_letter_by_an_open_window.html#.V39zmGMw2-I  accessed 9/7/16

https://www.britannica.com/art/proscenium accessed 9/7/16

Dubisch, J. (1995) Lovers in the Field from Kulick, D. and Willson, M. (1995). Taboo. London: Routledge.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics. London: Routledge.





6 thoughts on “Project 3.2: Structural analysis (2)

  1. It might be interesting for you to meet Tom, I have a few occasions and he is very approachable and, seemingly, disarmingly honest about his work – he’s also very generous about letting students use his images in their blogs etc. I have written about his work and practice a few times and this post from a few years ago addresses some of the issues that you raise in your post here: https://umneygm.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/f4/
    I know I ‘read’ the image slightly differently, but then would hardly be surprising would it! But one thing I would say, other than I agree with Catherine that you have done a very good job of extracting a great deal of narrative from the image is this: I suspect that Hunter, like so many other visual artists, was seduced by Vermeer’s light and wanted to recreate or at least develop a response to it. Along came his chance with the campaign, the research that led to pose and the rest is, as they, history. I’m quite sure that a lot of what we gain from his work we place there because we can. I don’t want to diminish what Hunter created, after all he studied Vermeer’s work, but the reading of the work is made by the reader, the artist has left the room.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did meet him on the coach going up to the Uncertain States talk. I agree entirely with your final sentence. Interpretation isnt exactly all but it’s up there. Especially in the kind of one way conversing we see in most of art. Will read your post – thank you 🙂


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