Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion
Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, ON
September 4, 2021—June 12, 2022
by Hailey Chomos
In March 2020, the COVID-19 virus spread like wildfire. We retreated into our homes for what was promised to be a few weeks of lockdown; it was our duty to stay home in order to protect ourselves and others. More than a year and a half later, we are emerging from isolation into a different world than the one we left. Now, as we re-enter museum spaces, The Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario (Canada), presents an exhibition as a meditation on the universal isolating impacts of the pandemic.
Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion is an exhibition of the Centre’s collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings curated by the Bader Curator of European Art, Dr. Suzanne van de Meerendonk, who contextualizes the experience of pandemic isolation within historic representations of solitude. The exhibition illustrates that the Early Modern relationship with solitude, much like our own, was a complex navigation of benefits and challenges. Throughout the exhibit, viewers confront their contemporary relationships with solitude to consider what the curator calls the “social and moral implications” of this experience.1
Van de Meerendonk’s exhibition illustrates how the museum can encourage contemplation in the aftershock of COVID-19; it provides a space and a visual language for considering our own mortality. Many of the subjects in the exhibition’s paintings have a complex relationship with solitude as they are nearing death and coming to terms with the impermanence of their existence. Jacob van Campen’s Old Woman with a Book (1625–1630, fig. 2) depicts the increased piety that comes with advanced age and the awareness of human frailty. As many of us sat in our homes addicted to the news of the pandemic’s spread, helplessly following case counts and infection rates, we contemplated our own mortality. The last year has marked a shift in both the acceptability and the necessity of solitude. Perhaps in viewing Old Woman with a Book, viewers see themselves.
As visitors explore the exhibition, they can enter a studiolo-esque room, which bears similarities to those depicted in many of the surrounding paintings (fig. 3).2 Van de Meerendonk presents this area as a space for reflecting on the effects of solitude; seating and writing materials are available for the visitor to aid in this practice. It is a solitary space, but also a place for engagement, much like our homes. Visitors can write a postcard that the gallery will mail, or they can leave a note or response to another visitor in the space. Intimate notes to visitors’ past or future selves, their loved ones, and those lost to the pandemic fill a display wall built for these meditations. The organization of the gallery helps the visitor contemplate their own experiences of isolation.
Studies in Solitude poses the question: who gets to be alone? The subjects depicted in these paintings are either primarily older, wealthy men shown in their private studioli, or religious and biblical figures in devotional scenes. In contrast, complexities accompany depictions of women in solitude, an experience traditionally reserved for men.3 Works with female subjects must have a religious connotation, and either directly depict a religious moment like the annunciation or carry a message of Christian morality through warning of the sexual agency associated with female privacy.4 Women were not allowed to experience solitude because of its associations with male spaces of knowledge and consequently could not be depicted in such a masculine fashion. Solitude continues to be a privileged experience as it was in the seventeenth-century. During the pandemic, many people did not have a safe place to isolate because they were experiencing homelessness, living in overcrowded housing, or working essential jobs that often put them at risk. Considering solitude as a privileged experience can reframe negative contemporary associations between the impacts of isolation and our mental health.
The isolation of figures presented in Studies in Solitude reminds us that seclusion can also provide new opportunities. Throughout the exhibit, these figures are all in the pursuit of either knowledge or religious commune. Solitude has also served another purpose in the context of the pandemic. Perhaps the increased activism and involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and other social movements precipitated from this pause in our lives and contemplation in a solitary space. Would we have stopped to pay attention if we had not been forced into isolation?
Studies in Solitude reminds us that, like others before us, we are not alone in our struggle to define the consequence of solitude in our lives. Our experience of COVID-19 amplifies our ability to identify with the subjects of this exhibition. In this way, viewers experience a renewed appreciation for these works and for the connection Dr. van de Meerendonk makes between Early Modern depictions of solitude and our newly-defined relationship with isolation. This exhibition draws attention to our need for connection and how our shared experience of the last eighteen months has been universal in its isolating effects. Ultimately, the experience of solitude during the pandemic has revealed systemic social inequities that deserve our focus. Solitude has given us pause to re-evaluate and make changes in our own lives, and serves, as it did in the seventeenth century, as a place of reflection rather than simply a state of being.
Hailey Chomos is a Master of Arts candidate in art history at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on the reception and collection of European art in North America in the early twentieth century. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in history and art history from the University of Toronto.
1. Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario, 2021. Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this review come from exhibition label text.
2. Van de Meerendonk created the installation and reflective exercise in collaboration with Emma Tow, art history student at Queen’s University, and Sebastian De Line, Associate Curator of Indigenous Care and Relations at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
3. Wall text, Old Woman with a Book (1625–1630), in Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario.
4. Wall text, Woman with a Pear (1651), in Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario.