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The Cover
November 3, 2010

A Curious Old Man

JAMA. 2010;304(17):1873. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1573

A man of indeterminate age peeks out of a cut-glass window. He is wearing a nightcap, and he needs a shave. No one would pose for a portrait looking like he just woke up. Evidently, the painter ambushed his subject before he had a chance to wash and dress. The staging of this portrait of A Curious Old Man (cover) suggests that it may be a parody of Woman at a Window, a well-known 1822 painting by Caspar David Friedrich. In Friedrich's painting, a well-groomed woman stands at a window on a clear day. Her back is to the viewer, and the upper pane of the window frames a blue sky. For Friedrich, contemplating nature through an open window was a metaphor for the personal experience of aspiring to a higher existence. By contrast, the artistic aspirations of Hans George Soemmer (1811-1864), the painter of the portrait on the cover, were more down to earth. Soemmer was less interested in a search for meaning through art than taking pleasure in the expressions of ordinary people living their day-to-day lives. In Friedrich's painting, the subject looks to nature for universal truths to relieve the anxieties of a troubled soul, but in Soemmer's painting, the subject just wants to see what is going on in the street in front of his house. Soemmer seems to be implying that art shouldn't be taken so seriously. Art should be fun. For the family who bought this painting to hang in the sitting room, the fun would be seeing the image of a nosy neighbor peering into their home—and catching him in the act.

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