This article on painting the abandoned house, written by Ephraim Rubenstein, originally appeared under the title “Life is a House” in the January/February 2014 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, we often spent the summers on the Northern Neck, a long spit of land bounded by the Potomac River to the north and the Rappahannock to the south. Initially, I found it an unprepossessing area, patchworked together by the relatively poor truck farms of the locals and vacation homes for the wealthy gentry from Richmond and Washington, D.C. My first impressions of the area were not favorable; I found the brackish land to be too flat, monotonous, and scrubby.
The Abandoned House
Remarkable for me, however, was the recurring presence of an abandoned house, a number of old structures left to collapse in the middle of their respective farmlands. The demographics of the area were such that when the farmers’ children grew up, they moved off to the cities, leaving no one to work the farms. Then when a farmer died, the abandoned house was left to fall apart and litter the landscape like a wooden carcass.
I remembered Kenneth Clark’s notion that landscape painting was supposed to engender “a sense of well-being”: a peaceful, life-enhancing feeling that God’s in His Kingdom and all’s right on the earth. Well, an abandoned house does no such thing. In fact, the ones I saw gave off a tragic, deathly sense that was far from being well, but that I found extremely moving nonetheless.
I have frequently thought of the relationship between houses and people. The house is a fertile metaphor for many human qualities. As Kent C. Bloomer points out in his seminal Body, Memory and Architecture, houses remind us of our own bodies. They are freestanding and autonomous, with areas around them (lawns, yards, plazas) that act much like our own “body boundaries.” Children pick up on this similarity immediately when they draw the facades of houses like faces, with window “eyes” and a mouthlike front door. Like people, houses have most of the important features on the front; the backs tend to be plainer and are reserved for the removal of trash.
By extension, houses also remind us of our families, as in the House of Atreus or Windsor, or in the general concept of household. They stand in for our communities when we build a courthouse, and for our government, enough so that we appoint a House of Representatives. Lincoln understood the power of this metaphor to express how slavery was dividing the country by saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The abandoned house made me think of how hard we continually have to fight against entropy and disintegration. Any homeowner knows this; something is always breaking and in need of repair. And any aging person can tell you the same thing, as visits to the doctor and the pharmacy become increasing parts of life. These houses reminded me that life is a constant struggle and of what it takes to stay healthy and functional.
Abandoned House as Disintegrating Ruin
Each abandoned house that I came across was in a different stage of disintegration. Some had merely lost windows and doors and had sagging rooflines. Others were starting to come completely undone; pieces of the roof had fallen off and vines were ripping apart the clapboard.
I once decided to enter one of these abandoned houses. As I hacked my way through the foliage, I found what used to be the front door of the house. I stepped on the doorsill and the whole house started humming, like the string section of a symphony orchestra warming up. Termites were buzzing and making the entire house move. Snakes slithered, birds darted, mice scurried; the entire animal world had taken up residence even as the humans had departed. If an abandoned house had been unoccupied for a very long time, it became completely engulfed by vegetation, some to the extent that I barely knew that there was a house within the verdant mass. In these last stages of abandonment, it was as if the earth were starting to reclaim the house and to take it back into its arms. In the case of Abandoned House on a Hill, Northumberland County, Virginia (below), the house was lost, but the fields to the right were lush and abundant, still farmed and productively organized into rows. It was the contrast between these two states—loss and abundance—that I found so poignant.
The abandoned house is powerful statements about the human condition, as well as a meditation on the passage of time and the struggle to remain whole. But one could not possibly live in them.
Magical, Peaceful Place
Ultimately, I think that Clark is correct, that landscape painting has the capacity to impart a “sense of well-being” unlike any other genre. Woodley, the 19th-century Maryland plantation house in which I live and work, is one of those magical places that do just that (see Woodley, Summer, Dawn, at top).
The house immediately makes you feel at peace. It has strong bones, grand without being in the slightest way pretentious. Its 47 windows let in light from every direction and help keep the rich, polished wooden molding and doors from feeling too dark (see Woodley, Sunlight I, above, and Woodley, Sunlight II, below.
There is a marvelous flow as you walk through the house because each room has at least two doors in it, so you never have to turn around and exit a room the same way you entered it. Rooms unfold onto other rooms; there are no obstacles or dead ends (see Woodley Interior; View of the Library, below).
In a similar way, the gardens are lovely and spacious, a haven within which we host dozens of species of birds, rabbits, fox, and deer. The grounds still have the original 1757 smokehouse as well as a set of magnificent 18th-century boxwoods that originally acted as a natural gate for a carriage path (see Boxwoods, Woodley, below).
Abandoned House as Reflection of Self
These two subjects, “abandoned house” and “house of well-being,” have acted as emotional poles—metaphors for loss and abundance—between which I have oscillated, depending on the circumstances of my life. Because I have been battling serious illness in recent years, I have gone back to identifying the abandoned house with the ravaged body, the body that is falling apart and can no longer function. The major painting I worked on when I could work was of a set of abandoned row houses. (See step-by-step demonstration “Painting in Layers for a Complex Scene.”) It is a very moving sight, these houses that used to be homes to real families, now breaking apart, sagging, splitting, doors and windows all smashed and useless.
Illness and surgery tell you what it feels like to be broken—to have the normal barriers between inside and outside violated. An abandoned house reminds us that it is work to remain upright every day, to stand up in the face of sickness and entropy. Jamie Wyeth said that even a bale of hay could be a self-portrait if it were painted with feeling and conviction. So can a house.
- Find more articles by and about Ephraim Rubenstein on The Artist’s Magazine‘s Featured Artists page.
- Sketching in Perspective (DVD) – Carl Dalio teaches how to draw buildings and other elements of the landscape in perspective.
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