The Secrets Inside the House with a Yellow Fence

A yellow house with fences against a backdrop of trees
Emilio Sánchez (Cuban, 1921–1999), House with a Yellow Fence, 1979–1989, Oil on canvas. Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame. Gift of the Emilio Sánchez Foundation, 2010.011.002

Initially, it's a perfect picture. A perfectly symmetrical house, each pillar, each picket, each window, each line on the roof crafted with precise accuracy. A bright, obtrusive yellow paint makes it stick out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood. When your eyes take in the image, you are reverted to the size of a small child, peering up at this massive structure. You are standing on the outside looking in, only to realize this is not a house at all. Not far from a halfway-opened fence, you notice a welcoming and almost forbidden seeming pathway to an open door. The front door, typically the face of any ordinary house, is far away from this sidewalk. It is protected by two different fences of various sizes and proportions, a path, then stairs to reach the door. The first glance is an illusion. The door appears to be much more accessible than it truly is upon further inspection. It seems to be less welcoming of visitors the closer your eyes drift to the opening. Once your eyes meet the door itself, there is a sense of confusion: the door opens to nothing. It is merely a pathway to a continuation of the background, luscious kelly green undetailed asymmetrical “trees.” There is nothing inside the house, just wooden planks for walls. How could this be? Why is it so necessary for the house to have so much security for a disappointing and barren interior? Why is the house such a bright and welcoming color if, upon arrival at the front door, visitors are met with layers and layers of false entry?

The United States, known as “The Land of Opportunity,” presents itself as welcoming to any and all people to join the “American Dream.” In the painting House with a Yellow Fence by Emilio Sanchez, the fences themselves hold multiple meanings. Symbolizing the American Dream, white picket fences demonstrate a false belief in a future of comfort and ease. These fences are the crowning jewel of an image of “American success.” The freshly cut grass, the golden retriever, and the brightly colored house that sits behind it all craft this picture. Upon arrival, immigrants from all over the world quickly realize that this picture is nothing like the way it is portrayed in their minds. Immigrants are met with tight border controls and other barriers that make entry itself a nightmare. They are forced to become outsiders looking in on a bright, optimistic future. The slim opening in the fence represents very few that actually do get to try and come near this dream, while the others are forced to stand on the sidewalk, like children gazing at a magnificent mystery in front of them. For those few admittances, once they get past the fence and make it up to the door, they notice the interior is unfinished, and the door leads to absolutely nothing but the background. What kind of cruel joke is this? Does it not seem similar to the economic and social stagnation so many new immigrants feel when finally becoming citizens of America? Yes, they have made it past the treachery of border control, but at what cost? They have entered a bright new future with no belongings and no prospects, looking out into a depth of nothingness. Similar to diligently trying to enter a bright, shiny house looking for it to be just as it portrays on the outside, to realize there is nothing but disappointment inside. Realizing you have come to a foreign land and thinking you have been promised opportunity and understanding that you have none. A perfect America is portrayed on the outside, with a land of barren opportunity inside, tricking hopeful people into believing it can be as perfect as it seems. Not a very kind welcome.

Works Cited

Sánchez, Emilio. House With a Yellow Fence. 1979, Snite Museum of Art.

Discussion Questions
  1. Frieri uses the first paragraph of the essay to describe the painting in detail. After reading the first paragraph, take another look at the image of the painting. What does Frieri’s description prompt you to take a closer, more careful look at? How does she invite you to see the painting in a new way based solely on the description she provides in the essay’s first paragraph?

  2. In the second paragraph, Frieri provides a metaphorical and symbolic interpretation of the painting, arguing that the painting can help us to reconsider the idea of the American Dream. Take a closer look at this paragraph and identify specific places where Frieri makes a claim. What visual descriptions of the painting does she use as evidence for her interpretive claims?