I was thrilled to learn a few months ago that Scandinavia House would be hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, one of my favorite painters whose works are rarely seen firsthand in America. Hammershøi is one of those rare artists whose work you either love or hate, the admirers and despisers citing the same attributes to support their respective opinions. Hammershøi definitely doesn’t fit any mold, his oeuvre refuses to be defined by any specific time period, his approach, though blatantly unaffected by revolutionary trends within Europe’s artistic community, seems strangely modern today. If you are unfamiliar with the work of this Danish master, I hope to provide a reasonable introduction here.
Vilhelm Hammershøi was born in Copenhagenin 1864. His father was a successful merchant, so he grew up in fairly prosperous circumstances, his family able to provide art lessons for him from an early age. He studied independently with a number of painters including the talented Norwegian, P.S. Kroyer, and also attended the RoyalDanishAcademy of Fine Arts for formal training. Hammershøi’s life appears to have been delightfully mundane, exhibiting none of the turmoil and drama we normally associate with an artist’s existence. After completing his studies, he painted a number of successful works featuring his sister, Anna, and was accepted for the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in 1885. In 1891, he married Ida Ilsted, the sister of a close friend and colleague, and she became his predominant model for the remainder of his life. His work enjoyed critical acclaim and provided him a reliable income. Artists and intellectuals visited Hammershøi, often finding him shy and retiring. He remained rooted in his native Copenhagen, living principally in just two locations which he documented thoroughly in his work. Hammershøi died in 1916 at the age of 51.
Hammershøi explored relatively few motifs throughout his career. He painted landscapes, particularly the austere environs on the outskirts of Copenhagen.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Lejre - 1905|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal, Summer - 1888|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rainy Summer Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal - date unavailable|
He was also interested in architectural details in urban settings: the façades of buildings, constricted courtyards, unpopulated streets, a glimpse of the sea between structures.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - From the British Museum, Winter -1906|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade -1899|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Strandgade with Christians Kirke in the Background - 1908|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Royal Palace Church in Copenhagen - 1910|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - View of the Old Asiatic Company - 1902|
By far, the motif that dominates his mature oeuvre is that of a lone female figure set in an intimate interior space, most commonly with her back turned to the viewer.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - A Woman Reading by a Window - date unavailable|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida in a White Chair - 1900|
Early on he used his sister as his model, but, once he married, his wife, Ida, almost exclusively populates his carefully documented interiors. Hammershøi and his wife lived in two locations throughout their marriage, and the artist repeatedly and painstakingly documented their living quarters: the polished wooden floors, the heavy molding framing each doorway, the cool tentative light that drizzles through the thick windowpanes, the dark, hidden recesses glimpsed down hallways or through partially open doorways, the familiar furniture which appears again and again in his various paintings.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Drawing Room - The Four Copper Prints - 1905|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior in Strandgade - date unavailable|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Two Candles - 1904|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior, Sunlight on the Floor - 1906|
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hammershøi was a great admirer of the paintings of Vermeer and Whistler. There are many striking similarities between his work and theirs: muted tonalities, a focus on carefully arranged compositions and a sensitivity to atmosphere and light.
|Johannes Vermeer - The Milkmaid - 1658c|
|James Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 - 1871|
Whistler, as a portrait painter, arrived at two essential innovations: he made the perfection of the overall composition his supreme concern and he used brushwork organically, almost matter-of-factly, as determined by his subject matter. Vermeer presents a vignette, catching an instant in time that is in flux and will never happen again. Hammershøi brings something new to the equation. There is a sense that time is standing still, that this same moment could be experienced again in a week or even a year into the future. Perhaps this strange suspension of time is what gives Hammershøi’s work its surreal quality. His paintings still seem fresh and contemporary over a century after their creation.
I wonder why these paintings of lone women inhabiting dimly lit interior spaces are so appealing and so evocative. The woman is usually conservatively attired in a dark, fairly plain dress, her hair pulled back and neatly arranged in a knot at the back of the head and her face turned away from the viewer. There is nothing opulent about the woman. A simple comb holds her braid in place. She wears little or no jewelry. Her dress is utilitarian. The space she occupies is equally unexceptional, neat, clean and sparsely furnished. Very few luxuries intrude on this Spartan lifestyle. A carefully maintained spinet, perhaps a family heirloom, is featured in several paintings. Glossy tabletops bear a silver candlestick holder or a few pieces of fine china. A book perused in quiet contemplation is a rare indulgence. The world depicted is thoroughly middleclass, an aura of restrained conservatism emanates from these intimate scenes.
I think comparing the work of Hammershøi to that of the Nabis artists, Pierre Bonnard and Eduoard Vuillard, will be revealing. Both Bonnard and Vuillard came to their artistic maturities at about the same time as Hammershøi and were also best known for depicting intimate scenes of home life.
An initial glance reveals most blatantly that the Nabis were participants in the modernist revolution in art. These French artists, living at the hub of the European art world, were aware of all the current trends and innovations in modern art: Impressionism, Pointillism and Symbolism. Technically, they were freed up to use paint however their need dictated, from thin transparent glazes to thick, mortar-like impasto. They used a heightened palette and did not employ color naturalistically. Hammershøi applied paint using time-proven, conservative techniques, and his palette is extremely restrained.
Compositionally, the Nabis present an explosion of activity, people, objects, patterns, reflections and flickering light filling their canvases – at times actually spilling out of the picture plane leaving figures strangely cropped as one might find in an unstaged snapshot.
|Pierre Bonnard - Lunch at Le Grand Lamps - 1899|
|Pierre Bonnard - The Luncheon - 1899|
Hammershøi’s scenes are carefully constructed, the figure usually placed nearly centrally, a rigid symmetry prevailing and a sense of balance achieved.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rest - date unavailable|
The light in Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s paintings is warm and golden, essentially Mediterranean. It bursts into a house, filling rooms with a cheerful glow. Often the windows are cast open, inviting inside the outdoor light retaining the tones of gardens, trees and lawns.
|Eduoard Vuillard - The End of Breakfast with Madame Vuillard - 1895|
|Pierre Bonnard - Woman with Cat - 1947|
A cool northern light illuminates Hammershøi’s scenes, feebly casting a pattern on the floor, filling the panes of a distant window or catching a swarm of dust particles swirling in its rays. Hammershøi’s windows are always shut.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight - 1900|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Open Doors - 1905|
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Sunshine in the Drawing Room III - 1903|
The Nabis inhabit a social world. Friends and family members meander into their paintings to enjoy some conversation, tend to a child’s needs, share a meal, play an instrument or simply read a newspaper. Tables are generously laid with colorful foods, polished crockery, sparkling glasses and patterned tablecloths. In the rare instances when an individual is presented alone, he or she is commonly accompanied by a family pet. There is a sense of the moment in these works… a deceptive feeling that the artist almost arbitrarily caught his subjects in mid-movement… that we have been privileged to catch a brief glimpse of the intimate family life of the artist. These paintings are filled with noise.
|Eduoard Vuillard - Family Lunch - 1899|
|Eduoard Vuillard - Breakfast at Villerville - 1910|
|Pierre Bonnard - Convocation - date unavailable|
|Pierre Bonnard - The Red Checkered Tablecloth - 1910|
Hammershøi was a reserved, contemplative man. Those intellectuals who chose to visit him found him shy and reluctant to converse. His world was fairly restricted – defined by his economic status and the places in which he lived. His social outlets were limited to a few close colleagues and family. The walls in his homes are unpapered and unpatterned, and the furniture is of dark wood, carefully dusted and polished. There is no sense of spontaneity in his paintings; every object included has been carefully chosen and positioned according to the demands of composition. Commonly, Hammershøi’s interiors are inhabited by figures, almost exclusively alone and usually female. These women are sometimes engaged in quiet activity: carrying a platter, sitting at a spinet or reading a book. Just as commonly, they do nothing at all. Their world is undisturbed by visitors. Their days are not filled with demanding chores and physical exertion. Their homes are not filled with the sound of babies crying, animated conversation, animals mewing and barking, the laughter of children and the clatter of utensils on dishes. All is still and quiet. All activity is internal.
|Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida Playing the Piano - 1910|
|Vilhem Hammershoi - Interior with Young Woman from Behind - 1904|
And, of course, the most striking thing about these paintings is that the figure is most often turned away from the viewer. This creates a strange paradox for us. These images depict intimate scenes of the artist’s home life. His model is usually his wife or a close relation, and yet she is presented anonymously, almost serving purely as a compositional element. Depending upon personal predilections, desires and associations, the viewer is permitted to assert the features of his or her own choosing on the model. The woman becomes universal for us, but is this legitimate? The question becomes: how is identity established? For centuries, the answer would have been through the unique facial features of the individual. Often a portrait artist would have his subject sit for the painting of the head and use a stand-in model appropriately attired to pose for the body. Hammershøi challenges the accepted notion of what establishes identity – which seems to me a very modern conundrum. If the face is used to determine identity, then how does one evaluate the individual disfigured by injury or enhanced by cosmetic surgery? Would the coloration, texture and style of an individual’s hair or the telltale turn of the waist be just as legitimate? Perhaps, the map of an individual’s DNA would provide the definitive portrait.
Some critics have disparaged Hammershøi’s efforts because his oeuvre appears to be relatively unaffected by developments made by the contemporary avante garde. After all, Hammershøi’s life spans one of the most volatile and fertile periods in the history of art, beginning in the age of Impressionism and ending with Cubism firmly established as the predominant language of modern art. Was Hammershøi’s choice not to participate in the fray of the modernist revolution indicative of some deficiency in his character – perhaps a weakness of will or conservative immutability? I don’t think so. The greatest challenge facing any artist in making art significant to his audience is finding a language most apt for communicating his or her personal vision. Hammershøi accomplished this. During his lifetime, his work was admired and praised by members of the avante garde. And even today, a century after his death, Hammershøi’s reputation is waxing, his paintings more marketable than ever and exhibitions of his work becoming more common, even in museums and galleries committed to presenting modern and contemporary art.
Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark will be showing at Scandinavia House through February 27th, 2016. Scandinavia House is located at 58 Park Avenue, New York, NY10016(between East 37th and 38th Streets). The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday 12-6 PM and Wednesday 12-7 PM. As always I encourage readers to comment here, but, if you would prefer to do so privately, you can email me at [email protected]
Endnote: I wrote this entry prior to the opening of the show at Scandinavia House. Yesterday evening after work, I finally hoofed it down to 38th Street to see the exhibit. Scandinavia House’s exhibition space is relatively modest, so I never expect to see an extensive collection of work there. The first room was devoted mainly to early portraiture, the second to mature figures studies and interior spaces and the last to landscapes and architectural studies. And, by the way, if you should visit the exhibition, be sure not to overlook a small side room off the main exhibition space that appears to be more of a coat closet or storage space but actually offers a video presentation on Hammershøi’s life and work. I was surprised to discover that “process”, something that I look for in any artwork, was very evident in many of the paintings; the few paintings of his that I’ve previously seen “live” were a lot more polished. I was also pleased to find that I had never seen a lot of work included in the show – even in reproduction. My only criticism of the exhibition is that none of Hammershøi’s “signature” work was on display.