Vilhelm Hammershøi

An upcoming exhibit has recently led me to a renewed interested in a painter whose work I admire, Vilhelm Hammershøi.  He was a turn of the century Danish painter (May 15, 1864 - February 13, 1916) who trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen from 1879 -1884.  He participated in the Charlottenborg Exhibition of 1885, however in 1888 he was rejected from the annual exhibition which led to his forming a group with other artists known as Den Frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition). 

Hammershøi painted several subjects including portraits, landscapes and cityscapes, but he is best known for his interior spaces and was called De Stillestuers Maler (The Painter of Tranquil Rooms).

Vilhelm Hammershøi, A Room in the Artist's Home in Strandgade, Copenhagen, with his Wife, 1901, Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), Denmark
These paintings of light infused interiors drew me to his work, I have seen them in person at The National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The apartment that Hammershøi and his wife Ida lived in at Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen served as his studio for a decade. He painted dozens of views of the apartment at different times of day to capture the changes in mood due to the effects of light, much as Monet famously did of the Rouen Cathedral.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, 1899, The National Gallery London

The words most commonly used to describe Hammershøi’sinteriors are tranquility, quietness, introspection and solitude.  While many contain a figure, such as his wife Ida, the figure is never the main focus of the painting.

As I look at these works I feel as though we the viewer have entered the house unnoticed when we weren’t expected.  In that way the artist is painting scenes of daily life and it's exactly that view that allows these works to resonate with the viewer across time.  His paintings capture the beauty in quiet moments and in the every day.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Ida Playing the Piano, 1910, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan

Hammershøi cited the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler as a source of inspiration.  Whistler famously described his own paintings as “Art for art’s sake.” As can be seen in both his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 and in Hammershøi’s interiors, a limited palate of colors is used.  More commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, the work is less a portrait than a study in tone and form, an important element in many of Whister’s paintings.

Musée d'Orsay, Paris
I'm particularly drawn to the below painting, Interior With Potted Plant on Card Table, it's compelling in the choice of details that were included; the movement of daylight across a wall, shadows and glints of light upon a brass lamp.  I personally see in the squares of light a reminder of the passage of time and an acute awareness of the temporal nature of beauty.
The absence of color creates a calm mood; the painter focuses on tone and temperature.  It's interesting to think how our perception of these would change if bright colors or figures were included.  When a figure is in a painting it becomes the central focus in the work, in Hammershøi’s works a central focus doesn’t exist, though the artist was thoughtful in his compositions.  Without figures the room itself becomes important, the choice to exclude people in his paintings as central subjects create a more subtle narrative.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior With Potted Plant on Card Table, 1910-11, Malmö Konstmuseum, Sweden
Hammershøi’s work is interesting not in the stories it tells, but in the stories that the viewer creates for the work.  It reflects his life and our own lives in relation to it.  Do the paintings evoke a sense of loneliness or of tranquility? A sense of serenity or one of melancholy?

Hammershøi was influenced by Dutch Baroque artists such as Hoogstraten or Vermeer who also painted interior spaces in the 17th century.  His works are frequently compared with theirs.  However there are many key differences, the most important being that the earlier paintings are filled with moral and religious symbolism rather than “art for art’s sake.”  Let’s look at Hoogstaten’s painting The Slippers.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, The Slippers,
At first glance we see a quiet interior setting with two slippers in the foreground.  On closer examination the work is an allegory of lust and temptation.  The slippers are not a set, one is a man’s and one a woman’s.  A broom in the foreground has been left to the side as if to suggest that there was a woman who was cleaning and was interrupted by a man and they are in the bedroom together.  The painting in the background is a well-known brothel scene. A contemporary Dutch viewer would have clearly understood the allegorical message. Here the vice of lust wins out over the virtue of cleaning.

Vermeer too was well known for his careful use of light and color in interiors, but his work was also symbolic in nature.  In his painting Woman Holding a Balance, the woman in the painting is dressed in the finest clothing, surrounded by jewelry and pearls.  She holds up a small scale as she admires her riches. 

This scene takes on an entirely new meaning when the background is taken into consideration; it's a painting of the Last Judgment.  The analogy can be made that Jesus Christ will also be holding a scale, weighing the souls of mankind.  The message to the viewer is that regardless of your social status, it's important to live a life of virtue and realize your immortal soul will ultimately have more weight than your possessions.
Both Hoogstraten and Vermeer paint in such a way that emphasizes the visual beauty and light of an interior space, but unlike Hammershøi their interior spaces weren't the main focus of the art.  

Hammershøi was certainly influenced by their use of light and composition, but he created a new genre in painting with his interiors, one that continues to captivate audiences a century after his death.

This summer 30 of Hammershøi's works are traveling from the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, on view from July 16 – September 25, 2016.

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