I was very fortunate to be in London this summer during the first retrospective of Hammershoi’s work in England: Vilhelm Hammershoi The Poetry of Silence, 28 June – 7 September in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Arts. I had seen one of Hammershoi’s paintings in Denmark some years ago, and had been intrigued enough to buy a book on him, but had only briefly perused it. I did, however, remember that I had really liked the work. What struck me as a most casual observer of Hammershoi’s work was “quiet.” The work is almost monochromatic and very still. I went to the exhibit expecting to enjoy a quick view of some pleasant paintings. I was there for several hours. As Rilke said of Hammershoi’s work ” His work is long and slow, and at whichever moment one apprehends it, it will offer plentiful reasons to speak of what is important and essential in art” (1905).
Hammershoi, born in Copenhagen in 1864, showed early promise as an artist, taking art private lessons and entering the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 15. In his early days as a student and a young painter, he concentrated on landscapes and portraits. This early work is characterized by dark, subdued color (almost lack of color) and simple, compositions. Work such as The Farm (above) reads almost as a modern abstract painting. According to the exhibit brochure (written in German by Felix Krämer and translated by Mike Foster): “Most of Hammershoi’s early paintings contain . . . muted colour, compositions limited to a few basic element; rooms devoid of people, and figures seen from behind. At this early stage in his career the artist was already systematically undermining viewers’ expectations.”
Hammershoi traveled in Europe (Germany, Belgium, Holland, and most importantly, Paris and London) and was aware of the contemporary movements in painting (e.g., Pointellism), but for the most part, he lived a quite isolated and quiet life in Copenhagen with his wife, who was his most constant model, in an apartment, which became his most constant subject.
The most central position in Hammershoi’s oeuvre is held by these atmospheric interiors: simple, quiet, ordinary, but luminous with possibilities. Sometimes they contain one woman engaged in a quiet activity, reading, sewing, or simply standing or sitting and looking; occasionally there are two women, often observed from behind, more often the rooms are unoccupied, frequently empty or with a simple arrangement of a few pieces of furniture which reoccur in many of the pieces but are frequently rearranged to create different perspectives.. The color is always subdued, usually consisting of black, white, grey and brown (almost sepia). To me they often read as almost recollections, seen through a melancholy haze of memory, although the paintings are often detailed and clear. The rooms are bare, but not stark. They seem dark, though not necessarily gloomy.
Windows and doors are prominent in these interiors, both open and shut, and they are often the focus or source of light. This light is often reflected, oblique, or remains outside. Occasionally the light from an “offstage” source illuminates a seemingly arbitrary space as in Sofa (1905). In Interior with Stove (1090) light from the window is in the distance; the room is dark. Women, dressed in dark clothing, caught from behind, are often looking out to the light from a window or door.
The rooms seem hermetic, but not claustrophobic — perfectly poised on the brink of something happening, but nothing happens. Figures change, the furniture’s position changes, but nothing essential changes.
Woman Sewing in an Interior
I think it is quite significant that Hammershoi did his most important paintings on the eve of WWI. Every accepted notion of civilization in Western Europe was about to be literally blown up. And I think we can see intimations of this in his work. There is a quiet resignation at work here. A desire to hold on to order that is doomed to failure. Alienation, isolation, sorrow pervade the paintings, and they are the negatives of the modern age to come. But the paintings are not without hope, and their very simplicity is captivating.