Vilhelm Hammershoi (by Clairan Ferrono)

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).

The Farm 1883

The Farm 1883

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.

A Woman Reading in Sunlight 1900

A Woman Reading in Sunlight 1900

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-interior1

Woman Sewing in an Interior

Woman in an Interior

Woman in an Interior

White Doors 1905

White Doors 1905

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.

The Music Room 1907

The Music Room 1907

Interior with a Woman 1913

Interior with a Woman 1913


12 Responses to “Vilhelm Hammershoi (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 clairan January 19, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Yes, Kate and June, I believe they did live more sparely than their Victorian and Edwardian compatriots for whom style included lots of knickknacks, etc. However, apparently they lived less Spartanly than the paintings would indicate. And Hammershoi deliberately moved the furniture around, so they are “stage sets,” rather than the rooms they really lived in. And I certainly agree that this pared down look is calm and refreshing.

  2. 2 June January 19, 2009 at 6:50 pm


    On one of the Hammershoi websites, I read that he and his wife deliberately lived in this spare way. Moreover, when he painted, he pared down the domestic scenes even further.

    I was surprised at the surroundings, too, although I’m not familiar enough with historic Danish decor to know whether this would have been typical. But according to the source, most Danish, like most Europeans in general, would have been living in what I think of as that over-crowded Victorian style — mammoth mahogany furniture, many plants, nick-nacks, anti-cassimars, grandfather clocks that ticked away heavy hours in heavy houses. So this lovely emptiness is even more startling. Whistlerian or Hopperesque, perhaps.

  3. 3 kate January 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I love these paintings and the quiet, deliberate organization of the scenes.
    The artist’s painting style reflects the couple’s lifestyle. The furniture shown is utilitarian and spare. Rooms are not empty but instead seem to hold very few decorative items. No ornate designs on pottery or linens, no rugs, just a few simple frames on walls. Even the people are dressed in modest clothing. They are calmly going about their chores or sitting peacefully.
    There is such a richness in that kind of life, devoid of “flashiness” and materialism.
    I love the feeling this creates for me. I want to visit these rooms. Everything has been put in its place. Here at home, when the house is in disorder, my mind is in disorder. To me there is nothing more peaceful and relaxing than a clean house; a place where I can hear myself think.

  4. 4 clairan January 18, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Nice coincidence, June. Morandi is one of my favorites. Love them bottles!

  5. 5 June January 18, 2009 at 10:52 am


    It’s also interesting that Hammershoi is having a major exhibit at the same time as Giorgio Morandi, another “quiet” painter. He works with still life, matte containers, lines up and painted with very very subdued hues.

    Both painters deal with relatively humble, domestic settings and scenes; both use understated color; both come close to abstraction while retaining enough elements of representation to be identified. And both are painting during major social upheavels — war, economic crises, etc.

    After all the flim-flam in the art markets, it may be that major curators are looking for something that calms and brings us back to essences.

  6. 6 clairan January 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks June. I also lived with those kind of doors. The lustrous shiny white paint. So inviting. And yet in Hammershoi one wonders if they invite us in or close us in; lead us in or show us out? I love how his work is very paradoxical.

  7. 7 June January 17, 2009 at 10:38 am


    I found your description, “long and slow,” particularly poignant. One of the ingredients missing in visual arts education is the knowledge that some great visual art can’t be “gotten” quickly, and all visual art will benefit from “long and slow” observation. It might be the single most lost piece of American’s understanding of the visual arts.

    Thank you, Clairan, for introducing me to another new artist. I hadn’t heard of Hammershoi before today; the painting “White Doors” in particular catches my throat. I have always lived in houses with doors like these and have often wondered what signiicance they carried for me — they seem so important and so silent.

  8. 8 clairan January 17, 2009 at 8:43 am


    I would say in some way I found the works “timeless” — static in a wondrous way.

  9. 9 Olga January 17, 2009 at 5:55 am

    I too saw and very much enjoyed this exhibition. I loved the light in his paintings, and the sense of time. I also spent a long time gazing at them, and found them to be a wondrous meld of representational and abstract. The women were part of the furniture and decorations, and the furniture and decorations had a life of worth just like any individual. I felt that he loved those spaces.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  10. 10 clairan January 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Sorry, Eileen, I thought I’d put that in. He died in 1916.

    Yes, Margaret, revelatory I should think.

  11. 11 Margaret Almon January 16, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for introducing this artist to me. I like the combination of muted color and light, and your observation that they are not without hope. The still small voice is quiet, but often a revelation.

  12. 12 eileen d January 16, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting work, and analysis of it. Did he paint after WWI? How long did he live? I wonder if the war changed his style or subject matter.

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