Vilhelm Hammershøi was a Danish painter, born in 1864. He is known for his poetic, subdued portraits and interiors, always muted in tone. His works are characterized by limited palette consisting of greys, as well as desaturated yellows, greens, and other dark hues. Their simplicity and melancholic vision project an air of slight tension and mystery. If you never heard of Hammershøi, welcome to his world:
Ida Reading a Letter
Painted in 1899, Ida Reading a Letter was one the first works painted by Hammershøi in the rooms of his home in Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen, an address that was to play a critical role in artist life. Idea was Hammershøi’s wife. This sparsely furnished space, with its bare wooden floorboards, perpendicular wall mouldings, sentinel stoves and solid white-painted doors quickly became the central motif of his work.
Hammershøi’s use of light, muted tones and choice of subject are indebted to the Dutch seventeenth-century master Johannes Vermeer, and it seems impossible that Hammershøi did not have his work in mind while painting his composition.
Interior with Ida in a White Chair
Hammrshøi created the series of paintings made from this viewpoint in the apartment but this painting seem to be the most poetic of them all. Hammershøi’s captures a sense of timelessness and introspective solitude. As Hanne Finsen and Inge Vibeke Raashou-Nielsen wrote, in his interior landscapes, ‘light is the principal subject…and that light is the meagre Danish winter light, the light of grey weather quite without colour, warmth, or gaiety, albeit so rich in nuance…There is a light that pours in over the canvas and defines the space…The light is usually indirect for, of course, Hammershøi also knows that indirect light is often the most beautiful…’ (Hanne Finsen and Inge Vibeke Raaschou-Nielsen, Vilhelm Hammershøi, En Retrospektiv udstilling, Copenhagen, 1981, p. 16).
Interior with Young Woman from Behind
There is a hypothesis saying Ida is often depicted facing away, since in the portraits in which she is facing the viewer, her face reveals “a troubled soul”; and maybe Hammershøi painted her in the structured, minimalist interiors as a response to an emotionally fraught domestic life. We can’t be sure if that was the motivation of Hammershøi, but for sure we know that for the decade that he resided in the apartment at Strandgade 30 he painted more than sixty canvases depicting the rooms of the dwelling, often including Ida.
Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade 30
“What makes me choose a motif is as much the lines in it, what I would call the architectural stance in the picture. And then the light, of course. It is naturally also very important, but the lines are almost what I am most taken by.” wrote Vilhelm Hammershøi in 1907. Here he renders the building’s interior courtyard, with strong illumination focused on an open window. Three doorways at lower right, each obscured, lead, respectively, to the street, to a staircase, and to the cellar. The eccentric and irregular geometries created by walls and windows, overhangs and thresholds, in conjunction with the essentially monochromatic gray palette punctuated by restrained mauve, endow the composition with a distinctly disturbing quality. The opened window and doorways suggest human presence, but the overall effect is one of profound absence.