Painted in 1886, the present work is one of two similar sized oils of the artist's mother, Frederikke Amalie Hammershøi, née Rentzmann (1838-1914), in profile that Hammershøi painted that year. The other, in which the sitter is seen against a completely plain background without the door panel, and also in a private collection, was exhibited in the Hammershøi exhibition at Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen in 1981.
Hammershøi was very attached to his mother, and executed over ten portraits of her in different mediums during his life. Not only was Frederikke a strong character and both an emotionally and financially stabilising force in the Hammershøi family, but she became Vilhem Hammershøi's first archivist.
The present composition is described in Hammershøi's distinctive muted tone and restricted palette, the austere depths of black and grey punctuated by the cool clarity of the sitter's hands, face and kerchief. Apart from the delicate treatment of these features of Hammershøi's mother, nothing more than the most rudimentary details are included, the emphasis being on evoking an essence rather than a place. Hammershøi did not accept portrait commissions, and only painted people he knew personally, making this a deeply meaningful work for the artist.
The composition clearly takes its cue from James MacNeill Whistler's seminal Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother of 1871 (fig. 1). This work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1872 and was acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 1891, having been exhibited there as early as 1884. It is entirely possible that Hammershøi had seen Whistler's celebrated composition during journeys to Paris in 1889 and 1891-92, and would certainly have seen reproductions of the American's famous portrait in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts following its exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1883. Hammershøi had already admired Whistler as a student, and later, acutely aware of Whistler's work, attempted to make contact with Whistler while in London in 1989. Ironically, the two men never met.
The appearance of this painting on the market for the first time since it was painted comes at a time of renewed interest in the artist's work following the recent major Hammershøi retrospective at the Royal Academy, London and the Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
FIG. 1, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother, 1871, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
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