Edmund Henriques, Copenhagen (acquired from the artist)
Private Collection (by descent from the above; sale: Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen, 2 May 1984, lot 63)
Sale: Christie's, London, 29 March 1990, lot 55
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Copenhagen, Den frie Udstilling, 1900, no. 45
Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen, Mindeudstilling, 1916, no. 141
London, Connaught Brown, Northern Spirit, 1986
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Vilhelm Hammershøi, 2003, no. 21, illustrated in the catalogue
Modum, Blaafarvevaerket, The Magic of Quietness, Ida Lorentzen and Vilhelm Hammershøi, 2005, no. 44, illustrated in the catalogue
Copenhagen, Ordrupgaad & Barcelona, Centre de Cultura Contemporània, Hammershøi-Dreyer, The Magic of Images, 2006-07, no. 21 (Copenhagen); no. 16 (Barcelona), illustrated in the catalogues
Alfred Bramsen, ed., Vilhelm Hammershøi Arbejder, Copenhagen, 1900, no. 122
Alfred Bramsen & Sophus Michaëlis, Vilhelm Hammershøi. Kunstneren og hans værk, Copenhagen & Christiania, 1918, p. 96, no. 187, catalogued and discussed
Poul Vad, Hammershøi, Vaerk og liv, Copenhagen, 1988, p. 180, no. 115, illustrated
Philippe Delerm, Intérieur, Paris, 2001, p. 20, illustrated
Painted in 1899, Ida Reading a Letter was among 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 the development of the painter's singular aesthetic. Hammershøi and his wife Ida moved into the apartment in 1898 and would remain there until 1909. Until moving to the address his depictions of interiors had been no more important than his portraits, architectural paintings and landscapes. Once established in Strandgade, however, Hammershøi's arrangement and rearrangement of the distinctive, 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.
The silvery-grey palette of the present work and the absence of sentimentality draw striking comparison with the works of James McNeill Whistler. Hammershøi was deeply influenced by the American artist with whom he first exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. Both artists distilled the painting of women in empty rooms to its very essence, the limited tonal range further tempering any narrative. The sitter's profile pose and unsentimental demeanour echo Whistler's iconic Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother of 1871 which was acquired by the French state in 1891 and would have been viewed by Hammershøi at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. The sense of abstraction is heightened in Hammershøi's work by the removal of superfluous detail, relying almost entirely on the play of tones and geometries to convey the artist's intentions.
In addition to the influence of Whistler, Hammershøi's subtle use of light, muted tones and choice of subject are indebted to the Dutch seventeenth-century master Johannes Vermeer. Both artists favoured depictions of single female models posed in a simple room with an indirect light source. Hammershøi travelled to Holland in 1887 where he would have seen Vermeer's works first-hand. Comparing the present work with Vermeer's Woman Reading a Letter (fig. 1), it seems impossible that Hammershøi did not have this work in mind while painting his composition. Hammershøi's painting acts almost as a mirror image of Vermeer's: both women adopt the same unselfconscious pose, their heads tilted to read a letter; the hairstyle and clothes, though separated by over two hundred years, bear remarkable similarities; and the comparable positioning of the table slightly obscuring the figure with an indirect light source flooding the scene.
It is the quality of the light that acts as the most defining element of Hammershøi's compositions. 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).
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