While Hammershøi’s artistic ancestry is rooted in the formal traditions of the Dutch Golden Age, and Johannes Vermeer in particular, his approach to established genres of painting is soft, stoic and wholly original. Beginning with portraiture, he caused a sensation with his first submission to the Danish Royal Academy in 1885, Portrait of a Young Woman, The Artist’s Sister, Anna. The work was overlooked by the jury for the Neuhausen Prize and prompted a furious backlash from fellow artists who felt that his contribution merited greater recognition. The composition is spare and balanced, hinting at the early influence of Whistler (whose works he knew well and whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to meet), with an outline of a door behind the seated figure staring blankly at something out of view. The palette is dominated by the artist’s trademark hues of atmospheric greys, white, brown and inky black. The title suggests that the work was intended as a portrait, but there are no indicators of the sitter's character, disposition, social status or other narrative typical of the period’s genre scenes. It can be argued that Hammershøi had stepped away from Naturalism and introduced Danish Art to the Symbolist tides to come, and that this painting provided the thematic foundation for the rest of the artist’s career: the depiction of the solitary figure, isolated in her own world.
Finding expression in the occasional landscape or city street scene, as well as other portraits, Hammershøi’s almost spiritual interest in isolation is most powerfully and consistently articulated in his iconic interiors. These were almost always painted in his own home and frequently devoid of any human presence, except for an occasional female figure, usually seen from behind. The artist and his wife moved into their apartment at Strandgade 30 in 1898, where they had the walls painted a cool grey, which would better absorb and reflect the distinct Nordic light that he sought to capture, and the woodwork a stark white, used brilliantly as a framing device in his compositions. It is here that he painted what are considered to be his most important interior paintings, including the present work. A contemporary critic wrote in 1907 that “…Hammershøi, of all the Danish painters the most still and silent, the master of few and muted colors, is living over in the oldest Christianshavn in an ancient two-story dilapidated court, whose half-timbered warehouses sway in and out where the side’s subsiding walls must be braced with heavy timbers. He paints in a large gray room so deep that its inner recesses, the winter sunshine notwithstanding, remain in subdued twilight. And the only sound is a robin’s fluttering about on the old mahogany furniture” (P. Vad, Hammershøi. Værk og liv, Copenhagen, 1988, p. 400).
In each painting, Hammershøi punctuates the stage with pieces from his collections of dark wood furniture, ceramics, paintings, musical instruments and other objects. Chairs, lamps, bowls and framed pictures reappear in countless configurations, and through their deliberate and meticulous arrangement he adapts the conventions of classical still life painting. To this end, the women in his paintings become another element of the still life, a carefully composed form reflecting the light of an unseen source.
Although the home is his own and the figure is his wife, Ida, Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 dodges intimacy in favor of distance, reaching for universality over specificity. Hammershøi was an exceedingly quiet and withdrawn man with very few friends but many admirers, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Sergei Diaghilev. He did not leave any journals or essays to contextualize his art or process, but in a rare interview from 1907 he explained his preference in developing compositional structure: "What makes me choose a motif are ... the lines, what I like to call the architectonic attitude in the picture. And then the light, naturally. Naturally it also has a great deal to say, but what means practically the most for me is the lines" (ibid, p. 400). The compositional strength of the present work is grounded in its decisive use of horizontal and vertical lines. The top of the piano and wainscoting bisects the work in half; the gradient field of cool tonal greys recede and the warm whites of the linen-covered table top is pushed into the space occupied by the viewer. The right angles of the picture frames are balanced by the ellipses of the dishes, while the irregular forms of the oil lamp and piano’s turned legs are squared by the hard lines of woodwork extending out of the composition. Even though the work has a graphic flatness, Hammershøi expertly and effortlessly conveys texture: a creased linen tablecloth, the cold and rigid density of ceramics, and the soft mound of butter. His reduction of the objects to their barest elements anticipates the introspective still lifes of Morandi, who shares a capacity for lending gravity to an otherwise muted subject.
In addition to these drawn elements, these are paintings of light and tonality, and the effect is almost photographic. Just as Vermeer may have employed a camera obscura in The Art of Painting, Hammershøi used photography to expand his sense of pictorial space, light and time, leaving an impression that is both modern and timeless. As Poul Vad wrote, “photography is one of the phenomena that defines modernity. Undoubtedly the photographic aspect of Hammershøi's paintings holds some of the explanation of why this artist, who was so very bound by tradition, painted paintings that nevertheless belong under the mantle of modernity and still have a modern feel to this day” (Hammershøi und Europa. Ein Dänischer Künstler um 1900 (exhibition catalogue), Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2012, p. 201).
Although the formal qualities of their art and their personal dispositions were very distinct, Hammershøi and his Norwegian contemporary, Edward Munch, explored existential themes that run parallel. The two artists met in 1888 (and likely again in 1891) through the Danish painter Johan Rohlde, a mutual friend, who was holding a small studio exhibition of works that had been refused by the Academy from a handful of artists, including Hammershøi. Soon after, in his canvas Night in Saint Cloud (1890, National Museum, Oslo, Norway), Munch employed a similarly monochromatic palette to render the motif that obsessed his fellow Scandinavian for his entire career, the introspective device of the figure in isolation at a window (the figure is thought to be the Danish poet, Emanuel Goldstein). Later, in the catalogue for his 1929 exhibition at Blomqvist Fine Art, Munch published excerpts from his diaries, 1889-1929, including what became known as his “artistic manifesto” dated to St. Cloud, 1889: “The subjects of painting will no longer be interiors, with people reading and women knitting. They will be living, breathing people who feel and love and suffer. People will understand what is sacred in these things and doff their hats as in a church.” Through his embrace of ambiguity, Hammershøi avoids the anecdotal aspects of interior scenes that Munch rails against, reaching a universal emotional density that is deeply felt.
Hammershøi work has recently been the subject of numerous retrospective exhibitions in Europe, Asia and America, prompting overdue recognition of one of Denmark’s most innovative and celebrated artists.
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