LONDON – This May, in the context of our 19th Century European Paintings sale, we are offering a singularly fascinating painting by a Danish painter, the ‘poet of silence,’ Vilhelm Hammershøi

Singular in that it is the only known marine work by the artist, and singular in the ambiguity of its meaning. In Hammershøi’s other exterior views, as in his interiors, the scenes are remarkably closed and hermetic: the sea is only ever hinted at by the masts of tall ships peaking above high walls, the light of the sun indirect, through leaden skies or diffused by the crowns and branches of wispy trees. In Sun over the Sea, by contrast, the composition is exactly that: a bright radiant orb punctuates the sky and illuminates the wide expanse of the open ocean, to which masts of the ships are subordinate, not the other way around. 

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sun over the Sea. Estimate £100,000–150,000.

What was going through Hammershøi’s mind when he made this picture? Sun over the Sea was painted probably during the last decade of his life, and it seems to me that he was throwing reserve and introspection to the wind, contemplating the wider world beyond the confines of his ordered life in Copenhagen; or even the big question posed by his predecessors the Romantics: humankind’s position vis-à-vis the natural world. Or was he contemplating mortality, the relationship between the here and now and the world beyond?

Indeed compositionally and in terms of atmosphere, the painting comes closer than ever to the marines of Caspar David Friedrich and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg whose work he admired and which influenced his aesthetic. Like in Friedrich’s marines, the masts, cross-like, reach for the heavens in a moment of sublimity. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Sailing Ship, circa 1815, bpk | Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz | László Tóth.

Or are we reading too much into the painting? Was Hammershøi, in fact, simply experimenting with a new form of expression, and looking forward, not back? I am struck by the uncharacteristically fluid brushstroke, the radical cropping of the boats on the right, the strata of horizontal planes and lines, and the tonalities of light, akin to the nocturnes of the aesthete James McNeill Whistler whose paintings he so admired but whom he regretted never meeting during his stay in London. Was Sun over the Sea the prototype for a larger painting or series of paintings that he never completed? Hammershøi’s paintings always raise more questions than they answer, but to my mind this one, a departure for the artist in so many ways, presents the viewer with a particularly intriguing and compelling challenge.

Claude Piening is a specialist in the European Paintings department, Sotheby’s London.

The 19th Century European Paintings sale will be held at Sotheby's London on 22 May.