19th Century European Paintings

Hammershøi’s White Doors: A Minimalist Masterpiece

By Richard Lowkes

In the upcoming 19th Century European Paintings auction on 6 June, Sotheby’s is privileged to bring to the market White Doors. Interior Strandgade 30 by Vilhelm Hammershøi. Never offered at auction before and unseen in public since its inclusion in the Hammershøi retrospective in New York and Washington D.C. in 1983, the painting is part of the estate of renowned Danish American furniture designer Jens Risom (1916-2016).

Painted in 1899, White Doors was one of the first works painted by the artist in his apartment at Strandgade 30 in the mercantile district of Christianshavn 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 occupied the apartment from 1898 until 1909, and during this decade its sparsely furnished interconnecting rooms, grey walls and solid white-painted doors provided the setting for some of his most recognisable compositions. Hammershøi painted the present view in numerous arrangements: with and without Ida, the dining table, and the stove that stood behind the door in the right corner. In this example, he pares the space down to its absolute essentials to create a poetic symphony of tone and light.


White Doors perfectly reflects the interests and sensibilities of its distinguished owners, three generations of innovative furniture designers. The painting was acquired directly from the artist by Axel Otto Henriques, presumably around 1900 shortly after Hammershøi had completed it. The son of a Copenhagen merchant family, Henriques trained as an engineer before travelling to Paris to be trained as a printer. The painting was inherited by Henriques’ daughter Inger who, in 1915, married the architect Sven Risom.

White Doors was then inherited by Sven and Inger’s son Jens, one of the first designers to introduce Scandinavian design to the United States and best known for his mass-produced 'Risom Chair', the armless, affordable chair blending sharp Scandinavian lines and American arts and crafts. Risom was trained as a designer at the Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design (Kunsthåndværkerskolen), where he studied under Ole Wanscher and Kaare Klint. Fellow students included Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen. He went on to work as a furniture and interior designer for the architectural firm of Ernst Kuhn, later relocating to Stockholm, where he joined the design department of Nordiska Kompaniet where he was introduced to Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson.


In 1941, Risom teamed up with entrepreneur Hans Knoll and in 1942, they launched the Hans Knoll Furniture Company, one of the world's most enduring quality furniture brands, with 15 of the 20 pieces in the inaugural ‘600’ line designed by Risom. These works included stools, armchairs and loungers, made from cedar and surplus webbing, which have since become design classics. The Risom chair is still in production today and available through Knoll and Design Within Reach.

The painting will be exhibited at Sotheby’s New York from 4-10 May, ahead of the auction in London on 6 June.

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