The Eloquent Art of Vilhelm Hammershøi
A Danish painter of poignant melancholy interiors
Some artists paint in order to add drama and ferment to the world; others use their art to strip it away. Vilhelm Hammershøi was one of the latter.
His paintings consist of half-fogged interiors that, through their hushed ambience, achieve a memorably disquieting effect. They look upon the world as if through the gauze of consciousness: here, the most meaningful encounters occur in the most closed-off quarters.
Hammershøi was a Danish artist born in Copenhagen in 1864. The son of a well-off merchant, he spent most of his life in the city of his birth. He trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, taking lessons from the painter Niels Christian Kierkegaard, cousin of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Many of his most effective paintings were completed inside his own home, with his wife, Ida, as the model. In these paintings, one encounters little but the empty spaces of a well-to-do home; the feeling is both leaden and uplifting. If rays of sun penetrate the rooms then they do so through the restricted aperture of a windowpane. Outside is light; inside is real-life amid the penitent strictures of Neo-classical domestic architecture.
Such spaces contest the idea that art represents; rather, they yield the possibility of art defining experiences through images, experiences that words cannot quite surmise. As such, Hammershøi’s paintings offer a curious warmth. The spaces are uncluttered and eloquent; perhaps the meditative state of mind we all wish we could access, from time to time.
Hammershøi style was hardly revolutionary. His most active period was at the turn of the 20th century, a time when the artistic tumult happening in Paris would exercise profound changes on the course of western art.
Hammershøi’s work was substantially at odds with the avant-garde of this time. Contrary to the Modernist mode, his colors are nearly always muted — you may even say stifled — and his style is fervently representational.
Still, his melancholy and atmospheric paintings brought him critical and commercial success. Over the following decades, he grew a following of artists and intellectuals that included Rainer Marie Rilke and Emil Nolde.
Despite the muted palette, Hammershøi’s use of color was in fact remarkably subtle. Exploring shades of mauve, pale yellow and grey, he created beautiful and sophisticated vibrations of color harmony.
Moreover, by using combinations of light rays, he was able to construct complex semi-abstract compositions within a naturalistic setting. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in In Interior with an Easel, painted in 1912, where an array of light sources cuts across the room spaces in a series of dynamic prisms, made more vivid by the formal rectilinear lines of the architecture.
The painting sums up Hammershøi’s proposition as an artist: beauty approached through silence, whilst also suggestive of the vain hope of entering into that silence without disturbing it. As Hammershøi said himself, “I have always thought there was such beauty about a room even though there weren’t any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren’t any.”