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Vilhelm Hammershøi

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916), was a Danish painter. He is known for his poetic, low-key portraits and interiors.

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Vilhelm Hammershøi

  1. 1. click Vilhelm Hammershøi The Poetry of Silence
  2. 2.   Born in 1864 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The son of a well-to-do merchant, Christian Hammershøi, and his wife, Frederikke (née Rentzmann), Hammershøi studied drawing from the age of eight with Niels Christian Kierkegaard and Holger Grønvold, as well as painting with Vilhelm Kyhn, before embarking on studies with Frederik Vermehren and others at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. From 1883 to 1885, he studied with Peder Severin Krøyer at the Independent Study Schools, then debuted in the Charlottenborg Exhibition in the spring of 1885 with Portrait of a Young Girl (his sister, Anna; Pierre Auguste Renoir is reported to have admired this painting). Hammershøi married Ida Ilsted in 1891.   Vilhelm Hammershøi 1864 – 1916
  3. 4. "Photos of Strandgade 30 show that Vilhelm and Ida had plenty of furniture, pictures on the walls and other objects. Like props in a stage set,however, Hammershøi removed or rearranged these objects to create his compositions."
  4. 7.   Stilled life Ian McKeever RA has long found inspiration in the Nordic wilderness, seeking to grasp the spirit, rather than the image, of places and sharing with Hammershøi an artistic sensibility in which light and colour evoke a profound stillness. Here he discusses the elements that connect their work "Some works of art get right under the skin. I first came across the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi while visiting Scandinavia in the early 1980s and, over the ensuing years, his work, as if by stealth, has crept inside me. It is that kind of painting, neither overly demonstrative nor assertive, yet in its own quiet way slowly insistent on commanding attention. Perhaps it was this quality which first drew me to the paintings, the simple intimation to stand still, focus and be attentive. It takes a certain stillness, actually in the painting itself, to engender such a response from the viewer, yet it is this quality, a longing for stillness, one senses strongly in Hammershøi’s paintings. It is as if they take the heat out of the intensity of the moment of our lives and ask us to enter another feeling of time which goes beyond our own immediacy. Painters either paint towards the light or towards the night. Hammershøi seems to paint towards the night. There will be less light, for the light can but fade. Yet unlike the enveloping dusk in the late bedroom interiors of Walter Sickert, where the intimacy of night will ensue, with Hammershøi the fading light is held, idealised and transformed into a state of being. For he must at all costs suppress the closing of the day, the light must be made to linger on and he must see anew what has already been seen before, see it again and then yet again. As a painter, one gets this same sensation looking at a painting on the studio wall as dusk approaches and the light fades. First, colour is bled out of the painting, then forms become reduced to silhouettes and with each passing phase one wishes to hold the moment longer in order to see what one could not even imagine in the painting before. For we see the painting anew each time we look. For example, in Interior with Young Woman seen from the Back of 1903-04, a painting I am particularly drawn to, a young woman stands with her back to us, holding a large plate in her left hand, the top edge balanced against the curve of her hip, her head tilted slightly down and towards the right as if to indicate that she has just turned away.
  5. 8. Distracted, her attention has left us and that absence now becomes more weighted than what was present before. Hammershøi often invited his subject to turn away from us and we, the viewers looking into the painting, are left isolated with no gaze to return our own, pondering our response to this moment of intimacy. The phrase ‘stilled-life’ seems appropriate in speaking about this painting, as indeed it does for many of Hammershøi’s paintings. They have the same stillness and detachment one finds in the works of Vermeer. Both artists treated the human form as a still-life, composing the figure within a wider interior space of hard lines and angles. This imbues the figure with a fragility and a strange sensuousness that invites an intimacy with the subject about whom we are told little and know even less. It is as if, in looking, we recognise that we should not be there. However, since we are there, we look in silence, waiting – perhaps now not even thinking – looking and waiting, not knowing when to leave."
  6. 9. Haunted houses Vilhelm Hammershøi’s apparently backwardlooking paintings of enigmatic interiors were, in fact, modernist in spirit, argues Martin Gayford Vilhelm Hammershøi always was a puzzle. Around the turn of the century, when the artist was still a young man, the critic Karl Madsen observed: ‘Behind Hammershøi’s colours we sense an infinitely cautious person, a quiet, sad dreamer, the weirdest soul ever to grace Danish painting.’ Strange he might have been, but there was nothing unusual about the life of Hammershøi (1864-1916) at all. He was born into a comfortable Copenhagen family, the son of a merchant. From an early age, he showed great talent as an artist. He attended art school, where he was regarded as a prodigy. In due course, he married Ida Ilsted, sister of a fellow painter, and lived without drama until his untimely death from cancer. Hammershøi travelled extensively and largely uneventfully to London, Paris, the Netherlands and Italy. The most dramatic event in his apparently placid existence came on a visit to Italy in 1907, when he and Ida were mistakenly arrested for forgery. Perhaps these two mild and undemonstrative Danes struck the Italian authorities as suspicious. It was Hammershøi’s work, not his life, that seemed so peculiar, even to his intimate circle. Madsen was not an outsider but a close friend; he is one of the sitters in a group portrait of five of the artist’s friends. Even so, he doesn’t seem to have understood Hammershøi, whom he described as ‘the oddest, most peculiar and private painter’ among his contemporaries in Denmark. It’s easy to see what he meant. There’s an enigmatic, almost haunted quality about a typical Hammershøi picture such as Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black. Strandgade 30 of 1901. The image seems deliberately to thwart the viewer’s curiosity. The only figure in view is turned away from us. One cannot tell what she is doing, although at a guess she is reading a letter. The space around her is meticulously ordered, so much so that – like interiors by other painters such as Edward Hopper – it acquires a strange feeling, as if slightly disassociated from reality. You feel you’ve been put in an unusual state of mind, paying more attention than you normally would to stillness, silence, the fall of light on a wall, a woman’s back.
  7. 10. This mildly mysterious feeling is intensified in Hammershøi’s paintings of uninhabited spaces, such as the echoing rococo Interior of the Great Hall in Lindegaaden of 1909 or the near mystical rays of sunlight pouring through the window of an empty room, a subject later treated by Hopper. This tendency of Hammershøi to focus on nothingness – either with spectral effect or quiet elation – struck the writer of the catalogue to an exhibition of Danish pictures held in London in 1907 as especially rum. ‘Who would have ever thought of putting forward an empty room as the subject for a picture? Yet the sensitive gradations of light and their value in empty places have aroused in him a curious kind of perception.’ Hammershøi’s landscapes, such as Tirsdagsskoven (Tuesday’s Wood) from 1893 are also uninhabited and possess a similarly eerie mood. Sometimes there is a euphoric fall of light on an undramatic stretch of Danish countryside. These have a specifically Baltic mood reminiscent of early nineteenth-century painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and the Danish painter Christen Købke. Hammershøi’s cityscapes, such as View of the Old Asiatic Company of 1902, depict a crepuscular gloom. The streets are deserted, giving them an air of spectral stage sets. There is a further mystery about Hammershøi, an art historical one. Was he a backward-looking painter or a radical – or perhaps an amalgam of both? Initially, one might think he was a reactionary. Many of the ingredients in Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black. Strandgade 30 obviously come from Vermeer: the figure standing by the window, reading, the composition of interlocking rectangles. Looking at this, and bearing in mind that he was a near contemporary of Kandinsky (b. 1866) and Matisse (b. 1869) it would be reasonable to conclude that Hammershøi was a reactionary imitator of old masters. That was not, however, how it seemed at the time. As a young artist, his work was often rejected by official exhibitions, in the way that happened to Impressionist works in Paris. These rebuffs were one of the motives for the foundation of the breakaway Free Exhibition in Copenhagen – an equivalent to the Parisian Salon des Independents. The reason his work wasn’t acceptable – apart from that unconventional oddity of atmosphere – was precisely the misty, muted look of his paintings. An early review, from 1885, picked on this point. The critic complained that the young painter’s ‘washed out colour leaves us with the impression that the entire scene has been shrouded in this foggy veil intentionally… such a calculation towards the “modern” is not a fortunate trait in a debutante.’
  8. 11. Why did fog look modern in 1885? Well, it was Whistlerian – and at that date Whistler was still a controversial figure. Hammershøi revered Whistler, whom he tried – uharacteristically in vain – to visit in London in 1898 (Whistler was in Paris at the time). Many a Hammershøi could have been entitled, in Whistler style, Harmony in Grey and Black . But there is another point here: Hammershøi’s treatment of colour was a strategy of reduction – reducing its range to increase its intensity and controllability. And reduction, in all sorts of ways, is a distinctively modernist strategy – pithily encapsulated by the architect Mies van der Rohe’s slogan ‘less is more’. The Danish art historian Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark has noted this aspect of Hammershøi. She points out that he had, ‘a distinctively modern sensibility, which may be seen in his monochromatic surfaces, the tendency toward abstraction and the sometimes unreal light’. And, if you look at his work a second time, you can see how that is true. His Vermeerish interiors are built on a geometric grid which could provide the scaffolding for a Piet Mondrian. His limited palette is foggy in a manner that suggests the Edwardian cityscapes described by Joseph Conrad and GK Chesterton. But it is also characteristic of modernism – consider Cubism, or the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi. The numerous variations on the same elements – Ida and the rooms in their apartments, especially the one at Strandgade 30 that they inhabited from 1898 to 1909 – also begin to look like a recognisable artistic strategy. Compare Morandi (b. 1890) and his endless rearrangements of familiar bottles and vases. Hammershøi came close to fulfilling Matisse’s suggestion that a painter should cut out his tongue, and those remarks about his work that do survive are – like his pictures – muted, hedged about by a fog of diffident qualifications. However, his comments are surprising and revealing. ‘What makes me choose a motif,’ he remarked in a rare interview in 1907, ‘is as much the lines in it, what I would call the architectural stance of the picture. And then the light, of course. It is naturally also very important, but the lines are almost what I am most taken by. Colour is of secondary importance, I suppose; I am not indifferent to how it looks in colour. I work very hard to make it harmonious. But when I choose a motif I mainly look at lines.’ So, according to this typically muffled utterance, Hammershøi’s priority is the ‘architectural stance’, the formal grid of the picture. What he was seeking in those interiors, it seems, was first and foremost not atmosphere or ‘mystery’ but geometry.
  9. 12. He also seems to have been doing something more than simply painting what he saw in front of him. Rather, he was first creating a controlled environment, then using it as a basis for pictures. Comparison of Hammershøi’s interiors led Patricia Berman – in her book on nineteenth-century Danish painting – to stress ‘the extent to which the artist selectively orchestrated the setting, moving furniture, emphasising or masking the corner stove, and even transforming the colour of the walls’. The various Hammershøi apartments, particularly the one at Strandgade 30, were examples of the maison d’artiste – or artist’s house: the dwelling as work of art and manifesto. This was evidently what the Hammershøis were about at Strandgade 30 and their other dwellings. The flats looked like Hammershøi interiors, says Berman, ‘painted in a uniform pale grey and cream to highlight the baroque and neoclassical detailing’, with a few choice objects added. Hammershøi spoke about his attitude to interior design in an interview with a magazine Hjemmet in 1909: ‘If only people would open their eyes to the fact that a few good things in a room give it a far more beautiful and finer quality than many mediocre things… that every genuine object, even if it is of cheap materials, is better and handsomer than imitation expensive objects.’ In other words, again, less is more. Careful selection is evident in the interiors where a few choice items – the Biedermeier sofa, the blue and white porcelain tureen – are featured again and again. His taste for misty cities – his views of Copenhagen show the same preference – was scarcely idiosyncratic. It was shared with Whistler, Monet and many contemporaries. In this, Hammershøi wasn’t odd at all. But he was distinctively a northerner, and one, on visual evidence, who liked the north. A good deal of early modern art was created by artists from the cold, grey high latitudes of Europe who craved the light and heat of the south: Matisse, Van Gogh, Derain. Hammershøi was the opposite. Mediterranean light had no impact even on his Italian subjects, such as Interior of the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome of 1902. On visits to London, often in the winter months, Hammershøi sought out the mist and fog for which the city was renowned.
  10. 13. ‘ In London,’ his patron, the dentist Alfred Bramsen, recalled, ‘he even went down the river to Greenwich to find a good place from which to paint the ships on the Thames. But at that time of the year – he had a weakness for England in the dark autumn! – there was too much fog and it was too dark to paint.’ Are his pictures melancholy? They sometimes appear so – looking at the grey dingy world of The Jewish School in Guilford Street, London of 1912-13, for example. And yet Hammershøi’s only recorded remark about his feelings when at work suggests the opposite. ‘The best joy is what one experiences oneself when painting… and one is absorbed by it.’ He remains an enigma, but one who is slowly, almost a century after his death, becoming an art-historical star.
  11. 14. "…for the most part, he lived a quite isolated and quiet life in Copenhagen with his wife, who was his most constant model, in an apartment, which became his most constant subject."
  12. 15. "...I think in some ways the key to Hammershøi lies in Denmark and how the Danes are." Michael Palin
  13. 24. ..."great skill in making a lot out of very little light." Michael Palin
  14. 39. "The rooms seem hermetic, but not claustrophobic - perfectly poised on the brink of something happening, but nothing happens. Figures change, the furniture's position changes, but nothing essential changes. Woman Sewing in an Interior ."
  15. 41. "In the Northern Romantic tradition, when a woman is shown by an open window, the artist intends to suggest romantic longing or spiritual yearning. When Hammershoi's women stand by a window, it is so that he can explore subtle tonal variations between the harsh daylight outside and the soft, grey light of the interior. The light in Hammershoi's paintings has no spiritual or transcendental significance. "
  16. 46. "Hammershøi’s women stand isolated in their domestic spaces, like the female characters in the first act of an Ibsen play. " Ben Lewis
  17. 47. "In many paintings, a solitary woman turns her back to the viewer to look out of a window, play a piano, read a letter or look through an open door. It is important to remember that, despite the subtle atmosphere in his pictures, Hammershoi is not a narrative painter, still less a symbolist."
  18. 55. "At times, a feeling of silent despair comes across pictures recording the banality of everyday life.... a young woman looks out of a window with her back turned to the viewer, marks a high point in the rendition of a poignant atmosphere suggested through posture, dim colors, and the erasure of contours, as if the painter were seeing his surroundings through a dark mist." Souren Melikian
  19. 57. "Hammershøi was interested in the architecture of the past because of its simplicity and beauty."
  20. 63. "The place and the moment are presented in a calm, understated manner; the entire scene has an enigmatic quality: What does the picture propped against the wall portray? What is the young man reading, and where are his thoughts wandering? What tales might not the furniture tell of the life lived in this room? "
  21. 65.   "Room with no view: in the artist’s minimal White Doors, 1905, it is what the observer cannot see that tells the tale." Ben Lewis  
  22. 66. "The doors are open, but they do not reveal anything. We see through an open door to a window beyond, but another door blocks our view so all we can see is a strip of light. The doors themselves are illuminated and the entire picture plane is rendered in consistent detail, so no one area has more importance tha another.hammershøi’s legacy."
  23. 68. ..."an inward-looking process where people are beginning to consider where they are – to look at the rooms they inhabit and why." Mike Poulton
  24. 70. "Hammershoi was a slow worker and it shows. You can sense the deliberation with which he applied every touch of paint to pictures in which he plays off light against dark, solid against void, and transparency against opacity. Empty space is given the same visual importance as solid form because it is as meticulously painted as everything else in the picture. A low, almost monochromatic tonality unifies the otherwise disparate elements within each room."
  25. 73. "The picture is only partly a description of a common natural phenomenon. The longer we look, the more we see it as a formal arrangement of squares and rectangles formed by the window and its panes, by the door and its inset panels, and by the panelling on the wainscot and walls."
  26. 81. "I’m fascinated by people who are defiantly painted from behind. Why have artists done that? Do they want us not to see them? What are they doing? " Michael Palin
  27. 84. " His work is long and slow, and at whichever moment one apprehends it, it will offer plentiful reasons to speak of what is important and essential in art." Rilke (1905).
  28. 85. "...The room is empty. A door opens in the middle of the picture, revealing a dark corridor, at the end of which there is another door, almost shut. On the right, a third door opens into the picture. We can’t see what’s behind it, and it obscures part of the room we are looking into." Ben Lewis
  29. 88. "Hammershøi appears to explore a personal fantasy world through enigmatic scenes that seem to be fragments from a larger story." Ben Lewis
  30. 92. ..."lonely figures in domestic, claustrophobic spaces.." Lucy Bailey
  31. 93. "I have always thought there was such beauty about a room like that, even though there weren’t any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren’t any." Hammershøi 1907
  32. 105. "If only people would open their eyes to the fact that few good things in a room give it a far more beautiful and finer quality than many mediocre things." Hammershøi, 1909
  33. 107. "There’s a sense of imminence about his art – of drama to come, or just gone.’" Vicki Mortimer
  34. 108. "There’s a sense of imminence about his art – of drama to come, or just gone.’" Vicki Mortimer
  35. 115. The women in his interiors turn away from us not because the artist wished to suggest loss or absence, but because he needed an inexpressive vertical form in that spot, perhaps to balance the placement of a chair or sofa. Frequently, a piece of furniture is placed somewhere in the room where in real life it could serve no practical purpose.
  36. 117. "Reek of repression: erotic sunlight plays on the neck of the Woman at a Piano." Ben Lewis  
  37. 119. "Strictly personally I am fond of the old homes, old furniture, of the quit distinctive atmosphere which reposes in all of this." Vilhelm Hammershøi 1909
  38. 120. "What makes me choose a motif are ...the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of an image. And then there´s the light, of course. Obviously, that´s also very important, but I think it´s the lines that have the greatest significance for me. Colour is naturally not without importance.  I´m really not indifferent to how (the motif´s) colours look. I work hard to make it look harmonious. But when I choose a motif I´m thinking first and foremost of the lines." Vilhelm Hammershøi 1907
  39. 121. "...Following his trip to Paris, Hammershoi tried his hand at a more precise style betraying the influence of Manet and Degas, as in "Cello Player" of 1893. This vein did not last. But the trend toward more detailed depiction persisted as the painter returned to his favorite subjects, whether single feminine figures or empty interiors." Souren Melikian
  40. 124. .".what Hammershøi lacks in exuberance and brilliance, he more than compensates for with his weirdness and obsessiveness, which are superglued onto a mood of mesmerising ambiguity." Ben Lewis
  41. 126. ..." a man who led the life of a recluse, and declined to appear in public, whether at museum openings or theatrical performances, the suspicion may have been founded." Souren Melikian
  42. 136. ..."Head bent forward, the girl raises with her left hand an ill-determined fabric. The face and the right hand alone are carefully depicted while the dark brown bodice, the grayish skirt and the white fabric are smeared over in toned shades. Light floods part of the background as if sunshine were breaking through an invisible opening. Dealing with a trivial subject, the painter has managed to convey the impression of capturing a privileged moment of existential bliss." Souren Melikian Michael Palin
  43. 148. ..." he looks ahead, his eyes very slightly cast down, absorbed in his thoughts. His expression is one of gravity, not distress, as if he had just been made aware of the importance of some fundamental purpose." Souren Melikian
  44. 149. "He was to prove as evasive as the meaning of his paintings. He left behind no journals and before his death he destroyed his collection of letters. He was by all accounts a shy, retiring man with few close friends." Michael Palin
  45. 156. "...I don’t think Hammershoi would have liked the confessional times we live in now, when a desire for privacy is considered suspect and appreciation of any work of art seems to depend on how much we know about the artist’s personal life. " Michael Palin
  46. 158. "Hammershøi was interested in many of Whistler’s paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black. Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), which he recreated in his own portrait of his mother, The Artist’s Mother, Frederikke Hammershøi (1886)."
  47. 159. "At the Hirschsprung Collection, in a stash of letters saved by his doting mother, Hammershoi, about to marry Ida, worries about the mental instability of his mother-in-law to be. This madness in the family could explain the downcast eyes and profound sadness in most of the portraits of Ida, and perhaps why she and Vilhelm never had children." Michael Palin
  48. 169. "..Alfred Bramsen, the Copenhagen dentist who became Hammershoi’s greatest champion, patron and friend." Michael Palin
  49. 176. "...they are not so much nudes as naked women, revealed and vulnerable, painted in cool hard colours and sometimes from an almost voyeuristic perspective." Michael Palin
  50. 184. "He belonged to a group of young men who took a summer-house on the sea some sixty miles from Copenhagen where, inspired by Hellenistic ideals, they sang, danced, wore togas and ran around naked in celebratory Nordic fashion." Michael Palin
  51. 185. "...the master transformed the panel into a procession of ghostly figures from the netherworld walking through light and shadow." Souren Melikian
  52. 189. ... "buildings and cityscapes, usually shown at dusk, when the streets are deserted. At first glance, these have sadness in them you don't find in the interiors".
  53. 198. ..."Between 1897 and 1906 Hammershoi made three visits to London, drawn to the sooty mists and fogs that everyone else complained about." ..."From his apartment opposite, he made a remarkable painting of the museum." Michael Palin
  54. 199. "In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals." Jean Moréas,
  55. 201. .."deep melancholy’ present in Hammershøi’s work,".. Bob Crowley
  56. 210. "Hammershøi used a photograph of the building, as he did for some of his other works, as a reference for this painting".
  57. 217. "In 1886, in a review of the spring exhibition at Charlottenborg, Karl Madsen proclaimed Hammershøi to be a major proponent of what he called ‘neurasthenic painting".
  58. 218. ..."evoke a landscape which has times when the sun never shines ." Mike Poulton
  59. 242. "Rarely did an artist's pictures reflect so closely his peculiar personal habits and surroundings. .. In 1900, when Emil Nolde went to see the Danish painter in the apartment that he shared with his wife in a patrician building at Strandgade 30, the German visitor was struck by his retiring manner. "He spoke slowly and softly; we all spoke quietly," Nolde later noted." Souren Melikian
  60. 243. "In 1904, Rainer Maria Rilke, intending to write an essay about Hammershoi, in turn paid him a visit at home. The Austrian poet remarked that conversation was difficult with this taciturn man." Souren Melikian
  61. 244. "The color is always subdued, usually consisting of black, white, grey and brown (almost sepia). To me they often read as almost recollections, seen through a melancholy haze of memory, although the paintings are often detailed and clear."
  62. 245. "Magnificent obsession: Interior, Strandgade, 1908. Hammershøi explores a fantasy world through enigmatic scenes that seem to be fragments from a larger story". Ben Lewis
  63. 262.   ..."Until his death in 1916, Hammershoi kept repeating his subjects of olden days with punctilious accuracy. The genius of young Hammershoi had given way to a maniac's obsessions." Souren Melikian
  64. 263. "He was to prove as evasive as the meaning of his paintings. He left behind no journals and before his death he destroyed his collection of letters. He was by all accounts a shy, retiring man with few close friends." Michael Palin
  65. 266. "No one knew where to place him, and because he could not be fitted into a ‘canon’ of art, he was largely forgotten".
  66. 268. Music: "Meditation" by Zbigniew Preisner
  67. 269. Presentation: Nicolas.Svistoonoff
  68. 270. http:// / exhibitions / hammershoi /,186,RAMA.html,187,RAMA.html,189,RAMA.html http:// / static -51? topic =7442&forum=12 links:
  69. 271. THE END