Hammershøi: Master of Danish Painting

My day started incredibly well. Caught the early train to Paris …yes this was a day trip for one reason and one reason only: There was a museum with a Vilhelm Hammershøi exhibition on and I wanted to be there! The posts tagged ‘Vilhelm Hammershøi; might explain why!  It ended with a terrible return journey via Eurostar, but thanks to the calming influence of Hammershøi’s paintings, it was not as fraught as it could have been. I do some weird stuff connected to this art project, and I love the fact I can say I popped over to Paris for an exhibition and this did not let me down!

The exhibition at Musee Jacquemart Andre explores Hammershøi amongst his friends and contemporaries, although this was not a direct comparison of the works; the situating of paintings by Peter Ilsted and Carl Holsoe was an interesting subplot on a journey through Hammershoi’s silent world.

Musee Jacquemart Andre – Hammershoi

Rather wonderfully, the exhibition is divided into eight themes.

Room 1 -Hammershoi and his family and friends

Born in 1864 in Copehnagen, Hammershøi came from a close knit and supportive family. Throughout his life he kept to a close circle of family and friends and this room particularly highlighted this connectivity.

Close friends with fellow artists, Carl Holsoe and Peter Ilsted; married to Ilsted’s sister, Ida, and brother Svend, also an artist; these are the people to whom Hammershøi returned again and again for inspiration.

This early self-portrait shows us a very serious and buttoned-up young man and it is alongside this portrait he made of Ida when they were first engaged. It was interesting to hear that he mostly worked from photographs for this; perhaps his shyness extended to being unable to be alone with Ida in these early days.

Dominating the room is the monumental Five Portraits.  left to right, Thorvald Bindesbøll, Svend Hammershøi (foreground, with pipe), Karl Madsen, Jens Ferdinand Willumsen,  and Carl Holsøe  Each man is held in his own thoughts and, while some engage us directly, we cannot help but feel like interlopers in an intimate scene where we are not welcome.  The verticals of the candlesticks are reflected in the windows behind, and with them just being off-centre, it adds a little disquiet to an already intriguing scene. What have they been discussing?

Five Portraits, 1901-02, The Thielska Gallery, Stockholm

Room 2 – The first interiors, a personal style

The Artist’s Mother, Frederikke Hammershøi, 1886

This is Frederikke Hammershøi, Vilhelm’s mother who supported her son’s career from the very beginning.  This is a direct take on the famous Arrangement in grey and white, number 1 by James Whistler.  Hammershøi was a great admirer of Whistler and even tried to meet him in London.  This small oil is a tribute, both to Whistler’s use of the simple palette, but also to Hammershoi’s mother.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1, Portrait of the artist’s mother, James McNeill Whistler, 1871, Musee d’Orsay
Three Young Women, 1895, Ribe Art Museum

Hammershøi certainly kept very much to a core group of family and friends for his inspiration and his models.  Here Ida is seated between both her sisters-in-law,  but this is not a warm, friendly scene. Hammershøi certainly puts distance between them as none of the ladies are engaging with the others; each is lost in thought or action.  That is not to say that he was showing reality within these works; simply a way of expressing contemplation and the sense of a shared space, but not shared interests.  What is unusual here is the fact that we can see what the ladies are doing.  Hammershøi’s early works would have the figure in some sort of activity or he would give us a front view so we can sense their emotional state.  Later, he would literally turn this around.

Room 3 – Between fantasy and reality: Landscapes

Landscape, from Lejre, 1905, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

This room held landscapes from vacations Hammershøi and Ida took in both Denmark and France.  I always imagine  Hammershøi as being an indoor painter or one who would sooner paint from a window.  This example is typical though of the way in which he removes all clutter and noise from his world.  The simplicity of the rolling hills with well organised clouds above set this apart from landscape painters of his generation.

Room 4 – Urban landscapes: suspended time


St Peter’s Church, Cophenhagen, 1906, Statens Museum for Kunst

This was a place I visited in Copenhagen.

Although not the most beautiful of buildings, there was a sense of quietude in the grounds. Hammershøi takes out the buildings and landmarks that surround this church, one of the oldest buildings in the city.  He leaves in the tree and brings in the haze of light that is so reminiscent of his interior scenes.

Room 5 – A new approach to the nude

Female nude model, 1886, Private Collection

In the least known of his works, the nudes on display are not the sensual, unrealistic fantasy of what we expect to see in galleries, but a clinical, almost modern version.  Thje face of this model is obscured for some reason and it was unusual, at this time, to include the pubic hair.  Hammershøi, in his quiet way, was subverting the norm and bringing in a new way of looking.

Room 6 – The art of sobriety

Courtyard Interior at Strandgade, 30, The Ambassador John L Loeb Jr Danish Art Collection

Was thrilled to see this, Cour Strandgade 30, as I went to the house when I was in Copenhagen two years ago.  I snuck in, took the photo and hightailed it out of there.  But how wonderful to have spent a little time looking up into those windows I had come to know so well through paintings like these.


Room 7 – Everyday silhouettes and disquieting atmospheres

This was my favourite room. Painting after painting of Ida standing with her back to us in sparsely decorated rooms.   You want to walk in front of her to see what she is doing.  Such a difference from his earlier paintings and it is this air of mystery that is so beguiling.

Interior, 1899, National Gallery

And there is something so beautiful about the back of the neck.  The way her hair is loosening away from the bun is delicious.  This one, in particular, with the close cropping seems very intimate, yet we see nothing of her expression or how she is feeling.  We must guess and it always seems melancholic in nature.

Rest, 1905 Musee d’Orsay


Room 8 – Poetry of voids and light

The final room and this was my favourite painting of all.  The reason for this being the one I would like to own was down to one very simple aspect.  Hammershøi leaves in the space behind the open door.  There was a longing to go into that space, to stand against the wall as if waiting for someone to arrive. There is no figure to be seen anywhere, and you wonder who has left that door open.  Simply beautiful.

Interior, Strandgade, 30 1904, Musee D’Orsay

I mentioned that Hammershøi was shown with Peter Ilsted and Carl Holsoe.  This was not overplayed in the exhibition and I found the contrasts subtle but interesting.  The magnificent Interior,  Sunlight on the Floor, from the Tate’s collection was next to an Interior by Carl Holsoe.  There is such a difference.  Holsoe gives us a domestic scene: brightly lit, white being prominent.  The side table has a vase, flowers, a dish.  It is a room.  A very nice room but just a room.  Hammershøi has light but his light is more diffused and the light is coming into the room, spilling onto the floor.  The door is slightly ajar, asking the question ‘Where did they go?’.  There is a table but it just has a cloth on it, no ornaments, no flowers, nothing to demonstrate the taste of whoever lives here.  Yet it seems so tranquil in comparison.  There is no sound in Hammershøi’s rooms, just atmosphere.


This was the final image and I think it sums up this incredible artist: serious, thoughtful, contemplative.  The quotation from Rene Barotte in 1928, reads, “The works will leave an unforgettable memory.  They can move us as much as the liveliest of faces.”

Vilhelm Hammershøi died at the age of 52 in 1916.  For so much of his work, it is not what he put on the canvas but what he left out.  The works are imbued with a glorious melancholy that is rare to find and which he mastered throughout his too short life for us to enjoy for a lifetime.