“”He succeeded in granting the most concrete and most commonplace things - a half empty parlor, a chair, a chest of drawers, a sofa, a beautiful book, a wall with a small forlorn picture, a while door, a short hallway, dust dancing in sunbeams – a quality not of this world, a reflection of sublime existence. His highly intense nervous life, his acutely sensitive emotional being, flourished only in this world of extreme simplicity and silence, tones were what he loved and sought – the tones of stillness. He heard…stillness, and that was where he really existed.” – Julius Elias, 1916
Something curious about the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi is how our responses to them seem like Rorschach tests with art. We may find a a partial explanation in the words of fellow Dane, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): "We live life forward but understand it backward." Hammershoi 's interiors mesmerize the viewer through his consummate sense of organization but there is room for us to bring our interior lives to his paintings or bring his paintings home to our interiors
We also bring modern preoccupations to bear on his work, finding abstraction in his seeming clarity and precision, and our relative unfamiliarity with Hammershoi's work in the context of Danish art with its considerable history. Most Danish art of the early 19th century, considered the Danish Golden Age, remains in Danish museums and has traveled infrequently. How we interpret the melancholy for the distance from that charmed period with Hammershoi's personal disposition is an open question still.
Photographs of Ida Ilsted and Vilhelm Hammershoi, taken during their courtship, show another, pleasanter mood; no small distinction when both parties came from artistic families. Ida's brother Peter Ilsted also painted quiet interiors like Hammershoi's and Vilhelm's younger brother Svend (1879-1916) was both a painter and ceramicist. Where Hammershoi's self-portrait shows a serious, inward-focused young man, the photographer caught him with a twinkle in his eye, the kind of look that may have attracted Ida Ilsted.
Some critics have speculated that there were mental difficulties in the Ilsted family to explain representations of Ida in Hammershoi's pictures, putting the onus on the sitter, while overlooking contemporary description of Hammershoi as "the first neurasthenic artist."
The convention of posing a female model with her back to the viewer was an established formal convention in painting when Hammershoi employed it. Repose, for instance, painted in 1905 and often reproduced, strikes me as quite lovely, an affectionate rendering of Ida with her soft hair gathered in a chignon above the delicate skin of her neck .
This photograph taken in 1898 1898 suggests a more sensual side to Ida than the artist usually allowed the viewer to see. The young boy pictured with them was their foster son Henry Madsen (1881-1921), possibly the son of art critic Karl Madsen, who is one of the guests in the photograph of the party at the Hammershois' Strandgade 30 apartment.
Early in his career, Hammershoi moved beyond realism to a personal heightening of reality by arrangement and omission. Critics have noted anomalies, such as missing piano legs (in the painting at right) and Ida's missing foot. This painting is also unusual in showing us a view of the building across the street rather than an indeterminate space of reflected light. Light seems to dissolve the outer world in Hammershoi's otherwise controlled images, so what we get is something more like psychological realism rather than architectural verisimilitude.
Emil Hannover wrote in 1907 of the successful Hammershoi exhibition at the van Wisselingh Gallery, London that the artist's interiors were "a silent protest against the gaudy and gaping tastelessness of our time." But the Victorian taste for the overstuffed had never been that popular in Scandinavia. In the photograph of a party at Strandgade 30 in 1899, the room is both less elaborate than a typical bourgeois parlor and more decorative than what Hammershoi chose to paint. (In the photo, Vilhelm is seated directly under the lamp at the left and Ida is seated at farthest right.)
To look at photographs is to see what liberties Hammershoi took with furniture arrangements in his paintings. Modern eyes may have difficulty adjusting to the 19th century floor plans, as well. We are accustomed to houses and apartments designed as a group of rooms around a hallway, not to mention Freudian and Jungian symbolism with which we have invested interiors and the doors that separate them. Apartments in Christianhavn were typical of a much older arrangement, being a series of rooms that opened one into another: this made it easy to close off rooms to conserve heat in winter. Halls madee an additional expense as heating them was wasteful.
An open door is often thought to be symbolic shorthand for hope. Closed doors, as the thinking goes, are symbolic of refusal, of finality. A closed door may also symbolize a break with the past. Carl Jung was rather heavy-handed in seeing doors as symbolically female, their doors opening one way - inwardly. Tp ancient Greeks doors often represented the separation of the past from the future. In a cheeky ripost the Shakespearean scholar Gary Taylor has called death "the one way walk through the door between culture and history."
Doors have also been seen as symbols of refuge. In A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot makes an interesting observation about doors: "There is the same relationship between the temple-door and the altar as between the circumference and the centre; even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other."
Throughout their married life the Hammershois traveled often for extended periods, beginning with their six month honeymoon in Paris. Another trip to London and the Netherlands lasted from October 1897 to May 1898, with a brief return home for the holidays, and followed on the heels of the sale of two paintings to the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Hammershoi was, in fact, enjoyed an international success never before accorded a Danish artist.
The German painter Emil Nolde lived in Copenhagen for some time around 1900 and he found Hammershoi to be a quiet person. So did the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who visited in 1904 to collect material for a monograph on the artist that was never completed, unlike his 1903 publication Auguste Rodin. "Hammershoi is not one of those about whom one must speak quickly. His work is long and slow, and at whichever moment one apprehends it, it will speak of what is important and essential in art." - Rilke
All of which brings me to the portrait of Ida, painted in 1907. It is hardly flattering, suggesting the losses of middle age - but whose exactly? The photographic evidence suggests that Ida was a pretty and spirited woman, and we know the couple moved in sophisticated company. Ida Hammershoi (1869-1949) had more than three decades left to live; not so Vilhelm, who died on February 13, 1916, after several months in hospital. The early signs of throat cancer had appeared around the time his mother Frederikke died in 1914. Hammershoi had been plagued by neuralgic back pain since 1906 and was periodically confined to bed, unable to paint.
Images: Photographs from the collection of the Royal Library, Copenhagen. Paintings from: Musee d'Orsay, Paris. State Museum of Art, Copenhagen. Collection of her Royal Highness, Princess Benedickte, Copenhagen. Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus. Ordrupgaard Museum, Charlottenlund.