“”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
There is something curious about the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi: our responses. To get at it, we might consider the words of Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): "We live life forward but understand it backward." To be sure, Hammershoi 's canvases with their seeming photographic realism can dazzle the viewer with sheer technique.
And we bring our modern preoccupations to bear on his work, finding abstraction in his simplicity and precision, and melancholy in the Danish national style that the artist was immersed in. This is easy to do, when most of us are unfamiliar with Danish art of the early 19th century, the period Danes consider their Golden Age in painting. How we apportion the melancholy for the loss of that charmed period with Hammershoi's personal disposition is open to question.
Photographs of Ida and Vilhelm taken during their courtship show another side from the ones we encounter on the painter's canvases. This is no small distinction when both came from artistic families: Ida's brother Peter Ilsted became a well-known follower of Hammershoi and Vilhelm's younger brother Svend (1879-1916) was a respected painter and ceramicist. Where Hammershoi's self-portrait shows a highly serious young man, the photographer caught him with a twinkle in his eye, the kind of look that may have attracted the artistically aware Ida Ilsted.
In retrospect, critics have emphasized emotional difficulties in the Ilsted family to explain a seeming melancholy in Hammershoi's pictures, while ignoring a contemporary description of him as "the first neurasthenic artist."
The convention of posing a (female) model with her back to the viewer was well established by the time Hammershoi used it. Repose, painted in 1905 strikes me as quite lovely, with Ida's hair in a chignon against the skin of her neck affectionately rendered.
Also this 1898 photograph suggests a more sensual side to Ida than the artist was able or willing to paint. 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.
Hammershoi moved beyond realism early in his career. Critics have noted anomalies, such as missing piano legs and Ida's missing foot in the interior at right, which is also unusual in showing us the view across the street. In his paintings, light seems to dissolve the outer boundaries these otherwise controlled images, so what we get is something more like psychological realism.
Emil Hannover wrote in 1907, on the successful 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 the typical bourgeois parlor and more decorative than what Hammershoi chose to paint. (In the photo, Vilhelm is seated directly under the lamp at left and Ida is seated farthest right.)
We know is that Hammershoi moved the furniture to suit his pictorial ideas. We may not realize the strangeness of 19th century floor plans to modern eyes. Used to houses and apartments designed as a group of rooms around a hallway, not to mention Freudian and Jungian symbolism, we are sensitive to these arrangements. The apartments that the Hammershois lived in were typical in being a series of rooms that opened into each other, one after another. Halls were an additional expense and heating them was difficult.
The open door is thought to be symbolic shorthand for hope. Closed doors, on the other hand, are symbolic of refusal, of finality. A closed door may also be a break with the past. Even the ancient Greeks found in doors the symbolic separation of past and future. Following their lead, the Shakespearean scholar, Gary Taylor has named death as "the one way walk through the door between culture and history." Carl Jung was rather heavy-handed in seeing doors as symbolically female.
Doors have also seen as symbols of refuge. Jung thought doors were a feminine symbol. In A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot makes an interesting observation about doors in discussing temple doors and altars:
"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."
On a more prosaic level, doors figured in the the couple's life because they traveled frequently and 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 circa 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 and suggests the depredations of middle age - but whose exactly? The photographic evidence suggests that Ida was a pretty and spirited woman, and we know the couple travled 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 Hammershoi died in 1914. Hammershoi had been plagued by neuralgic back pain since 1906 and was periodically confined to bed, unable to paint. The more one learns about Hammershoi, the less clear it becomes what the connection is between his seemingly realistic art and real life.
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.