"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And therefore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among these green hills and blue mountains
almost feels an insult."
- excerpt from "The River's Secret" by Hendrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by John Irons
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward but understand it backward. When we consider the world that Vilhelm Hammershoi grew up in, the place and circumstance, an alternate way of looking at his paintings emerges. Those restrained, minimally appointed rooms may evoke thoughts of glossy decorating magazines in a contemporary viewer but that kind of projection merely makes it more difficult to experience the paintings as Hammershoi intended. What the artist intended has been the subject of speculation, his very reticence an irritant like a pebble in a shoe. Something of an enigma to his contemporaries, he remains so.
Eighteen forty-eight was a year when people throughout Europe demanded democracy but not in Denmark which passed peacefully from a monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 1849. Not surprising for a country that whose experience of the Reformation had been a mild one.
What distinguished Danish art of the 19th century was the influence of Golden Age Dutch painting filtered through the soft northern light of Scandinavia. Even today Danes look back on the period between 1849 and 1864 as their Golden Age, a time when Hans Christian Anderson and Christoffer Eckersberg created the stories and images that reflected a new modern cultural patrimony for a nation renewed. Into that world, Vilhelm Hammershoi was born in 1864, a year when bright ideals were crushed by the harsh realities of war and defeat. There followed a period of intense introspection among Danes. This unease of the spirit may be what we sense in Hammershoi's paintings, a feeling of the uncanny. Is this how the world looks after a great disillusionment?
Note: Hammershoi did not customarily give titles to his paintings so titles may differ depending on the interpreter.
1. Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900, oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
2. Interior with back view of a woman (Ida Hammershoi), circa 1903, oil on canvas Randers Kunstmuseum, Jutland.
3. Interior with the artist's wife and mother, oil on canvas.
4. unidentified photographer - Vilhelm Hammershoi's palette, courtesy of Royal Academy of Art, London.