Monday, August 18, 2008

Vilhelm Hammershøi - a curious mix of Vermeer, Hopper and Wyeth?

I went to see Vilhelm Hammershøi - The Poetry of Silence last week at the Royal Academy of Arts. This is the first Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) retrospective in the UK and the exhibition features over 70 paintings spanning the career of this celebrated Danish artist.

I found both the exhibition and the man to be intriguing and so I bought the catalogue and have been digging around for more information about him as well. Hammerschoi is a Danish artist who was painting at the back end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century - basically at the same time as the development of Impressionism.

Here are some facts about him - and some observations by me having viewed his work last week.
  • he's a Danish painter whose work has achieved new-found popularity of late. Michael Palin is a huge fan and owns work by Hammerschoi)
A style at once classical and modern, a weird but heady fusion of Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Vilhelm Hammershoi - World of Interiors by Michael Palin
  • his teachers recognised early on that he needed to be allowed to find his own way of expressing himself (artists who allow and encourage people to realise their potential and create based on their own unique unqiue way of seeing the world are real heroes in my eyes)
  • he achieved fame at the age of 21 when his portrait of his sister featured in the annual spring exhibition held by the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts. There's an excellent account of the heated dispute which followed here.
......its subdued colour, its loose apparently imprecise brushwork and it unclear perspective construction provoked a heated dispute between Academy representatives and De frie Studieskoler (independent study schools)
Hammerschoi - exhibition catalogue
  • Like Whistler his enduring motifs in painting style are muted colour and compositions reduced to a few graphic elements. In addition landscapes, streetscapes and rooms are frequently devoid of people and any person in a painting is usually seen from behind.
Interior with Woman at Piano, Standgade 30 (1901)
oil on canvas, 55.9 x 45.1cm
Private Collection
  • a lot of his paintings are of the interior of his seventeenth century home and many include his wife who is often portrayed from behind. He started to paint Interiors - which form the main basis of his popularity - when he moved to an apartment in Strandgade 30 in the Christianshaven district of Copenhagen (click the link to see where this is). His most productive period was 1898-1909. The interiors are very reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth century paintings of interiors - including those by Vermeer. He recognised Vermeer as having a significant influence on his work.
  • His paintings often look down corridors, through doors or have a window in the background - you see the limits of his existence but not what lies beyond.
  • paintings of architecture rarely include people - there is an atmosphere of stillness and an alienation from a world which involves people
  • Some of his landscapes struck me as almost contemporary in feel. Most are very empty in character - no people and few, if any trees. He's painting tones rather than nature.
  • there is very little difference between early and late paintings
  • his palette was very muted as you can see in this photograph of his palette.
  • he was very reclusive, led a secluded life, avoided appearing in public, had few friends and was also noted for being taciturn - rendering conversation difficult (according to German painter and printmaker Emil Nolde and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke ). He left no journals and destroyed his letters before his death - making him something of a challenge for any curator wanting to write about him!
  • He was thought by some to be a victim of neurasthenia - but this was a popular diagnosis around 1900
  • He was married - to Ida (who is the model in many of his paintings of interiors)
  • He often travelled abroad and was ultimately more famous abroad than at home in Denmark. His paintings certainly sold better abroad.
  • He liked London and the British Museum
  • He painted a total of 370 works - but people rapidly lost interest in his work after his death in 1916 prior to renewed interest in the 1970s
  • Hammerschoi's work is thought of as coming with the Symbolist movement current around the turn of the century
Here are some of the things I like about his paintings
  • they appear to be very realistic but in fact are not. Edges are often blurred rather than defined, interiors have been carefully stage-managed and simplified.
  • there's a very strong sense of simplification and the abstract - of working out a balance of horizontal and vertical lines, between different sized shapes and planes and the overall tonal range. All detail unnecessary to the painting is eliminated.
  • The grays he uses actually contain colour but are always quiet - it's fascinating to try and work out why paintings which are so monochromatic actually work.
  • he crops his subject matter in an interesting way - it's almost as if his focus is permanently in the middle distance and that he doesn't pay much attention to the foreground/bottom section of the painting. I noticed with one painting that there was precise definition and hard edges to a piece of china sat on a table in the middle distance while edges associated with objects nearer to were fuzzy. It made me wonder about his eyesight and whether he was naturally long-sighted.
  • He paints a figure but rarely paints a person. (I have some empathy with this approach rarely include faces in my sketches of people in interiors)
  • he paints architecture from a different perspective - he's the only person I know who has chosen to paint the side of the British Museum!
  • he never goes OTT - he leaves you wanting to know more.
I bought the hardback catalogue to the exhibition as the reproduction of images was better - and frankly when you're dealing with shades of grey you want the best reproduction you can get! It contains, as you would expect, large images of the pictures in the exhibition, a more detailed listing of catalogue entries for all pictures with precise details of each painting, ownership, where it has been previously exhibited and a commentary on each picture. At the end there is a detailed chronology on Hammerschoi's life together with archive photographs. The main images are arranged in chronological order and are preceded by a synopsis describing what happened in each period of his life. The catalogue also contains two essays concerning
  • a narrative about Hammerschoi's work in the context of his life and the environment of his time
  • a look at the content in terms of Danish painting
  • links between Hammerschoi's paintings of interiors and seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age of Interior paintings
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that I've created a site as a home for all the links to information that I found - you can see it here Vilhelm Hammershøi - Resources for Art Lovers. It now has a stack of links to:
  • information about his life
  • information about exhibitions of his work (eg the current exhibition at the RA)
  • videos of his work (eg Highlights of the exhibition at the RA )
  • slideshows of his work (eg like this one produced by the Guardian - which also includes archive photos of him)
  • educational publications such as those produced by the RA - the interactive graphic (which analyses and explains the above painting) and the education guide (a PDF publication)
  • where you can see images online - and his paintings in museums and art galleries
  • reviews of his work
Palin suggests he's a Danish version of a mix of Vermeer and Edward Hopper. However, I've been working on a similar site about Andrew Wyeth (there'll be a blog post soon!) and I guess what struck me is that there are some marked similarities between the two men - in terms of some aspects of their work and pallette and the reclusive nature of both men.

It left me wondering whether reclusive people avoid painting with any kind of brash colour. What do you think?

Notes: Authors of the catalogue include
  • Felix Krämer works at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.
  • Naoki Sato is curator at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.
  • Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark is Director of the Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen, the Danish museum of French Impressionism and 19th-century Danish art. She was formerly curator at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Her research has mainly been devoted to Danish and French art.


  1. an interesting post and comments :>)

    Gwen John wasn't originally reclusive but was at the end of her life and she uses a very subtle greyed paletter - I love the subtleties of work like this

  2. This is an exhibition I would love to see. You have done a really terrific review. When does it finish, Katherine?

  3. How exciting to discover a "new" artist - new to you. I like your comparison of him to the other great artists.

    I have an artist friend who emulates (and I think he is darn near) A. Wyeth. A world of inspiration exists for those who can really see these great paintings.

  4. I first of Hammerschoi through Michael Palin's programme. When I initilly saw the paintings I really was not that keen but they sort of grow on you and I now find them quite compelling.I was interested in your reference to Andrew Wyeth. Now you have drawn my attention I can see possible similarities. I am off to do some research.

  5. Unfortunately before you come to London! Take a good look at the links in the site I've created - there's a lot of material there.

  6. Shucks - I haven't said when the exhibition finishes! i will go and fix.......

  7. A very informative post on one of my favorite artists - thank you Katherine.

  8. Very interesting post, Katherine! I can see why the comparison to Wyeth came to mind. As you know, Wyeth's paintings were built up with thin layers of egg tempera in a dry brush technique. What do the surfaces of these paintings look like- thick paint, thin? Also, you mentioned landscapes- I found two images in the excellent links you provided. How many are in the show/catalog?

  9. I've seen Andrew Wyeth's egg tempera and watercolour paintings at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockport, Maine. (see Saturday 23rd September - "The Farnsworth, the Wyeths and the rain" )

    Hammerschoi is not using techniques used by those who use oil paints and achieve super smooth surfaces. On the other hand they're not really impasto either.

    What he does do is glaze with thin washes a lot to get diffuse edges.

    I've found a bit from the catalogue and I quote
    "Hammerschoi's pcitures comprise many layers of paint. The artist generally worked on a canvas for a long period, differentiating individual nuances of colour and shade in the painting process. he applied his dry paint in short, even brush strokes, their rhythm encompassing the entire picture plane, for the most part independently of the objects depicted. This overall structure infuses many of his paintings with a restless vibrant quality. Sometimes, just before finishing a canvas, he would cover the image with a fine veil of grey, immersing the objects and their outlines in a mysterious haze that made 'everything [appear] grey, in every possible nuance of grey'."

    I now want to add another reason why I like him. It sounds very similar to what I do with my coloured pencils (minus the grey) when building up passages of apparently flat colour - which isn't. It's also given me some pointers to how I might like to paint in oils! :)

  10. Thanks for the link to your Wyeth post - I'm eager to follow that.

    I saw the Wyeth similarities instantly based on mood and subject. Also, the use of space - very "Christina's World" and very "Helga Series".

    My friend, Stan Miller, is a big Wyeth fan and his work (when seen in person) is competition to A. Wyeth, IMO. Egg Tempura, moody, superbly rendered.

  11. I forgot to leave a comment to thank you Katherine!

    I love this artist and since I didn't study any art or art history in college I'd never heard of him.

    I love his work, in fact I loved it so much I splurged and ordered the show catalog!

    Thank you so much for posting about him!


  12. Wow! I love your blog! I recently started my own blog because there were so few that cover art history related content. I found this post through research for my own post on Hammershoi... I love his work.

    If you're interested, you can see it here:

    So glad to have found your blog. I'm looking forward to reading more!


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