Hammershoi – Royal Academy – Summer 2008


Even the tiredest eye will alight on the affiliation between Vilhelm Hammershøi and Vermeer. There is the solitary woman, enclosed in a narrow domestic setting. She is absorbed in some mental process, oblivious to the viewer. Subtle graduations in light wash over the canvas.

But, it’s obvious to see from this Royal Academy exhibition, Hammershøi brings nothing of the same psychological richness to his paintings. Vermeer’s characters are poised in complex emotional dramas. The movement in their eyes, the gestures their arms make, the clothes they are wearing, their relationship to other characters and their position within the setting all help create a teasing, ambiguous narrative, which leaves the viewer looking for more. Such emotional phrasing does not materialise in Hammershøi – his characters tend to be solitary, folded up, and preoccupied by mundane tasks which leave little scope to the imagination. Above all, we see the backs of the women, thus avoiding their faces, fingers and all the parts of the body that could maximise expression. Hammershøi’s paintings are Calvinist in body as well as spirit.

But that’s not to say we should write the Dane off.

Despite the absence of complex emotional textures, the paintings still emit an eerie psychological sensation. It’s not so much the narratives that create this (one really has to push the imagination to create a rich storyline from a Hammershøi canvas) but the way that the paintings don’t allow for emotional contact between the characters; or indeed how the characters of the paintings do not engage with the viewers. There is an unerring consistency within Hammershøi’s paintings for his figures to turn away; for figures not to meet the eyes of anyone around them.

Interior with Woman, 1903-4

Visual empathy, and indeed any empathy, is prohibited. It’s not a class or social thing at all (one is hardly sure if a character is a wife, servant or a mother), but something much more essential; almost a metaphysical conviction that afflicts all beings.

Hammershøi even turns this back on himself. His Interior with Easel simply shows an empty easel, as if Hammershøi had tried to paint himself, only to find it impossible. Even empathising with the ego is difficult in Hammershøi’s world.

Interior with Easel

And it’s not just people. Objects become difficult to behold (another contrast to the forensic clarity of Vermeer). Reflections appear on polished tables or serving jugs but they only reflect smudge of the original objects, which are themselves hazy. Maps and images on the walls are vague and indistinct. Like the characters, they are impossible to read. The gloomy light that already envelops this patch of Copenhagen seems to cloud over everything.

The sense of emotional distance evoked becomes even more intriguing when one considers what type of patron may have bought these paintings. Were they intended for the very type of customer who, like Hammershøi, led a quiet, modest middle-class life in clean apartments with minimal decoration? Were the paintings in some way mirrors of their own existences? Did his patrons want to have this emotional coldness thrown back at them in paintings? Or, in seeing the paintings in this way, are we bringing a particularly modernist angst to his ouevre?

It is question worth further exploration, certainly because the exhibition reveals Hammershøi’s affinities not with Vermeer, but with a host of more modern artists who were far more open in engaging with avant-garde concerns. And it’s these connections that lend Hammershøi a special resonance as a painter who did not make easy imitations of the past, but began, in his quiet studio in Copenhagen, to touch on some of the preoccupations of twentieth-century art.

The exhibition notes recorded Hammershøi’s appreciation of Whistler, but there are other more intriguing connections.

Magritte, for example, seemed to reflect the same ideas about the impossibility of knowing the self via work such as The Human Condition and and The Forbidden Reproduction. There is also a family resemblance between Magritte’s mirror portrait and the Double Portrait of artist and wife that Hammershøi executed in 1905. Hammershøi’s wife, it should also be noted, has that distant other worldly look that is shared by the pipe smokers recorded by his contemporary Cezanne.

Rene Magritte, The Forbidden Reproduction

Double Portrait, 1905

De Chirico is another soulmate. Hammershøi’s architectural paintings, particularly those of the grey hulk of the royal palace, are northern cousins of the arcades depicted by De Chirico. In both, their uncanny emptiness which seem to presage some ominous event. Alternatively, one could place Hammershøi next to Hopper, artistic voyeurs, who may not be the best painters but are evocative artists, peering into the private lives of of others.

Or finally, how about Hammershøi as a prototype for Rothko – the Dane’s paintings as Calvinist colour fields. In paintings such as {woman at piano} there is strong element of geometric precision, with the resultant grids doing their best to hold seeping blocks of colour. The stillness in Hammershøi’s painting aids this, as the static figures blend into the background, thus focusing attention on the soft lozenges of colour, breathing gently in the muffled Danish light.



You may not wish to consider the Dane a full modernist – indeed in limiting his oeuvre to quiet domestic lives, there seems something very anti-modern about him. But this is where his strengths lie, not looking back to Vermeer, but in beginning to unpick and psychological and aesthetic concerns that would mark twentieth-century art.

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