The ‘beautiful stillness’ of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior with an Easel

The contemplative scenes painted in muted tones by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi rarely come to market. With the offer of this 1912 work on 31 October in New York, we visit Copenhagen to learn more about the artist’s life and practice

‘There is little doubt that the defining motif of paintings by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) are his vacant interiors,’ says Arne Everwijn, senior specialist in 19th-century European art at Christie's. ‘He would often paint the inside of his house in Copenhagen, staging a few props such as vases, chairs and lamps around the domestic settings.’

Interior with an Easel  is unusual, however, because it is one of only four works that Hammershøi ever painted which depict an artist’s easel. ‘Interestingly, photographs of Hammershøi in his studio show him working at a much sturdier easel, which he paints in one of his works. This lighter, three-footed one might have been his travelling easel,’ suggests the specialist.

This work was painted in Hammershøi’s house at Bredgarde 25 in the Danish capital, where he lived between 1909 and 1913. ‘Hammershøi liked to be in his apartment and chose to work there, to be in this intimate space, to have the concentration to work deeply with his paintings,’ observes Annette Rosenvold Hvidt, Art Interpreter at the National Gallery of Denmark, in our short film.

The setting for Interior with an Easel  is typically sparse, save for a shaft of light coming in through the windows and an engraving of C.A. Lorentzen’s 1801 painting The Battle of Copenhagen, which is hung unusually high in order to protect it from the sun. ‘Despite the absence of people,’ says Everwijn, ‘the open door and the easel, turned to face away from the viewer, suggest the presence of the artist.’

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25, 1912. Oil on canvas. 31 x 27⅝ in (78.5 x 70.3 cm). Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in European Art Part 1 on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25, 1912. Oil on canvas. 31 x 27⅝ in (78.5 x 70.3 cm). Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in European Art: Part 1 on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Hammershøi rarely spoke about his work, but once stated that what mattered to him most were ‘the light and the lines’, explains Gertrud Oelsner, Director of the Hirschsprung Collection. ‘It was something to do with his interest in photography, which was a very modern medium in his own time.’

‘We have a very reduced scale of colours that he is working with. He liked greys, blacks and whites,’ she continues, ‘but actually when you are looking at his paintings there are a lot of colours in them that you don’t see at first glance. There are reds and greens, and sometimes even purple.’

‘This work hasn't been to market since the collector Adam Black bought it in the year it was painted. In fact, it’s never been seen outside the home of Black’s descendants’ — Arne Everwijn

This painting was sold via the English concert pianist Leonard Borwick (1868-1925), who first discovered Hammershøi’s work on a Christmas postcard while on a concert tour in Denmark. Borwick purchased his first painting from Hammershøi in 1903, and the pair became friends. Borwick also became a great promotor of the artist, brokering the sale of this work to the collector Adam Black in the same year it was painted.

‘This work, with its beautiful stillness and thinly painted surface that allows the texture of the canvas to show through, hasn’t been to market again since Black bought it,’ our specialist reveals. ‘In fact, it’s never been seen outside the family home of Black’s descendants.’ 

The majority of Hammershøi’s 370 paintings are already in museums, including the work most similar to this, Interior with an Easel, which is in the National Gallery of Denmark

‘His works are not fixed and not belonging to a specific tradition, they're quite universal,’ says Oelsner. ‘That’s why even today, we find his works extremely interesting, and will continue to do so.’

Vilhelm Hammershøi: On the Trail of the Open Picture by Gertrud Oelsner and Annette Rosenvold Hvidt is published on 12 October 2018