"In fact, perfect balance is the chief excellence of his art. Like Vermeer, he seems to solve a mathematical problem, so exact and lucid is his design; and yet he does not treat objects as if they were merely there for the light to play upon them. He is a painter who sees life steadily and sees it whole" (A. Clutton-Brock, "Danish Pictures at the Guildhall, A New Master" in The Tribune, 9 April 1907).
Among the most celebrated Scandinavian artists, Vilhelm Hammershøi was known in his day as "the painter of tranquil rooms," as the austere rooms of his home formed the motif that would make up about a third the artist’s oeuvre. Hammershøi’s life spanned an era of momentous change in both art and the world at large, but his paintings, with their muted palette and almost mystical stillness, are imbued with a sense of timelessness and introspective solitude. These rooms in which the artist lived and worked, painted with acute economy, evoke interiors more than they actually depict them. Their restrained elegance and quiet power gives Hammershøi’s paintings an incredibly modern appeal that is still resonant today, more than 100 years after the artist’s death.
Hammershøi's interiors have an obvious precedent in 17th-century Dutch painting in the work of Johannes Vermeer, Pieter Elinga and Emanuel de Witte. In this, he followed in the footsteps of the previous generation of Danish painters, including Christoffer Eckersberg, who also looked to the Dutch Golden Age for their inspiration. Quite unlike either of these antecedents, however, Hammershøi's paintings are not concerned with the moral virtue of housekeeping or fetishizing the objects within the home. Instead, with Hammershøi, the items within the interior are subsumed into a single poetic whole, animated by his characteristic brushstrokes and transformed by the calm, suffused light learned from Vermeer into scenes of strikingly modern stillness and psychologically charged intensity. Hammershøi's paintings go beyond appearances, and become instead objects which derive their power from what is suggested rather than seen.
The present work combines all the devices for which the artist is best known. The room is described from a slightly skewed vantage point which creates a sense of distance and dissonance between the painting and the viewer. Objects are pared down to their bare essentials, with door handles removed and paintings blurred, to focus the viewer’s attention on geometric form and the reflection of light on different surfaces. Here, only three objects populate the narrow front room, and the formal structure of the foreground is derived from the repetition of rectangular elements which decrease in size—the back wall of the front room, the door, and the table with its raised leaf beneath the two paintings. This same rectangular motif draws the viewer into the more expansive back room, using the door to frame the edges of the back window.
In this back room, a woman in black with a white apron and a white collar—probably the artist’s wife, Ida—is seen from behind, the left side of her figure cut off slightly by the edge of the doorway. This inclusion of a Rückenfigur, literally a "back figure," speaks to the influence of the German Romantic painters, particularly Caspar David Friedrich. Again, Hammershøi takes an established pictorial tradition and turns it on itself. Instead of using the Rückenfigur to draw the viewer into the scene and mediate the setting as Friedrich does, Hammershøi uses the figure instead to create greater distance from the viewer. The figure’s physical separation from the foreground, and the backlighting which illuminates the edges of her form to give her an almost otherworldly appearance, make the woman an enigmatic and almost uncanny presence in the painting. This sense of uncanniness is heightened because like most of Hammershøi’s figures she exists without narrative. The woman seems to have paused, but it is not clear why, or what she might return to doing. This lack of narrative with which to interpret her presence leaves the figure suspended in an unresolvable state for the viewer. As curator Felix Krämer has noted, throughout the 19th century the presence of women in an interior space conferred a sense of intimacy and privacy. Hammershøi’s women negate this understanding because they are as incompletely fleshed-out as the interiors themselves—their physical presence is ultimately tempered by their ambiguity. The figure’s estrangement from the interior setting can be seen to anticipate the sense of isolation later explored in the work of the Surrealists, including René Magritte.
Perhaps the most striking feature in the present work is the expansive view glimpsed through the back window, showing the masts of a ship and a distant building. Most frequently windows in Hammershøi’s work act as a veil which cloisters the interior world off from that of the exterior—in interiors where windows are shown, they are often too distant from the viewer or too illuminated by external light for much if any of the world beyond that of the painting to be seen. Details of the outside world do occasionally become visible through Hammershøi’s windows, but these are more often objects which are physically close to the windows themselves (as in Interior Looking out on the Exterior, Strandgade 30, 1903) or represented in state of hazy, dreamlike semi-abstraction (as in Interior in London: Brunswick Square, 1912). The sharp detail found in the distant masts and building seen through the window in the present work is remarkably rare in Hammershøi’s oeuvre. Dated in the 1916 exhibition, after the artist’s death, to 1897, the work is too early to have been painted at the home at Strandgade 30, which was near the harbor, as the Hammershøis only moved there is 1898. Moreover, no ship’s masts are ever visible through the windows in the copious other paintings Hammershøi made of that interior.
Leonard Borwick, one of Hammershøi's most ardent patrons, described the artist in the preface of the exhibition catalogue of a 1907 exhibition in London, "Poet he is, first and foremost," and then as now, it is this poetry that viewers still respond to in the artist’s work. Scholar Susanne Meyer-Abich perhaps best summed up the artist’s enduring appeal. "The continuing fascination of Hammershøi's interiors lies precisely in an irresolvable tension between a representation of concrete objects carefully selected from the world surrounding the artist and a compositional rigor focusing on thin glazes of muted color, an arrangement of objects and figures which negates the narrative context of everyday life, and a structure of lines. These compositional elements appeal to modern eyes trained on abstract art, while the subject matter carries the weight of art historical tradition. The result has often been described as 'stillness.' Yet the meaning of the word relates to sound or movement rather than to what is actually happening: we are made to pause in perception and absorb the enigma —and delight—of a purely visual experience outside the realm of abstraction."