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Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror)

Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror)
signed with initials and dated 'VH 1900' (lower right)
oil on canvas
21 5⁄8 x 18 1⁄8 in. (55 x 46 cm.)
Painted in 1900
Georg S. Bendix, Copenhagen (probably acquired from the artist, before 1916); Estate sale, Winkel & Magnussen, Copenhagen, 20 May 1947, lot 23.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 14-15 March 1989, lot 51.
L. & R. Entwistle and Co., Ltd., London.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1989.
S. Michaëlis and A. Bramsen, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Kunstneren og hans Værk, Copenhagen, 1918, p. 97, no. 200 (titled Stue).
(possibly) Copenhagen, Den Frie Udstilling, 1908.
Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen, Arbejder af Vilhelm Hammershøi, April 1916, p. 14, no. 153 (titled Stue med en kvindelig figur, der bærer en bakke).
Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen, Udvalg af Vilh. Hammershøis arbejder, January 1930, p. 11, no. 45 (titled Stue).
Further details
We are grateful to Susanne Meyer-Abich for her assistance in cataloguing the present work.

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Lot Essay

In December 1898, Vilhelm Hammershøi moved with his wife Ida to an apartment in a seventeenth-century house at Strandgade 30, in the old Christianshavn quarter of his native Copenhagen. The flat had numerous large windows of varying orientations that let in the cool, distinctly Scandinavian light, perfect for the artist known in his day as “the painter of tranquil rooms.” Ultimately it was the austerely decorated rooms of the Strandgade 30 which would form the motif that would make up about a third of the artist’s oeuvre. With an acute economy of painterly means, Hammershøi transformed spare, elegant interiors into images of haunting stillness and restrained poetic power, with a presciently modern character that remains deeply resonant today.
The present work, dated 1900, was probably painted in the middle of the three front rooms of the apartment which looked out on to the Strandgade. The contents of the interior have been limited to a few carefully selected objects—a rosewood side table holding a ceramic pitcher and a stemmed silver dish, an oval mirror hanging beside the window, a single framed artwork over the closed door leading to the next room. By limiting the objects in the room and reducing their forms to the bare essentials, with door handles removed and paintings blurred, the artist seeks to focus the attention of the viewer on repeated geometric form and the reflection of light on different surfaces within the composition. The artist’s wife, Ida, is also depicted, seen from behind balancing a white platter on her hip. Typical of Hammershøi, the room is described from a slightly skewed vantage point which creates a sense of dissonance between the painting and the viewer. Ida’s figure, slightly to the right of the natural center of the composition, further adds to this distancing effect.
Hammershøi's interiors have an obvious precedent in seventeenth-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. 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 become one, their strict underlying geometry and limited palette unifying the elements of the composition into a single poetic whole. In the present work, the artist contrasted the repeated structure of rectangular forms—the door, the molding, the painting and the frame of the window—with rounded ones, with both the mirror and the side table, the silver cup, and the platter, repeating the same shape at different angles. In a fascinating way, the artist’s wife thus becomes a mediating presence between these recurring motifs. Her upright posture and the pleats in her dress repeat the verticals of the rectangular forms, and yet the oval mirror above the curved leaf of the table forms an hourglass shape which also echoes the feminine contours of her body. Hammershøi himself indicated the importance of this underlying geometric structure in his paintings, saying, “What makes me select a motif is just as much the lines in it, what I would call the architectonic attitude in the picture. And then the light, naturally…but when I select a motif I think that first and foremost it’s the lines I look at” (quoted in P. Vad, Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century, New Haven, 1992, p. 401). In this aspect of Hammershøi’s work he anticipates the geometrical abstraction of Piet Mondrian.
The interior is gently illuminated with cool raking light from a window at the far left. The light plays in subtly different ways across the varied surface textures in the room, glinting off the polished wood of the table and the silver cup, while absorbing into the matte black cloth of Ida’s day dress. Hammershøi’s distinctive short, blocky brushstrokes further emphasize the fall and play of light within the interior. Although windows appear frequently in Hammershøi’s paintings, they rarely reveal a view outside; often rendered opaque by glare or shadow, they form a barrier between interior and exterior, protecting but also isolating the room from the world beyond. In the present painting, the placement of the window at a right angle to the picture plane blocks the window’s glass from view, leaving only a narrow strip of the window frame visible. However, here, the plane of the window is broken by the thin branch and leaves of a houseplant, an unusual addition and one of the few living still-life objects to appear in Hammershøi’s paintings, jutting into the room.
The painting creates the palpable sense of a timeless, frozen moment, charged with ambiguity and subtle mystery. Ida seems to have paused as she passes through the room, her head cocked at the slightest angle, pensive and yet unreadable. Hammershøi’s solitary female figures have often been described as unheimlich, imperfectly translated as uncanny. This sense of uncanniness is heightened precisely because of their lack of narrative within the picture. As just another element in the painting’s still life of objects, the female figure in the present work is suspended in an unresolvable state for the viewer. Poul Vad described this tension in Hammershøi’s work as well, stating, “The woman’s non-action underscores the moment’s enchantment, that time stands still, that emptiness is fullness” (ibid., p. 203).
Hammershøi may have been private, but he was not reclusive. He traveled repeatedly to Paris, London, and the Netherlands, took part in group exhibitions across Europe, and was in touch with the international art world of his time. His reputation grew as a result of the paintings he produced during his time at Strandgade 30, and he soon numbered among his admirers such contemporary cultural luminaries as Serge Diaghilev and Rainer Maria Rilke. Although he eschewed the obsession with color that gripped the avant-garde at this time, his work suggests a dialogue with the intimiste subject matter of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, and possibly with the Symbolist painters as well. His figures’ estrangement from their interior settings can also be understood to anticipate the sense of isolation later explored in the work of the Surrealists, including René Magritte.
“The continuing fascination of Hammershøi’s interiors,” Susanne Meyer-Abich has concluded, “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” (Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with an Easel, sale catalogue, Christie’s, New York, 31 October 2018, lot 14).

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