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Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864–1916)
'Hammershøi is a poet; we find ourselves wondering what vanished presence is reflected still in the empty room.' T. Martin WoodProperty from a Scandanavian Collection
Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864–1916)

Den Hvide Dør (The White Door)

Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864–1916)
Den Hvide Dør (The White Door)
inscribed, dated and signed 'Interior fra Karl Madsen's Bolig Lyngby/malt i 1888/v. Hammershøi' (on a label on the reverse)
oil on canvas
24 5/8 x 21 ½ in. (62 x 55 cm.)
Painted in 1888.
The artist.
Alfred Bramsen (1851-1932), Copenhagen, acquired directly from the above, 1891.
His sale; Winkel and Magnussen, Copenhagen, 1 January 1904, no. 22 as Interiør. Den gamle Bilæggerovn, Lyngby 1898.
Hjalmar Hein (1871-1922), Copenhagen, acquired at the above sale.
(possibly) Christian Ludwig David (1878-1960), Copenhagen.
(possibly his sale) Kunsthallen, Copenhagen, 5-6 March 1953, lot 133a (erroneously catalogued as Michaëlis & Bramsen, no. 68).
Anonymous sale; Arne Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen, 9 February 1954, lot 97, as Den gamle Bilæggerovn (erroneously catalogued as Michaëlis & Bramsen, no. 68).
Private collection, Sweden.
F. Hammershøi, Scrapbøger vedr. Vilh. Hammershøis værke, unpublished, (The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen), vol. 1, 1885 to 1891 (1892), under 1888.
K. Madsen, 'Vilhelm Hammershøi's Kunst' Kunst, vol. 1, no. 11 and 12, Copenhagen, 1899, p. 3, illustrated, as Den Hvide Dør Lyngby 1888.
C. C. Clausen, 'Naar udstillingen nærmer sig,' Hver 8 Dag, Copenhagen, 1907, pp. 437-438.
Dr. W, 'Hos Vilhelm Hammershøi, Stuernes Maler,' Verden og Vi, no. 19, Copenhagen, 9 May 1913, p. 4.
S. Michaëlis and A. Bramsen, Vilhelm Hammershøi. Kunst og hans værk, Copenhagen, 1918, p. 86, no. 67, as Den gamle Bilæggerovn, Lyngby 1888.
P. Vad, Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century, New Haven, 1992, p. 62, 401 (erroneously illustrating the Statens Museum for Kunst painting).
K. von Folsach and N. Lund, eds., Dansk kunst i Davids Samling, Fra Philipsen til Saxbo, Copenhagen, 1995, p. 100.
S. Meyer-Abich, Vilhelm Hammershøi. Das Malerische Werke, PhD diss., Bochum, 1996, no. 63.
K. Mønrad, Vilhelm Hammershøi, exh. cat., Gothenburg and Stockholm, p. 10, as Den gamla sättugnen (erroneously identifying the Staens Museum for Kunst painting).
K. Mønrad et al., Hammershøi & Europe, exh. cat., Copenhagen and Munich, 2012, pp. 96, 143 note 105.
(possibly) Copenhagen, Den Frie Udstilling, 1896, no. 36, as Interiør.
Stockholm, Allmänna konst- och industriutställningen, 1897, no. 1227, as Interiør med en hvit dörr.
St. Petersburg, Exhibition of Scandinavian Art, opened 23 October 1897, one of nos. 223-32.
Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen, Vilhelm Hammershøi's Arbejder, March 1900, no. 25, as Interieur. 'Den hvide Dør.' Lyngby 1888.
Berlin, Große Berliner Kunstausstellung, 5 May-16 September 1900, no. 465, as Interieur. Die weisse Thür.
Copenhagen, The Townhall, Raadhusudstillingen af Dansk Kunst til 1890, May-July 1901, p. 35, no. 554, as Interiør, (Den gamle bilæggerovn.) Lyngby 1888.
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Vilhelm Hammershøi, 22 March-29 June 2003, pp. 33, 134-135, 149, no. 6, illustrated, as Die weiße Tür.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence, 28 June–7 September 2008, also Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, 30 September–7 December 2008, pp. 34, 144, no. 9 (p. 54, no. 11 in Tokyo), illustrated.
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Hammershøi, Le maitre de la peinture Danoise, 13 March-22 July 2019, p. 154, 158, 171, no. 42, illustrated, as La Porte Blanche (Intérieur avec un vieux poêle).

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Lot Essay

The White Door is Vilhelm Hammershøi’s first known painting of an empty interior, a subject which would become a hallmark of his artistic oeuvre. In this early work, the artist has incorporated all the elements so representative of his unique style. A study for the present painting, also painted in 1888, is currently in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. This version differs in several elements from the present picture, as it is slightly smaller and has been trimmed on the left and lower edges. Just these small adjustments create a radically different symmetrical balance and focus between these two paintings. The present work, considered to be the prime version of the composition, demonstrates a balance and harmony between the white door and black stove; while in the Statens Museum version the door is the focal point. Traces of pinholes (some of the pins even remain) are visible along all four edges of the prime version, and these pins were applied to enable the artist to create a grid for transfer in preparation of the second version. When the images are superimposed, the structure of the two works corresponds precisely. A similar technique was used by Hammershøi in his portrait of Ida Ilsted from 1890, in which the photograph that served as the basis for the painting was squared for transfer (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, p. 50, illustrated).
The title, The White Door, was the artist’s choice. However, in the 1904 Bramsen sale, it was titled Stue med en gammal Billaewggerovn (Interior with an Old Jamb Stove), the title by which both versions have since become known. It could be argued that the original title more accurately connotes the painting’s metaphysical qualities.
The White Door was executed during Hammershøi’s two-week stay at Karl Madsen’s home in Lyngby, north of Copenhagen in the autumn of 1888. Madsen, a celebrated Danish art critic and art historian, lived in a house built in 1791 known as Albertine Lyst. In a 1908 interview, Hammershøi recalled the present painting: ‘The first interior I painted, if my memory doesn’t fail me, was out at Karl Madsen’s place. I stayed with him in the autumn of ’88 in an old house called Albertine Lyst. In any case, it was the first picture of an empty room I painted. I have always thought there was such beauty about a room like that, even though there are no people in it, perhaps precisely because there are no people in it’ (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, p. 62, 401).
At the time, Madsen was at the beginning of a long and important career as an art critic which would lead to the directorship of the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. Madsen was one of Hammershøi’s most ardent and astute supporters and his importance in the development and success of the artist’s career cannot be overestimated. Madsen considered Hammershøi to be the first neurasthenic painter in Denmark, therefore he applied a neuro-psychological approach to the analysis of his art. Neurasthenia was fashionable term invented by the American psychologist G. M. Beard, and taken up in Denmark by psychiatrist Knud Pontoppidan. It was defined as a kind of hypersensitivity of the nervous system brought on by modern life with its hectic lifestyle and perpetual state of social tension. ‘True neurasthenics’, Madsen wrote, ‘only tolerate colors in small doses’ (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, p. 73). Hammershøi’s work, characterized by subdued coloring, nuanced tonal harmonies, geometric rigor of the planar composition, tranquility and almost clinical purity devoid of any disturbing elements, can be viewed as a reaction to the alarm of urban life, a kind of refuge from the world outside the windows.
Théodore Duret, the famous art critic, most likely saw The White Door during a visit with Karl Madsen to Hammershøi’s home. According to the artist’s mother, Duret ‘in very flattering terms pronounced his opinion on Vilhelm’s art’ (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, p. 74). During his 1888 visit to Copenhagen, Duret also visited the collection of Alfred Bramsen, Hammershoi’s mentor, first biographer and ardent collector. By 1905, Bramsen owned as many as fifty seven works by the artist. Bramsen summed up Duret’s visit by stating, ‘he actually went away with the impression that we only had one painter [Hammershøi] who was capable of focusing the world’s attention on himself’ (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, p. 74-75).
Sergei Diaghilev, most famous as impresario for the Ballets Russes in Paris, was an art critic before a change of career, and he published a journal, The World of Art. He also organized exhibitions in St. Petersburg of contemporary art and in the autumn of 1897 he held an exhibition of Scandinavian art. Diaghilev visited Denmark during the summer of 1897, with the express purpose of selecting works for the St. Petersburg exhibition. During this visit, he purchased one picture from Hammershoi and commissioned another, both of which are now lost. Ultimately, Hammershøi was represented in the St. Petersburg exhibition by ten pictures, five of which were lent by Bramsen, including the present painting. In conjunction with the exhibition, Diaghilev published an extensive article on Scandinavian art in the St. Petersburg journal Severnyi vestnik (Northern Messenger), entitled Sovremennaja skandinavskaya zhivopis (Modern Scandinavian Painting). This article contains a lengthy discussion of Hammershøi’s work.
Hammershøi’s interiors of open doors devoid of figures also inspired writers and poets of the time. In the autumn of 1904, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited Copenhagen several times while working on a book on Hammershøi and in 1918, Sophus Michaëlis, who co-wrote with Alfred Bramsen the first catalogue raisonné on the artist, penned a poem entitled Åbne Døre (Open Doors), which captures the essence of Hammershøi’s interiors.
Art historians have focused on Hammershøi’s art from a poetic perspective highlighting the importance of his choice of subject matter and the perfect balance in his art, often comparing him to Johannes Vermeer. In his review in the English Daily Tribune of the Danish Exhibition at the Guildhall in London, Arthur Clutton-Brock wrote, ‘Sometimes he paints interiors with figures, and sometimes without. His interiors without figures do not seem to lack human interest; and where there are figures they are neither too much like still life nor do they overpower the interest of the accessories. In fact, perfect balance is the chief excellence of his art’ (P. Vad, op. cit., 1988, pp. 407-408).
Despite the views of the critics and his admirers, Hammershøi himself considered the underlying structure of his paintings most important. In an interview in 1908, he stated, ‘What makes me choose a subject is as much the structure of the subject, what I would call the architectural complexity of the picture. And of course, the light. It is also of importance, but it is the structure I emphasize, colors are not that relevant. I work a lot on finding a harmonious balance, but it is foremost the structure I am focusing on’. It is this search for the inherent structure of composition which presents the viewer with an almost geometrical abstract that anticipates the work of Piet Mondrian (fig. 1). With the arrangement of lines and planes, along with subtle and nuanced color harmonies, Hammershøi has discovered a model that we now call ‘modernist’. Mondrian, by edging and loading his rectangular compartments with a minimal palette and an art of ‘no objects’ and bathing all in a light as pure as paint can deliver, demonstrates his debt to the quiet genius of the Danish artist.
The present picture is the only known work by Hammershøi that remains with its original varnish intact. This varnish is extremely thin, and has been applied with a sensitivity to the integrity of the structure of the surface of the paint. The attention Hammershøi paid to the creation of light on the surfaces of his canvases is balanced by the equally careful construction of the composition and the careful placement of every brushstroke. The refined modulation of light and form created by his use of color and varied brushwork create both a visual and a psychological depth. In several areas, the artist has applied brushstrokes very loosely, in some instances in the same colors. When viewed from a distance, this distinctive technique created a sophisticated depth of tonality. The artist’s emphasis on the structural surface also reinforces the underlying structure of the subject. A thicker coat of varnish would greatly diminish these effects.

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