The present painting perfectly reflects the extraordinary sensitivity and contradictions of its maker. An introverted and shy figure, whose domestic and pictorial universe centred around his home at Strandgade 30, Copenhagen, Vilhelm Hammershøi nevertheless travelled extensively around Europe, absorbing the influence of different styles and artists to create a unique and deeply poetic strand of modernist painting.
Hammershøi's interiors are most often compared to those of Johannes Vermeer (fig 1), with whom he shared a sense of poetry and nuanced lighting. In his spatial composition, he also quoted elements from a variety of other Dutch 17th century artists, whom he studied in Paris, Amsterdam and Munich. However, Hammershøi's compositions are pared down to combine a sense of domestic intimacy with a feeling of detachment from the clutter of everyday existence. This paucity of objects combines with muted colours to create paintings that exude a sense of pristine silence and calm.
Amongst his contemporaries, Hammershøi most clearly absorbed aspects of the style of James McNeill Whistler. Although he tried unsuccessfully to meet Whistler while in London in 1886 to show him his work (the American was in Paris at the time) they were linked by mutual friendship and patronage to Alfred Bramsen. Both artists worked in muted monochomatic tones, resulting in a style in which mood dominates subject. Indeed, paintings such as the Dane's painting of his mother is a clear stylistic reference to Whistler's most iconic work, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) (fig.2), which Hammershøi would have seen exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg in 1891.
Hammershøi's travels and contacts among leading figures of modern art also led him indirectly into contact with the Belgian Symbolists, to whom his paintings bear immediate aesthetic comparison. As Felix Krämer writes:
"Contemporary Belgian painting offers a particularly rewarding comparison with his own, notably his interiors. Robert Rosenblum's observations that the 'mood of melancholy' in Hammershøi's interiors is 'perhaps closest to that found in works by many of his contemporaries, especially in Belgium' echoes Karl Scheffler's view that the artist's interiors resembled 'a Braekeleer gone pale and misty'."
Hammershøi made several trips to Belgium in the 1880s and it is inconceivable that in Brussels he would not have seen Braekeleer's work exhibited with Les XX, an avant-garde artist's group. Other members of this group included Xavier Mellery, whose best known paintings depict his family home without people, and Mellery's pupil, Fernand Khnopff, whose monochromatic depictions of Bruges, inspired by Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-La-Morte, are remarkably similar to Hammershøi's haunting views of deserted Copenhagen squares and streets. Khnopff also executed a powerful portrait of his sister Marguerite (fig. 3), executed in a white Whistlerian palette, which shows an obvious link between the two artists.
Painted in 1897, the present work depicts the artist's wife, Ida, by a sewing table, striking a lonely but serene figure in the centre of the room. The scene has the haunting stillness and detachment that typify Hammershøi's best trademark interiors; it is stripped of superfluous detail, described in muted colours, and bathed in a cool raking light, from an unseen window. Objects are pared down to their bare essentials, with door handles removed and paintings blurred, to focus attention on geometric shapes and the exquisite reflections of light against differently surfaced textures. Here, only a dozen carefully placed objects populate the room, each serving to reinforce the painting's profoundly atmospheric quality: the geometric lines of the picture, door and wardrobe echo each other in the same way as the tiny ceramic vase, artfully placed on the table to catch the light from the window, echoes the bottles above the wardrobe and the terracotta urn in the foreground. Despite the nominal difference in subject, the overall effect is not dissimilar to that achieved in the best still lives of Chardin and Morandi, which imbue everyday objects with a profound sense of poetry.
Hammershøi's universe is hermetic, but subtly unsettling. There is a dissonance between the ascetic and the deeply personal, between Ida's human presence and her detachment, and between the outside and inside worlds. Isolated from the world on the other side of the window towards which she gazes, Ida is depicted with no sense of engagement with either artist or viewer, pensive and motionless, apparently no more or less important to the composition than the objects which fill it. The sense Hammershøi conveys, however, is not one of sadness, but more one of contemplative, detached introspection. As Paul Vad writes: 'The woman's non-action among the lifeless, expressive furnishings and walls underscores the moment's enchantment, that time stands still, that emptiness is fulness.' (P. Vad, op. cit., p. 203).