Interiors are Hammershøi’s most popular pictures, and they have defined public perception of his achievements as an artist. The present interior is unusual in that it is one of only four currently known in Hammershøi’s oeuvre that depict an artist’s easel. While Hammershøi painted numerous replicas or variations of his own interiors, pictures with an easel or other studio props are rare, especially considering the fact that his homes doubled as subject matter and working space.1 Yet contemporary photographs of Hammershøi in front of his working easel show a different model from the one in the present painting, made from light wood and with a much heavier, sturdy frame.2 This heavier easel appears in just one – the first – of Hammershøi 's four interiors with an easel, dating from 1907 (fig. 1).3
In contrast, the present picture is one of three versions with a light, three-legged easel. As this was clearly not the one he worked on at home, it is conceivable that it was a mobile folding easel he may have taken to the country in the summer, for example. One slightly earlier variant of the same subject is the painting from 1910 in the Statens Museum for Kunst with an additional chair between the easel and the wall and a porcelain bowl without lid on the table visible in the back room (fig. 2). Another, undated version, including the chair but with a covered porcelain bowl in the background was offered at Sotheby’s London on 26 February 1975.4 The third variant is the present picture, without the chair and bowl, but with distinct effects of sunlight coming into the room.
With the introduction of the easel, the painting moves from being an interior to being a variation on a classical theme – the studio painting. The easel demands association with the artistic process of creation: it is self-reflective by definition. As such, it is typically charged with an interpretative burden, that of displaying the artist’s place of work, his processes, and as such, his identity and position within artistic tradition. The studio is inevitably an invention where some things are hidden and others on display.5 In Hammershøi's interiors, this strategy is especially noticeable. But is the studio the subject of the present picture? It is not at all obvious. If we take a painting with an easel as a picture staging the artistic identity and process of creation, what does the present painting offer to the viewer? How is information ordered and arranged? The theme 'working environment' is undercut by careful, even severe editing. This editing process is not only subtly implied but so conspicuous and demonstrative that the concept becomes a central element of the artistic process of creation. Yet the artist does not otherwise share a single physical detail of the ‘making’, apart from the structure of the paint surface, which is applied thinly throughout, remains visibly man-made and to some extent detached from the objects depicted.6
Technically, Hammershøi's interiors are representations of the space inhabited by the artist and his wife, and the views of the rooms can typically be matched with topographical data, especially for the still extant apartment in Strandgade 30.7 In comparison with other nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings of interiors, the contrast is stark. Instead of being invited to enter the convivial and homely settings they depict, in Hammershøi we are faced with a noticeable absence of people and objects as well as the narratives connecting them.
However, the indisputable fact that these paintings represent anything but a home or an artist's workspace has given rise to attempts at art historical categorization within the artistic currents of his time, especially Symbolism (depicting the alienated solitary individual in the empty spaces of the modern world, in interiors which have an unheimlich flavor, typically and imperfectly translated as uncanny), or as presenting figures in private spaces as a symbolic representation of the inner human being. Whether there is sufficient concrete evidence across Hammershøi's works to embed them within a Symbolist agenda is a matter for further research and discussion. In a rare comment on his art, Hammershøi himself stated that what mattered to him were the lines, the 'architectural stance' of the picture, and the light.8 While this may seem to be merely a 'bare-bone' comment, Hammershøi's conceptual focus on structure and experimentation with a set of fixed elements was arguably closer to, for example, Mondrian's gradual process of elimination than to Khnopff's melancholic soulscapes of Bruges-la-Morte or Vallotton's highly stylized interiors with their razor-sharp edges and palpable sense of menace.
Hammershøi may have been private, but he was not a recluse. He travelled to Paris, London, and the Netherlands, exhibited internationally, went to the Danish countryside every summer and was in touch with the art world of his time. He took part in group exhibitions across Europe. The painting discussed here was sold through the pianist Leonard Borwick (1868-1925), who bought his first painting by the artist in 1903,9 having found himself transfixed by a Christmas card reproduction of one of Hammershøi's pictures during a concert tour in Denmark. Soon afterwards he met the artist himself through the collector Alfred Bramsen.10 Their friendship was to last until the painter’s death, and Borwick also promoted his friend’s work to art lovers in the UK. Bramsen’s 1918 catalogue lists four pictures by Hammershøi in Borwick’s collection, excluding the present picture, which had then already been sold to Alfred Black. Many owners’ names in this catalogue that are familiar to historians of collections also document the widespread level of interest in Hammershøi by well-known private collectors and dealers across Northern Europe during the painter’s lifetime.
The present picture shows the rooms inhabited by the artist in Bredgade in Copenhagen, as they appear in a number of interiors.11 The painting hung unusually high up on the wall above may seem peculiar, but it appears in the same position not just in the two other versions but also in another interior painting from circa 1910 in the museum in Malmö (inv. no. 4663). The position may have been chosen to protect a work on paper from sunlight.12 While the subject of an empty studio with an easel was painted in numerous examples ranging from artists as diverse as Carl Gustav Carus to Albert Marquet, this picture differs in several aspects (fig. 3).13 Typically, studios without the painter's figure show the window. In contrast, Hammershøi turned the perspective clockwise by 90 degrees, and in consequence this is no longer a room with a view to indicate inspiration from the world outside. The only element coming into the room is the light. Also, the easel is seen from behind. We do not see the picture, or drawing board, placed upon it. This position would traditionally appear in paintings where the artist places himself behind the easel to making eye contact with the viewer. Yet this is not the case here, and furthermore, the easel is arranged here in such a way that light falls on it from the right, which would have been impractical for a right-handed artist such as Hammershøi.14 There is also no known interior painting by him showing the apartment in Bredgade as it would have been seen from the perspective of the chair in the Statens Museum’s picture. Clearly, this is not a scene. This is a staged arrangement.
The light is brighter and sharper in the present painting that in the one in the Statens Museum, creating straight beams into the room, and the easel is placed closer to the back wall to make room for a new element that is unique to this version: the slanted rectangle of light on the floor from an invisible window to the left of the foreground. It seems plausible that the floorspace required by the ephemeral rectangle of light necessitated the elimination of the chair in order to move the easel backwards, or upwards in the picture plane. In fact, the light brushwork makes its three legs and the floor underneath appear almost weightless. It follows that the structural quality of the subject determined the composition and the arrangement of the objects. Together with the converging lines of light falling in through the second window, and the three converging legs of the easel, a captivating structure of rising and falling lines meeting at sharp angles is created. It is complemented by the rectangles on the easel, the framed picture and the moldings of the door. In view of the fact that both the chair and second focal point of a porcelain bowl in the background of the two other versions were eliminated, the light could be described as the main protagonist in this painting.
Is this a home or is it a studio? In fact, it is neither, because as a viewer we are not allowed for one moment to forget that we are looking at a pictorial composition. What we are shown is the product of the artist’s work. Everything else remains hidden. As Anne Fonsmark wrote in the Royal Academy catalogue on the painter, ‘with Hammershøi, there is no way in’.15 What we see is what we get – depending on how we look at it, it can be a little or a lot.
This is not to say that Hammershøi was on a path to abstraction which he failed to reach, on the contrary. 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. Hammershøi was a painter rooted in the art historical traditions of the Netherlands’ Old Masters, Northern European Romantic and Danish nineteenth century 'Golden Age' painting, but above all, he was very much a man of his own time.
We are grateful to Susanne Meyer-Abich for contributing this catalogue note.
1. There are more than a dozen versions of one of his most famous pictures, the Dust Motes dancing in the sunlight in the Ordrupgaard collection north of Copenhagen. It seems likely that these were painted to meet market demand, as the versions often vary only by the addition of further props such as the woman, a vase with flowers, a ball of wool etc. It is worth noting that Leonard Borwick, who owned the present picture, also had one of the versions based on the Dustmotes, today in the Tate Gallery, London (1906, inv.no.4509). Borwick clearly understood the figure as dispensable and folded that part of the canvas away.
2. Vad, Hammershøi, p. 441.
3. (63.5 x 68.4 cm., cf. Sotheby’s New York, 10 November 1998, lot 340). In another interior picture, Hammershøi overpainted the same, heavy easel and replaced by other pieces of furniture (1907, not listed in Bramsen & Michaelis, cf. Christie’s London, 29 March 1990, lot 78, fig. 4). This would support the argument that the easel is in fact an interchangeable object in a staged arrangement and that its rarity in the artist’s oeuvre is directly related to its connotations. It introduces an art historical context and a potential narrative that runs counter to the artist's intentions.
4. (1910, 84 x 69 cm., inv. no. KMS7444); (77.5 x 69 cm., lot 86). The picture was offered as a ‘pair’ with the picture now in the Malmö museum (inv.no. 4663). The clear provenance information for the present picture identifies it as Bramsen & Michaelis no. 354, while the version offered at auction in 1975 would not appear to be listed in Bramsen.
5. On artist strategies in presenting their working spaces, cf. Rachel Esner, Sandra Kisters, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, eds., Hiding Making Showing Creation. The studio from Turner to Tacitha Dean (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013).
6. The director of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen described Hammershøi's technique on another late work as follows: "The paint layer is wafer-thin, with the white primed canvas showing through everywhere. Even the texture of the canvas is visible, so that the tint forms a component of the painting." Sjarel Ex, A study by Vilhelm Hammershøi acquired by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, in: Burlington Magazine, no. 1343 (2015), pp.97-98.
7. The floorplan was published in Vad, Værk og liv, p. 187. Much has been written about the fact that the painter’s wife was often the model for these figures, yet she is given no more prominence in the settings than a piece of furniture, and her shape is treated by the painter in an identical fashion as that of any other object. In contrast, her husband painted a number of sensitive portraits of her over the years. For a different interpretation of the female figure see also the recent dissertation by Anne Hemkendreis, Die monochromen Interieurbilder Vilhelm Hammershøis (Paderborn: Fink, 2016).
8. Felix Krämer, Ulrich Luckhardt, eds. Vilhelm Hammershøi, exhibition catalogue 22 March - 29 June (Hamburg: Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2003), p. 135.
9. Vad, Værk og liv, p. 263.
11. The rooms appear in numerous interiors by the artist and the double door is visible in contemporary photographs, cf. Poul Vad, Hammershøi. Værk og liv (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1988), p.10, 436.
12. It has been suggested that the picture was J.F. Clemens’s engraving The battle of Copenhagen (1801), cf. Felix Krämer, Naoki Sato et al, eds., Vilhelm Hammershøi. The Poetry of Silence, exhibition catalogue Royal Academy of Arts, London, 28 June to 7 September 2008, National Museum for Western Art, Tokyo, 30 September to 7 December 2008 (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2008), p. 158.
13. For example, see C.G. Carus, Studio in Moonlight (1826, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe).
14. See for example, Krämer/Luckhardt, Vilhelm Hammershøi, p.136, ill. 19.
15. Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, in: Vilhelm Hammershøi. The Poetry of Silence, p. 36.
(fig. 1): Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Easel and Punch Bowl, Strandgade 30, 1907.
(fig. 2): Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with the Artist's Easel, 1910. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
(fig. 3): Carl Gustav Carus, Studio in Moonlight, 1826. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.
(fig. 4): Vilhelm Hammershøi, The music room, 30 Strandgade, c. 1907.